How Thailand Can Avoid a New Insurgency

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A Thai soldier walks past hundreds of men who were arrested after demonstrators clashed with police in Thailand's Narathiwat province on October 25, 2004

This week's most depressing statistic comes courtesy of an unnamed Thai government source quoted in the Bangkok Post. The source reveals that the military had been willing to kill "between 200 and 300 people" and injure "several thousand" in its operation last week to storm the Red Shirt protest site in Bangkok's commercial district.

Compared with this grim estimate, the actual toll on May 19 — 15 dead, hundreds wounded — must seem almost satisfactory. But the official death toll from all clashes and bomb attacks since April 10, when the military botched an attempt to clear another Red Shirt protest site in old Bangkok, is hardly a cause for celebration: 85 are dead, and 1,402 have been injured.

Many Thais have compared recent events to "Black May" of 1992, the last time troops fired live rounds on Bangkok protesters. Back then, 48 people were killed, possibly many more. (The number is disputed.) But there is a much more recent example of the Thai military killing its own citizens, and one that Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva might bear in mind as he tries to heal his divided country.

It was an atrocity that began as a protest. On October 25, 2004, hundreds of people gathered outside Tak Bai police station in the southern province of Narathiwat to protest the arrest of six local men. Thailand is a predominantly Thai-speaking Buddhist country, but most people in its three southernmost provinces are Malay-speaking Muslims who have chafed against rule from faraway Bangkok for more than a century. In January 2004, a raid on an army camp, also in Narathiwat, sparked a region-wide uprising against the government.

The events at Tak Bai quickly turned nasty. Protesters hurled rocks and reportedly tried to storm the police station. Police and soldiers opened fire, killing seven people, then arrested hundreds of protesters, most of them young Muslim men. With their hands bound behind their backs, they were thrown five or six deep into military trucks. Seventy-eight of them suffocated or were crushed to death.

Though various insurgent groups had been violently resisting Bangkok's rule for decades, Tak Bai radicalized a new and arguably more ruthless generation of fighters. Harrowing footage of soldiers beating and kicking protesters, then tossing them into trucks, was quickly banned by the authorities, but still secretly circulates through households in the south. Six years on, the ongoing conflict has killed more than 4,100 people, most of them civilians.

Tak Bai took place under former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whose brutal policies helped ignite the southern insurgency. (On Wednesday, a Bangkok court issued an arrest for Thaksin on terrorism charges for allegedly masterminding the Red Shirts' violent resistance.) But it could still provide a lesson for Thailand's current leader. Could the Rajaprasong crackdown radicalize the Reds as Tak Bai did the southern insurgents? Could Red strongholds in the north or northeast become no-go zones for soldiers and government officials, just as many districts in the southern provinces already are? After recent events in Bangkok, neither scenario feels so far-fetched. Politics is so polarized, and both sides are evidently so willing to use deadly force, that many Thais fear that other parts of their nation could become "just like the south."

There is also another parallel. Part of Abhisit's post-Rajaprasong reconciliation plan is to set up what his government has called "an independent fact-finding committee" to investigate the recent violence. This is vital: Justice is a great healer, something Abhisit acknowledged just six months ago in a speech about the southern insurgency. "A heavy presence of security forces was not the only answer to the conflict," he said in late November. "We believe in development and an unbiased justice system."

But biased justice — which of course is no justice at all — doesn't heal. It poisons. This is especially true when the main agents for maintaining law — soldiers and police — effectively remain above it. Again, consider Tak Bai: Almost a year ago, on May 29, 2009, a provincial court ruled that soldiers and police bore no responsibility for the protesters' deaths. Predictably, a surge of violence followed the verdict, both by Muslim insurgents and Buddhist vigilantes. It culminated less than two weeks later the slaying of 11 worshippers at Al-Farquan mosque in Narathiwat province — one of the deadliest attacks the south has ever witnessed. A police investigation of the attack implicated pro-government militiamen.

By promising "unbiased justice" but presiding over further atrocities, Abhisit has lost the south. Without a full and impartial investigation of the recent deadly clashes in Bangkok, he might yet lose the rest of the country. Both Thai and international human rights activists, including New-York based Human Rights Watch, have called for an independent inquiry to scrutinize, among other highly contentious issues, the use of deadly force by both soldiers and armed Red Shirts.

Privately, however, they admit that such an inquiry might go nowhere. Abhisit is now engaged in two struggles: one against insurgents in the far south, the other against Red Shirts in the north and northeast. In both, he relies utterly upon the powerful Thai military. That's why he might be reluctant to offend the top brass by investigating the actions of their soldiers. This would be a mistake. "It's in the interests of a united Thailand to come up with a credible inquiry," says Sunai Phasuk, a researcher with the New-York based Human Rights Watch. "Without justice and accountability there can be no reconciliation."

Here's another body count: 19. That's how many lives the southern conflict has claimed in Narathiwat, Yala and Pattani provinces from April 10 to May 19. During the same period, four times that number died in Bangkok, but only for those six angry weeks. The people of southern Thailand have been dying by the thousands for years, and, with yet another government in faraway Bangkok distracted by its own political survival, will probably be dying for many years to come.