Massacre of 84 Muslims in Thailand Puts Spotlight on Prime Ministers Contempt for Human Rights

Massacre of 84 Muslims in Thailand Puts Spotlight on Prime Ministers Contempt for Human Rights

By Farish A. Noor

That eighty-four Thais have been killed by their own security forces Җ most of them suffocated as a result of being crammed into the narrow confines of trucks as they were brought to an army detention center should serve as a warning to all ASEAN citizens.

In Thailand, as in many parts of ASEAN today, we are witnessing the return of fascism to our shores. The brutal killings of the Thai Muslims also reminds us of the killing of dozens of Burmese pro-democracy activists in 1988, when they were crammed into lorries with exhaust pipes diverted into the trucks and were subsequently choked to death by the fumes.

Perhaps this was yet another case of one brutal ASEAN regime learning from another? If anything it was proof that the struggle for democratic reform in ASEAN is far from over and that ASEAN֒s inter-governmental policy of non-interferenceђ in domestic affairs is a convenient way to allow the respective governments to go on butchering their own populations.

That such casual manslaughter can take place in Thailand today, under the leadership of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, speaks volumes about the mans total disregard for the value of human life and fundamental rights. The editorial of the Thai newspaper The Nation summed up the moral vacuum in the country aptly when it blared: ғHis (Thaksins) contempt for human rights has resulted in a scattering of personal tragedies, masked by the proclaimed success of the war on drugs. But now this flawed trait of his leadership is threatening to plunge the country into the bitterest and most detrimental divide between the people and the state.Ҕ But none of this should come as a surprise, for Lieutenant-Colonel (rtd.) Dr. Thaksin Shinawatras rise to power was, in many ways, an indirect result of the collapse of the democratic project in Thailand and the return of authoritarian, counter-reform tendencies in the country.

The pro-democracy, pro-reform movement in Thailand had been active since the beginning of the 20th century, led by modernist-reformists like Pridi Banomyong and later taken up by Leftist intellectuals like Jit Pumisak in the 1960s. The brief democratic interlude in Thailand that was brought about by the student-led mass uprisings in October 1973 was brought to an end three years later thanks to a counter-reform putsch led by extreme right-wing elements supported by the army in October 1976. The pro-democracy reform movement was initially supported by some sections of the Thai elite, including the royal family. But due to the culture of paranoia and the stigmatization of the Left thanks to the hostile climate of the Cold War, the leftist democrats were soon accused of harboring pro-Communist sympathies and were portrayed as a threat to the ruling elite as well as foreign capital (notably American and Japanese) interests. As Thailand was a frontline state in the anti-Communist war waged by the USA in Vietnam, the US and other Western powers were prepared to allow a counter-reformist coup by the extreme right-wing elements of Thai society that included the royal family, the army and even the Buddhist clergy. The elimination of the Leftist democrats in Thailand in 1976 was reminiscent of the brutal slaughter of thousands of leftists in Indonesia in 1965 and the forceful annexation of left-leaning East Timor in 1974, once again under the watchful eye of Uncle Sam, whose concern for human rights stops short of his own realpolitik interests.

Nevertheless the democratic experiment of 1973-76 (which witnessed the coming to power of the first truly democratic government in the post-war era) left its mark by emphasizing democratic and reformist values in Thai society. Later in October 1977 ґmoderate elements of the Thai army staged an internal coup that brought them to power and added to the further moderation of Thai politics (that was still heavily dominated by the army, which in turn was still backed by the West.)

