- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 15, 2004

YALA, Thailand — An uprising in southern Thailand by Muslim separatists — in which Thai soldiers recently killed more than 100 suspected radicals on a single day, including 30 who took sanctuary in a historic mosque — has opened a new front in Southeast Asia’s war on terror.

More than 200 people have been killed this year in the three southern Muslim-majority Thai states that border Malaysia. At least 107 Muslim militants were killed on April 28 when security forces who had been tipped off repulsed coordinated raids on several security posts in the region.

The violence has become Bangkok’s biggest domestic-security challenge since it ended a 15-year, pro-Beijing communist insurgency in the early 1980s.

Thai Muslim complaints of discrimination in jobs and education, along with the economic neglect of the south, have provided fodder for separatist movements in the provinces once part of the Muslim kingdom of Pattani that were annexed by Thailand in 1902.

“The Thai Muslim fight for separatism has not been so much an Islamic issue as a fight for dignity,” said Mark Tamthai of the Strategic Nonviolence Commission at the National Security Council, a government body in Bangkok.

“They have never felt that they are a part of Thailand and still feel like second-class citizens, because the kingdom’s Buddhist culture is chauvinistic about Muslim people.”

The historic quest by Thai Muslims for an autonomous homeland has been rekindled partly by the Iraq war and images of Israel’s suppression of the Palestinian intifada.

Protesters recently emptied bottles of Pepsi into streets as part of a new boycott of U.S. goods, and 20,000 Muslims demonstrated peacefully against the Iraq war in Pattani.

After dead Islamists were shown on TV recently, clutching machetes and wearing green Hamas-style headbands, Palestinian-colored checkered headscarves and other clothes with Islamic slogans emblazoned on them, the government conceded it was facing a complex separatist threat.

Seven of the separatists who have been killed were not Thai nationals. One had the letters JI stitched into the back of his jacket — an apparent reference to the Indonesia-based terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah, which seeks to establish a pan-Southeast Asian Islamic state.

Eric Teo Chu Cheow, chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, said Jemaah leaders met twice in southern Thailand to plan the bombings on the Indonesian island of Bali in 2002 that killed 202 persons, mostly foreign tourists.

Numerous regional leaders from Jemaah and Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda terror network are known to have spent time in southern Thailand since the September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States.

Jemaah militants sought by Malaysia and Singapore fled to this region in 2002 and, in June last year, Thai police broke up a Jemaah cell and foiled a plot to bomb embassies in the country.

Local officials say one of the suspects sought for involvement in a January raid at an army camp in southern Thailand is related to Hambali, al Qaeda’s operational leader in southeast Asia, who was arrested near Bangkok last year.

Independent estimates already put Jemaah membership in southern Thailand as high as 10,000, and the Thai military says that it is hunting down at least 5,000 armed separatists.

In the growing unrest, Buddhist Thai nationalists see a threat of “Arab influence” in the region, first brought home in 2002 when two dozen Middle Eastern suspects were arrested for forging travel documents for al Qaeda.

Southern Thailand is also home to the Yala Islamic College, run by influential hard-line cleric Ismail Lufti. The modern college is funded by Saudi money and has 800 students taught hard-core Wahhabi doctrine.

Vairoj Phiphitpakdee, a Muslim member of parliament for Pattani, has said that some Thai Muslims mistakenly believe that Islam is just about adopting Arab customs.

“They’re taken to the Middle East, and they’re brainwashed,” he recently told reporters.

The success of the military operation against the Islamist militants depends on closer cooperation from neighboring Malaysia.

Thailand says the terrorists find refuge in the northern Malaysian states of Kelantan and Kedah. While there have been official pledges by both governments to boost border patrols, all that has been achieved thus far is the arrest of a sole Malaysian taxi driver, who was charged in Kuala Lumpur with aiding the Thai militants by ferrying some of them across the common border.

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