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Naïve Experts' Misleading Views on Jihad in Southern Thailand

by Alamgir Hossain

28 Nov, 2006

When General Sonthi Boonyaratkalin (also known as Abdullah), the first-ever Muslim head of the Thai army, seized power in a bloodless coup on September 19 (2006), news media around world became flooded with expert opinions and commentaries that there was a hope of peace in the insurgency-plagued Muslim provinces in Southern Thailand. Even the United States , which has been consistent in condemning any military coup in recent years, kept virtually quiet on the coup in Thailand . President Bush even nodded in agreement with the coup when he told the interim Thai Prime Minister during the recent APEC meeting that 'he understood the Thai Coup' [Nation Multimedia, Thailand - Nov 18, 2006].

The academicians have also taken a leading role in defending the coup. Following the coup, prominent academicians in Thailand wrote commentaries and made statements in Thai media praising the military takeover and expressing hope for peace in the South. In a September 26-28 Conference titled " Security Cooperation and Governance in Southeast Asia: Responding to Terrorism, Insurgency and Separatist Violence in Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines" €“ jointly hosted by Singapore's Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies and Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies €“ prominent experts and academicians, studying the Thailand insurgency, also expressed an emphatic hope for peace in Southern Thailand after the successful coup. Never have I seen such unqualified praise for a military-lead coup that replaces a democratically elected Government anywhere in the World.

In the midst of unprecedented support for this coup to replace a democratic government, what has surprised me most is the unfettered expression of hope by the famous experts and academicians that peace was on the way in the insurgency stricken provinces in Thailand. Given the experiences of Islamic insurgency and violence from Kashmir to Chechnya and from Mindanao to Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina spanning decades, it was utterly naïve of the experts to pin such high hopes that an unethical coup would usher in peace in Thailand.

In line with this flurry of hopes for peace, the Muslim coup leader general Sonthi immediately made it clear that solving the insurgency in the South was his priority. Yet, insurgency continued unabated. After the caretaker Government was instituted, the interim Prime Minister General Surayud Chulanont made vigorous efforts to cool down the violence through repeated offers of concessions and privileges to the Muslims in Southern Thailand. He first visited the restive South on 2nd November to offer an unqualified apology for the previous excesses committed by the Thai military, which was immediately responded with a series of invigorated attacks by the insurgents. The general returned to the region second time in the same week to offer autonomy in the region which was also spurned by the insurgents with a series the violent attacks. The Prime Minister even made an offer to allow the application of Islamic Sharia laws in an otherwise secular democratic country. This offer was also rejected by the insurgents with increased violent attacks. In the final offer of Olive Braches, the Government offered to set up a Special Economic Zone in the Muslim South to help the economy, which was also greeted with a wave of attacks racking up at least 7 dead bodies overnight [ Channel News Asia, 24 Nov, 2006]. The government implemented a series of other concessions, including the dropping of charges against some 58 Tak Bai protestors, a renewed pledge to solve the disappearance of Muslim human rights activist Somchai and the abolition of blacklists. In sum, the military-ruled Government has offered to Muslim provinces of South Thailand far beyond of what is desirable for a united and secular democratic country but all has been rebuffed by the Islamic insurgents with waves of invigorated violence.

Surprisingly, the experts make desperate yet naïve efforts to separate the religion of Islam from the violence in Southern Thailand. In the Sept 26-28 conference (Singapore ), the experts emphasized: 'The underlying issue is essentially an ethno-nationalist one €“ it is bound up with Malay identity and the failure of the government in Bangkok to accommodate Malay aspirations. Religion is very much a secondary issue. This is about Malayness not about Islam, and linkages with ulama (Islamic scholars), mosque and madrasah (Islamic schools) are secondary and essentially coincidental€ "

Rohan Gunaranta, a renowned expert on Islamic terrorism, also affirmed the same: He pointed out the parallels with Chechnya and Kashmir. "Those groups were initially nationalist but eventually developed a pan-Islamist outlook," he said. "I believe that within the next five years southern Thailand will become like the southern Philippines."

He also pinned high hope in the coup saying: " The coup was "a great opportunity that cannot be missed." [Telegraph, UK, 29 Sept 2006 ]

The efforts of the experts to distance Islam from this insurgency and their pinning high hopes on a coup to usher in peace in Thai South betray numerous evidences and experiences accumulated over the decades. The experts quickly disregard the most obvious fact that whenever Muslims form a sizable population in a region of an otherwise non-Muslim country, they start a secessionist campaign for independence of that region to form an Islamic state. That's also exactly what is happening in Kashmir, Chechnya , Mindanao and Kosovo and now in Thai South. The unsuspecting experts naively buy Muslims unsubstantiated allegations of oppression and marginalization as the underlying and justifiable cause for the insurgency. Despite decades of such incidences, the experts, consciously or unconsciously, ignore the most obvious fact that the people involved in these insurgencies are the Muslims and their common binding factor is Islam.

In regard to the allegation of oppression and marginalization of the Muslims, it is happening everywhere: in Kashmir, Mindanao , Chechnya, Kosovo, Australian, USA and all across Europe. However, such allegations are hardly substantiated in facts and figures. Not only that Muslims are oppressed and marginalized even in countries like Malaysia and Indonesia , where they are a majority. In the recent annual meeting of the ruling UMNO party in Malaysia, the issue of marginalization of the majority Malay Muslims by the minority Chinese and Indians became a heated topic in fiery speeches. The experts should, however, take note that if discrimination and marginalization are the valid causes of the barbaric insurgency that is going on in Southern Thailand, the minority Chinese and the Indians should have burned Malaysia into ashes with violence for the kind of discrimination going on against them as the constitutionally approved Government policy in that country.

Another factor the experts ignore is that a number of secessionist campaigns by various ethnic and religious groups have been solved over the recent decades. The insurgency by the Sikh people for independence from India is one such example. But none of the Islamist secessionist campaigns in non-Muslim countries have achieved a peaceful solution but instead, they have only gained strength in ferocity and violence. While, in cases like Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina, they have gotten for what they initiated the insurgency, which is autonomy, and eventually independence in time to follow. Furthermore, instead of subsiding, new Islamic insurgency continues to spring up across the world on a regular basis.

There is little doubt in the fact that the experts on terrorism, especially those working on the Islamist violence and insurgency, are of great importance in today's world stricken by the Islamist terrorist activities at all corners of the world. Their opinion and advice greatly influence the policies of the Governments that shape the future of our world. It is important that these experts get the proper understanding of the fundamentals behind the massive Islamist insurgency and violence that plague the world. Else, their expertise is not going to help but instead, may only worsen the future of mankind.

As for the insurgency in Southern Thailand, the government should learn from the experiences in Kashmir, Kosovo and Mindanao etc. that nothing short of achieving an independent Islamist state would cool down the insurgency. History tells us that appeasing the Islamists, which is going on in Thailand, only emboldens them. Thailand should either choose between giving away the Southern Muslim provinces for immediately peace or engage in a decades-long battle like the governments of India and

 Philippine in Kashmir and Mindanao, respectively.

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