Thailand Insurgency Has Links to the Broader World of Radical Islam


firstcoastnews.com


By DENIS D. GRAY and VIJAY JOSHI
Associated Press Writers

THANNAM
THIP, Thailand (AP) — A shallow river, deep jungles and a 12-mile wall
mark the divide not just between Thailand and Malaysia but between
Southeast Asia’s Muslim and Buddhist worlds.

This ragged
stretch of border is viewed by some as a potential front in the Muslim
insurgency wracking southern Thailand, mysterious in its goals and
undeterred either by government crackdowns or by peace overtures.

Analysts
have been divided over whether Thai insurgents are plugging into a
broader Islamic movement. But an Associated Press investigation
conducted over the past three months indicates the separatist
rebellion, which has already taken the lives of more than 2,000 people,
is indeed making outside connections:

— Young Thai Muslims —
thousands, by Thai government estimate — are being educated in
neighboring Muslim countries and the Middle East, with an unknown
number returning as recruiters or actual participants in the
insurgency. Some may be receiving military training while abroad.


Reports persist that some Indonesians or other foreigners are training
and fighting with the rebels, though none has been captured and the
reports are unconfirmed.

— Islamic radicals around the world
are increasingly setting their sights on the insurgency. An Arab Web
site appeared in January, dedicated exclusively to southern Thailand
and believed the first of its kind. Couched in Islamic rhetoric, the
site backs independence for southern Thais.

— Malaysia denies
providing any support, mindful that the insurgency could infect its own
predominantly Muslim population. But the Thai government is worried
enough to be proposing a longer wall than the barrier the Malaysians
built in Cold War times to stop smugglers and communist guerrillas.

“We
know when some of them cross the border and report it to our Foreign
Ministry and the Malaysian military, but nobody ever gets caught,” said
Lt. Chatchai Kitkhunthot in this frontier village. He was one of
several Thai army officers and local officials who pinpointed
infiltration and escape routes across the border on maps and the
ground.

“Basically the southern Thailand conflict is becoming
more regionalized. But we are at the very early stage of it,” says
Rohan Gunaratna, who heads the International Center for Political
Violence and Terrorism Research in Singapore and wrote “Inside
al-Qaida: Global Network of Terror.” Islamic militancy is spreading in
Southeast Asia, he says, and “What is happening in Thailand will not be
an exception.”

Others disagree, likening the insurgency to the
Muslim uprising in Indonesia’s Aceh province, which shunned foreign
help and was resolved with U.N. mediation.

“They are fighting
for a separate state so they don’t want one which is going to be run by
outsiders,” says a Western official in Bangkok who is knowledgeable
about anti-terrorism efforts and spoke on condition of anonymity.

People
on both sides of the border share ethnicity, language and religion —
Islam. Muslim-run soup restaurants on the Malaysian side are suspected
of being funding sources for the rebels, and this has become an
irritant in relations between two countries that are mainstays of the
Southeast Asian alliance.

The insurgents, according to the
Thai military, number 3,000 to 5,000, with some 10,000 to 12,000
sympathizers out of a Muslim population of 3 million in the
southernmost provinces of Yala, Narathiwat and Pattani which border
Malaysia. They are secretive, brutal, effective, and “We don’t know
when or where they will attack next,” says Col. Wichai Thongdaeng, an
army spokesman in the south.

An independent sultanate until it
was merged into Thailand a century ago, the southern provinces have
seen rebellions come and go. In the latest, which began in early 2004,
the rebels have torched schools, bombed banks, beheaded some 25 people
and shot teachers, policemen, government officials and just ordinary
citizens. More than half the victims have been Muslims suspected of
collaborating with authorities — teachers, civil servants, policemen.

In
one recent incident, says army Lt. Jenkila Somboon, three Muslim rubber
tappers were shot to death because their village was getting too
friendly with the soldiers.

Little is known about the
insurgents, or “juwae” — the local word for fighters. They have
revealed no program, leadership roster or even a name. Their only
public forms of communication are threatening leaflets. But Thai
intelligence officers who have interrogated defectors or captured
insurgents say that at least some of the groups are fighting for an
independent, Islamic state.

“If you go to work, we will kill
you cruelly. We will wait for you 24 hours a day, follow you wherever
you go,” said one recent leaflet obtained by The AP, ordering Buddhists
in one area to leave within three days. It’s not known whether they
left, but the insurgency has already displaced hundreds of villagers.