The absence of a functioning democratic opposition, however, contributed to the growth of a landed elite Җ constantly working hand-in-glove with the army and police that used the limited civil democratic space to strengthen their own patron-client networks and were at the same time heavily involved in the underground black market economy. The culture of electocracy grew as Thai politicians regarded the state as their personal fiefdoms to be plundered at will and the electorate as constituencies to be bought. The 1970s and 1980s witnessed the growth of clientelist politics where ideological differences became secondary and political factionalism the norm; leading to a succession of unstable coalition governments where the Prime Minister֒s main function was to appease the demands of various political warlords who commanded local support but who paid little attention to longer, macro-level economic considerations. The state became a tool for factional political maneuvering, and the line between politics and business blurred as a result. Thailand had more elections than any other country in the ASEAN region, and the elections were usually heralded by politically-motivated violence. The breakdown of the state was only temporarily halted by a military-engineered coup led by the National Peace-Keeping Councilђ.

By 1992 however the politically-connected statist bourgeoisie was in a stronger position and in May 1992 it was the Thai urban middle-class that led the counter-coup that led to the resignation of Prime Minister General Suchinda Kraprayoon. May 1992 was a landmark event in the sense that it marked the end of the days of direct military intervention in Thai politics. Many local and foreign observers hoped that this would lead to the full restoration of civil society and democratic practices in the country, as well as the resumption of the reformist project.

However, between 1992-97 what happened was the rise of the liberal-capitalist urban business elite who merely reverted back to the politics of clientelism and patronage. Thailands economy boomed as a result of indiscriminate and unregulated credit expansion, a swathe of mega-projects, its heedless entry into the global market and the huge amount of foreign capital that was invested into the country. The boom however came to an end in 1997, with the devaluing of the Thai Baht that precipitated the catastrophic East Asian financial crisis of 1997-98. As a result of this crisis, around 65% of ThailandҒs big capitalists became bankrupt.

In the post-crisis period, Thai society grew increasingly introverted and its middle-class in particular increasingly inward-looking and defensive. The total failure of the Prime Minister Chauvalits government to halt the slide in the value of the Baht led to a crisis of confidence, and calls for a stronger state with wide-ranging interventionist powers to halt the economic crisis from getting worse. The pro-democracy and pro-reform movement was in turn delivered a fatal blow as the urban business elite switched their support to strong political leaders who proposed a stronger, centralist, even authoritarian state model for the country.

It was at this time that Thaksin Shinawatra came to prominence. The man was himself an ex-security forces commander, who held the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel of the Thai Police. With a similar educational background to that of the senior leaders of the Thai army, police and security services, he commanded considerable respect and support from the armed forces and security services. He then branched out into the world of business and rose to become a tycoon in the telecommunications field. With strong business and army links as well as an independent financial base, he formed and led the Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais) party and swept to power with the support of the urban middle class and business community (as well as the backing of foreign capital).

ThaksinҒs rise to power coincided with the promulgation of the 1997 Thai Constitution, which was reformist in appearance but which in reality was directed at the expansion and consolidation of the power and authority of the Executive (Prime Minister) over the Legislature and other wings of the government. Working within the parameters of the Executive-biased 1997 Constitution, Thaksin initiated a series of reforms intended to restore the power and standing of the Thai business elite and to serve the needs of both local and foreign capital. Following the unprecedented number of workers demonstrations and strike actions in 1997 (1,200 in 1997, compared to 754 in 1995), Thaksin and his supporters in the business lobby wanted to create a political party and government that would protect their own invested interests while restoring order in society.

Part of ThaksinҒs project was his new social contractђ with the Thai public, which promised the restoration of law and order at any cost. Under his leadership the Thai public was constantly fed with a stream of state propaganda about internal threats within Thailand, ranging from drugs gangs to Islamist militants in the South of the country. In the wake of the terrorist attacks on the United States of America on 11 September 2001 and the alleged terrorist attacks in Indonesia in 2002, Thaksin has used the rhetoric and discourse of the war on terrorђ to further extend his power and the scope of activities of the Thai security forces. In particular the government of Prime Minister Thaksin was keen to demonstrate to the Thai public and the international community that the troubles in the Muslim provinces in the South of the country was part of a global trend of Islamic terrorismђ that required a strong, even violent, response from the state.

