While most Westerners know Thailand only as a popular tourist destination, recent events indicate this Southeast Asian country is now a front-line state in the worldwide war against militant Islam.
Last April, for example, several dozen armed terrorists attacked two Thai military bases, killing four soldiers, wounding six, and stealing 30 M-16 rifles and a grenade launcher. Perhaps more frightening was the arrest last month of three Thai Muslims for planning terrorist attacks on embassies in Bangkok and on tourist spots around the country. It was the first Islamic terrorist cell ever uncovered in Thailand.
Both incidents took place in Thailand's five southern provinces, which are 85 percent Muslim and border Malaysia, a state with a large Muslim population. The Thai government annexed the five provinces (Satun, Songkhla, Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat) in 1902 after centuries of control, fearing their takeover by the British in Malaysia. The two and a half million Thai Muslims in this region, ethnically and linguistically related to the Malays, make up four per cent of Thailand's 67 million people, which are 90 percent Buddhist.
However, Muslim separatists started a guerrilla war against the central government in the 1960s, demanding independence. Their grievances included economic neglect, suppression of their Muslim culture, especially in the schools, and corrupt and oppressive Thai officials. The Pattani United Liberation Organization, the most dangerous separatist group to emerge at this time, carried out a campaign of bombings and armed attacks in the 1970s and '80s that prompted retaliation from the central government.
Thailand's dirty war came to an end in the 1990s, when Bangkok offered an amnesty to PULO members and granted its Muslim minority more cultural freedom and positions of political power. However, a major reason for PULO's defeat was Malaysia's refusal to continue to allow its territory to be used as the organization's base.
However, in 1997, a 'New PULO' was formed to continue the struggle for secession against the Thai 'infidels'. Authorities hold the 'New PULO' responsible for last April's attack on the military bases and believe Saudi, Kuwaiti and Pakistani sympathizers finance it. Even worse, the 'New PULO' may also have joined forces with other Islamic terrorist organizations in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. The fact that the Indonesian terrorist, Hambali, planned the Bali bombing in southern Thailand early last year with Arab and other Southeast Asian Islamic terrorists suggests this.
And like the other Southeast Asian terrorist groups, Thai Islamic terrorists have probably been influenced by al-Qaeda, since Thai Muslims have trained at al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan. Moreover, according to terrorism experts, the goal of all these Southeast Asian fundamentalist groups is no longer local, but rather to create a super-Islamic state in Southeast Asia, centered in Indonesia, that would include Malaysia, Singapore, southern Thailand, Brunei and the southern Philippines.
Fortunately, most Thai Muslims are peaceful. Those opposed to America's involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan have expressed their opposition lawfully with demonstrations and a call for a boycott of American goods. The greatest problem in fighting Islamic terrorism in Southern Thailand is rather the area's weak law enforcement. The Thai-Malaysian border is a very porous one. One journalist paid only 25 cents to cross it illegally to prove this point. Besides the criminal gangs operating here, Thai police, military and government officials are also well known for their corruption and engage in
violent acts themselves. One Malaysian Muslim terrorist even claimed in an interview that rogue Thai army officers had trained him and other Muslims in weapons and explosives use. And to complicate matters, while school arsons, bombings of Buddhist temples, and the killings of policemen increased in southern Thailand last year (police murders averaged about three a month), no one is certain who did them due to the area's volatile mix.
In addition, Southern Thailand's loose security environment also serves to attract other Islamic terrorists, such as Hambali, who are sometimes fleeing crackdowns in their own countries. Last year, it is believed Muslim extremists from Singapore found refuge there.
For its part, the Thai government, while supporting America in the War on Terror, had always proclaimed there were no terrorists in Thailand, a measure meant to protect its important tourism industry. But due to Bali, the increased Islamic fundamentalist threat and international travel warnings to Thailand, it has now increased security measures as well as anti-terrorist cooperation with other Southeast Asian states. A Bali-like tragedy on their soil, the Thais have come to realize, would not be tourist-friendly.