International
Risk, a Hong Kong-based consultancy, calls the insurgency the world’s
“new terrorism front line,” but its shadowy nature accounts in part for
the differing assessments of outside involvement. Thai leaders and
intelligence officials say that loose, personal ties but no formal
links currently exist between the domestic militants and networks such
as al-Qaida and Jemaah Islamiyah, Southeast Asia’s foremost terrorist
organization.

The main conduits for militancy, they say, are
Thai Muslims who study in Muslim countries ranging from Malaysia to
Libya, then come back and spread their knowledge in religious schools.
These form the breeding grounds of the insurgency, which Thai officials
believe also attract funding from the Middle East that is partly
channeled into the rebels’ hands.

Former Prime Minister
Thaksin Shinawatra alleged that Malaysia harbored military training
camps for the Thais, and some Western intelligence experts maintain
that promising youths are systematically culled for training abroad,
including the Middle East, and farmed out to key cells on their return.
Then there’s an Indonesian connection going back to the late 1980s and
early 1990s, when Thai and Indonesian militants trained together in
Afghan-run camps on the Pakistan-Afghan border.

Between 1999
and 2003, Thai students held regular paramilitary sessions in Bandung,
Indonesia, with the top “one or two” then sent to Mindanao in the
southern Philippines, another region wracked by Islamic rebellion, for
more combat training, said Col. Wichai Chucherd, defense attaché at the
Thai embassy in Indonesia.

An Indonesian military intelligence
report seen by The AP on the Bandung training says the presence of Thai
separatists on Indonesian soil is worrying “because they could form
links with Jemaah Islamiyah members who are now in Indonesia.” Thai
insurgents provided support for frequent visits by Jemaah Islamiyah’s
alleged operations chief Riduan Isamuddin, also known as Hambali, who
was captured in Thailand in 2003 and is now in U.S. custody.

But
no foreign fighters have been captured or killed in southern Thailand,
although Thai army officers say a small number are believed to be
around.

Col. Pornthep Kalamphasut, deputy commander of the
army’s “hearts and minds” operation in the south, said some
communication intercepts among the rebels have been in the Indonesian
language. Col. Saksri Ngoypatphan, who commands units in two volatile
districts, said defectors talk of tall non-Thais, often hooded, being
involved in training.

But of greater concern among the Thai military is the winding 402-mile border with Malaysia.

Crossing
the frontier is easy, using such corridors as the Hala Bala Wildlife
Sanctuary, an area of deep jungle, said Phuchit Saechan, the headman of
Thannam Thip. His village abuts the wall that Thailand wants to replace
with a 16-mile barrier.

“The border doesn’t mean much. We are
the same people on both sides,” said Mohammad Nor Ali, a restaurant
owner near the lightly policed immigration checkpoint in Rantau
Panjang, on the Malaysian side of the frontier in Kelantan state.

He acknowledged being sympathetic to the Thai Muslims’ fight “because they are our brothers.”

Gunaratna,
the Singapore-based analyst, says despite official Malaysian denials,
northern Malaysia “remains an active intellectual and material support
base for the insurgent groups active in southern Thailand.”

As
financing goes, it is the ubiquitous soup restaurants run by Thai
Muslims in Malaysia which have lately become the issue, after Thai
Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont claimed many of them were a
significant source of funding and recruitment of separatists.

Malaysian
authorities took offense and issued indignant denials. Malaysia’s
government is aware that the insurgency could embolden its own
radicals. “We must not allow any breeding ground for terrorism to exist
or to be nurtured,” says Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar.

But
Malaysia must also tread a fine line, curbing extremism without
alienating its own people. Despite Thai pleas with its Muslim neighbor
states for more cooperation, there have been no joint operations or
even a common intelligence database.

Thailand’s military
regime, which overthrew Thaksin’s elected government, says it has
adopted a “hearts and minds” strategy rather than brute force to end
the insurgency.

“We want to de-couple the south from
international Islamic terrorism,” said Foreign Minister Nitya
Pibulsonggram in an interview. “Cooperation with Malaysia is really the
key.”

Denis Gray reported from the Thai side of the border and
Vijay Joshi from the Malaysian side. Rungrawee C. Pinyorat and Sutin
Wannabovorn in Bangkok, Chris Brummit in Indonesia, and Jim Gomez in
Manila, Philippines, contributed to this report.

Created: 3/12/2007 9:09:37 AM
Updated: 3/12/2007 9:10:12 AM

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