Thaksins high-handed approach was bolstered with the appointment of General Panlop Pinmanee, a former mercenary officer in Laos who was also the head of an Anti-Communist Death Squad in the service of the Thai army to the post of Deputy Director of Internal Security Operations Command (originally an anti-Communist unit called the Communist Suppression Operations Command). Like his Indonesian counterpart General (rtd.) A. M. Hendropriyono (who was appointed for President Megawati Sukarnoputri as head of IndonesiaҒs Anti-Terror Unit in Jakarta), General Panlop Pinmanee was known for his brutal tactics and record of human rights abuses, which he demonstrated once again during his campaign against alleged drugs gangs in Thailand which led to the extra-judicial killings of around 2,000 people.

Like Indonesia and Malaysia, Thailand also boasts of having its own international Anti-Terror center in the South of the country. And like the other Anti-Terror centers that now blight the landscape of the ASEAN region, Thailands own fetid offering to the altar of anti-terrorism is strongly supported by the West, notably the United States.

General Pinmanee and the Internal Security Commands Operation unit, along with ThailandҒs National Intelligence Agency (NIA) and the Thai 4th Army under the command of Lieutenant-General Pisarn Wattanawongkeeree have been put in charge of the Southern Muslim provinces of Patani, Jala, Narathiwat and Satun. General Pisarn is new to the post as this happened to be his first field command out of Bangkok. However General Pinmanees more direct and confrontational approach was demonstrated on 28 April 2004 when Thai troops bombarded and then stormed the ancient Krue Se mosque in Patani, killing all of the alleged Muslim insurgents who had taken refuge there. (Local witnesses claimed that the troops also desecrated the mosque in the course of the fighting.)

ThaksinҒs approach to the problem of social unrest in the Southern Muslim provinces in Thailand has been a combination of the carrot-and-stickђ approach. While allowing senior Thai military commanders to use their own initiatives and methods, the government has also promised a 300-million Baht investment project (to be parceled out over a period of 10 years) into the region. One of the initiatives on offer is the 28-million Baht project to restore the Krue Se mosque near Patani.

Local Patani Muslim leaders however have argued that the real problems of local army and police corruption as well as abuse of power and infringement of fundamental human rights have not been addressed by any of these promises. Local critics also argue that these measures do not in any way solve the problem of Bangkoks inability to understand and appreciate the demands of the Patani Muslims, who are Malays, and who resent the hegemonic grip of Bangkok that wishes to impose a Thai-centric model of national identity on the Southern provinces. For centuries the Muslim provinces of Thailand have tried to defend their identity as Malay states with a culture and history of their own, and have been resentful of the attempts by successive Thai leaders (such as General Phibun Songkram) who sought to transform them culturally into mainstream Thais who are ethnically, culturally, linguistically and religiously different.

Contrary to the image of Thaksin as a civilian politician that is disseminated by his supporters, the man himself has maintained close links to the Thai armed forces and security agencies, and has further politicized the latter through his direct intervention in the re-shuffling of Thai senior army commanders. Thaksin has even appointed one of his relatives as a commander of the Thai army. General Pisarn has a close relationship to Prime Minister Thaksin (via his cousin Chaksin) and the Thai royal family (he is said to be on personal friendly terms with the Queen). The general has been given green light to pursue his objectives using his methods and on his terms. With such a laissez-faire approach to politics and the practicalities of government, is it any surprise that the value of human life in Thailand is so cheap these days and violence is on the increase?

The burden of shame and negative responsibility, however, falls on the governments of ASEAN for not trying to help resolve the troubles in Patani earlier. For so long the leaders of ASEAN have been content to play the role of Ostriches, burying their heads in the ground to avoid having to look at the realities close to them. Well today that option is not as easy as it was in the past: The soil in which they have buried their heads have been stained with the blood of innocents. And buried in that bloody soil is also our hopes for a democratic ASEAN of the people, by the people and for the people of ASEAN themselves.