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Last Updated: Thursday, 18 November, 2004, 14:40 GMT
Thailand's smile fades

By Dr Farish A Noor
Malaysian political scientist and human rights activist

Protestors lie on the ground after a demonstration turned violent, October 25 2004
Protesters were arrested and many then loaded into army trucks
In recent weeks the border between northern Malaysia and southern Thailand has seen an increase in inter-religious violence.

In the last month more than 80 Muslims were killed at a demonstration against the authorities. Since then nearly 30 Buddhists have been killed in what appear to be revenge attacks and killings.

Malaysian political scientist and human rights activist Farish A Noor reflects on the reasons for the rising violence.

As I crossed the border between Malaysia and Thailand, a huge poster stood before me.

It bore the image of a beaming woman and the slogan read: 'Welcome to Thailand, Land of Smiles'.

I've crossed the Thai-Malaysian border many times before, doing research on social and religious movements there.

As a Malaysian it's never seemed to me as a crossing into the unfamiliar.

The sights, sounds and smells are all the same: from the songbirds singing away in their colourful bamboo cages to the sickly-sweet smell of Durian fruit, an odour described to me by my wife as a combination of petrol and dustbin.

On the day that I crossed the border into Thailand through the seedy town of Golok, a man was shot in the back of his head and left dead, face-down, in front of the market.

Now this was not an isolated case of violence: for a year now Southern Thailand has been a hotbed of sporadic shootings and bombings.

Southern unrest

This year alone, more than 500 people have been killed by both militant groups and the Thai security forces.

Everywhere I went I saw police and army roadblocks, manned by young soldiers who nervously kept their fingers on the triggers of their guns.

I tried to talk to one of the soldiers when I was in the town of Narathiwat, but as soon as I approached him he waved his gun at me and said "Go away, go away - don't stand there."

The poor fellow was clearly nervous of me on my motorbike, as many of the shootings that have taken place were drive-by killings with the assassins riding motorcycles.

The soldier looked like he was in his late teens - without his uniform, he could have passed as one of my students.

His fear, though, was real enough, for the situation in Pattani is rapidly deteriorating.

We wear the Osama T-shirt to say - 'we don't care about your policy with the United States, we have our own identity and we want you to respect it'
Market trader
A few weeks ago a demonstration in the small town of Tak Bai turned ugly when the police tried to disperse the demonstrators.

The crowd had gathered in support of some local Muslim leaders who had been arrested on the grounds that they may have some links with the mysterious militants operating in the region.

In the chaos that followed, hundreds were arrested. Thai journalists recorded what happened next.


Ordered to strip down and lie on the ground, the protesters were then made to crawl on their bellies to the waiting trucks and crammed into them by the dozens.

Packed in like livestock they were piled on top of one another and then driven off to a detention centre five hours away.

In the course of the journey nearly 80 of the protesters suffocated to death or were crushed in the trucks.

Victims being buries in Pattani, April 2004
The deadliest incident took place in April, when more than 100 died
The slogan 'Welcome to Thailand, Land of Smiles' sounded somewhat hollow then.

Thailand's slide into inter-religious conflict seems to be part and parcel of the country's slide towards a more authoritarian form of politics.

When Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra came to power in 2001, he and his party claimed that they would restore law and order.

Their first campaign was against the drug cartels and criminal networks in the country.

As the campaign wore on, the body count rose. Local estimates put the figure of people killed at around 2,000 - many of whom were killed by the security forces in shoot-outs.

Region apart

Following the Bali bombing in 2002 Thaksin was also one of the first leaders in the region to embrace President Bush's "global campaign against terror", and since then the security forces of Thailand have been on the hunt for alleged Islamic militants in the South.

Both Southern Thailand and Northern Malaysia were once part of a Malay-Muslim kingdom that was split apart thanks to the Anglo-Siamese Treaty of 1909.

The British colonial government claimed Kelantan and Pattani was unceremoniously handed over to the Thais.

I have come to know the area of Pattani-Kelantan quite well by now, thanks to my research there.

We feel that we are being victimised like Muslims all over the world, from Afghanistan to Iraq
Religious teacher
Pattani and Kelantan have failed to benefit from the economic development of Thailand and Malaysia and they remain among the poorest and most backward parts of the region.

At the markets of Southern Thailand one comes across goods that are typical of any poor rural locality - fruits and vegetables, fish and meat, farmers' tools and some local handicrafts.

Occasionally one runs into an Osama Bin Laden T-shirt as well.

At the local market I decided to interview a young man who was selling them.


"How's business?"' I asked him. "Oh, it's doing well" came the reply.

"Who buys these T-shirts?" was my next question.

He replied "Everyone. Lots of kids like them. We also sell them to dealers who come from Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines.

"They buy them by the hundreds and then they sell them back home."

I asked him: "So do you support Osama too? I mean, would you be happy if people like these came here, and turned Thailand into a country like Afghanistan under the Taleban?"

Map of Southern Thailand
He gave me a broad grin and said: "Oh no, no, noooo! I have a girlfriend man! I enjoy the motorbike races on the weekends and going out to have drinks with my friends, racing on the highways, playing computer games, and all that."

"So why do you sell these T-shirts then?" I asked him.

He replied: "It's simple man - we are fed up with what our government in Bangkok is doing to us. I mean, look at how poor we are.

"But Bangkok is more interested in supporting the Americans and the Americans hate Osama.

"So we wear the Osama T-shirt to say: 'We don't care about your policy with the United States. We have our own identity and we want you to respect it'."

During my recent trip to Pattani I had the distinct feeling that the mood had changed in the region.


The people were as poor as before, but also more angry about their state and what was happening in the world around them.

That impression was confirmed when I visited one of the local religious schools.

The school itself was a small wooden structure, a simple hut with a zinc roof.

The little boys who go to the school were just like kids anywhere else - playful and mischievous in their white robes and little green turbans.

But speaking to their teachers I sensed the tension that was beneath the surface.

One of the religious teachers said to me: "For years we were neglected and left behind. The government invested millions of dollars into Pattani, but where has the money gone?

And now the younger generation are getting angry and they're fighting back. We can't control them any longer."

So far those killed include the poor and the ordinary - policemen, teachers, farmers and monks.
Farish Noor
Well if the religious leaders aren't controlling the angry young men, then who is?

I asked the teacher about the renewed violence in the region and he said:

"We don't know who's behind it, this is something new for all of us.

In the past our struggle was political, but now it's becoming a religious issue.

For so long the authorities turned a blind eye to all the smuggling that took place here, and now the whole area is swimming with guns and weapons.

The militants who are doing the killing are a small minority, but instead all of us Muslims are being blamed for it.

We feel that we are being victimised like Muslims all over the world, from Afghanistan to Iraq."

Global problem

I noticed the teacher's clenched fists, as he talked about the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison and Guantanamo Bay.

His final statement was telling: what began as a local problem has now become an international one, hence the popularity of Osama for a people who have never even heard of him before, and the relevance of events thousands of miles away in Iraq.

At another school I picked up a text entitled 'Jihad in Pattani', that spoke of a global campaign against Muslims the world over.

Thai security officers patrol the Pattani province
Security officers are now patrolling the troubled southern provinces
No one really knows where it was printed but the mysterious author of the text compared Pattani to Afghanistan and Iraq, and called for Muslims to unite against the United States of America.

In all my years of visiting and researching in Pattani, I have never read anything like it.

This is not the Pattani I once knew.

Back in my office and sitting in front of my computer, my mind went back to the young, smiling, boy selling his Osama T-shirts; racing on the highways with his girlfriend.

What would it take for him to cross that final, invisible line, and take Osama into his heart? What would drive anyone to express his frustration and anger through violence?

Already a spate of killings have claimed the lives of other innocents.

A few days after the deaths of the eighty Muslim protesters at Tak Bai, a Buddhist monk was murdered by militants who claimed that this was an act of revenge.

So far those killed include the poor and the ordinary - policemen, teachers, farmers and monks.

The body count continues to rise and the smiling girl on the poster no longer convinces.

Dr Farish A Noor is a Malaysian political scientist and human rights activist. He is the secretary general of the International Movement for a Just World and has studied the phenomenon of Islamist political movements in south-east Asia.

A View From. . . is a new BBC World Service series in which one of a panel of international broadcasters reflects on the latest political, cultural or social developments in their region.


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