Friday, April 7, 2006

The Religious Conflict that Isnt Religious

“The issue is not one of the separation of church and state…for there is no church in Islam. The issue is one of legitimacy: what kind of state and what kind of community? Does legitimacy come down from the divine to the one man, the halife, shadow of God on earth and thence to the ulema and to human society, or does legitimacy arise from a free and open exercise of political rights? The question is indeed central to Islam, and has been central from the very beginning.”

The rebellion in Southern Thailand is often misunderstood and over simplified into the primary dichotomy of Muslim vs. Buddhist.
Yet such a basic dichotomy is not an accurate representation of the role of religion in the conflict.

What lies at the heart of the conflict, in relation to Islam and Buddhism, is not an incommensurable religious difference but a conflict inspired by the use of religion in state-craft.

Thailand has consistently, through both historical and modern periods, employed Buddhist cosmological practices in the pageantry of state ceremonies and rituals.
The problem that arises in the Malay-Muslim population of the South is that Buddhist spectacles of state legitimacy are rejected, and possibly even offensive, to the Malay-Muslim community.

Such rejection of Buddhist forms of legitimacy are evident in the Malay-Muslim tendency to look towards Islamic religious symbols and institutions that supply a similar role in strengthening the Muslim opposition to the Buddhist state.

Such forms of religious state-craft may sound overly abstract yet when religion is used in state rituals it is easy to identify.

A simple example is found in the flag raising ceremony that takes place every morning in all state run schools across the country.

Students are assembled in a school’s courtyard for a brief round of exercise, to listen to school announcements, to say a Buddhist prayer, and to sing the national anthem as the flag is raised.

Although the Buddhist prayer is the most obvious ritual that may draw unease from Muslims, the Thai flag, the emblem of the country that seeks to represent the citizens, also represents Buddhism.

The Thai flag consists of five horizontal stripes of three colors.
The Color red represents the blood of the Thai people, the color blue represents the much revered Monarchy, and the white stripes represent Buddhism (designated as Buddhism in the reign of King Vajiravudh).

As the national anthem is sung, in which citizens sing of their willingness to die for the values of the nation, the flag and its representation of Buddhism is raised into the sky.

Attending a flag raising ceremony in the primarily Muslim deep South one can not only see scores of Muslim students standing in silence as the Buddhist prayer is recited but can also recognize the Buddhist cosmology embedded within such state ceremonies.

Although the flag raising ceremony is just a minor example, the use of Buddhist political legitimacy is more problematic when Buddhist morality dictates the creation of legal codes. Before the Thais extended governance in the South the Malay-Muslims where governed by Sharia law that found its legitimacy as a holy law passed down to man from God – not from a Thai-Buddhist government.

When the South was placed under Thai control there was a crude (from a Southern perspective) replacement of the law dictated by Allah to a law dictated by a state and predicated upon Buddhist forms of legitimacy.

The use of religious legitimacy in government has essentially created an artificial and singular Buddhist state where religious homogeneity is obviously lacking.
If the future of the conflict is to be defused then the legitimacy of the government should have a diluted dependency upon Buddhism and the introduction of an Islamic perspective.

What might be even more appropriate is that the strategy of religious legitimacy be reevaluated in a broader reevaluation of what the Thai state is.

Although traditional governmental sources claim the number of Muslims in Thailand is about 3.9 percent, academic sources claim that the actual percentage could be as high as 8% to 10%. If ten percent of the population rejects the state’s employment of Buddhist legitimacy then the ideology that supports the state is at risk of collapse.

Rendered down more simply, if peaceful relations between the Buddhists and the Muslims have been the norm at the community level in the South then it is the government’s own efforts of legitimacy that creates the sense of illegitimacy and is ultimately the source of conflict.

Monday, April 3, 2006

The Tragedy of Tak Bai

"For anyone willing to spend 100 Baht (€ 2) they could watch uniformed Thai security forces shoot, beat, and ultimately murder 76 Malay-Muslim citizens of Thailand." Although the soldiers pictured here were not involved in the Tak Bai incident they, and the whole armed forces, have a more difficult job assuring citizens that they are there to protect them. Fourth Army soldiers guarding a Buddhist Wat, Pattani - 2005.

If claims of abuse by the military and police had been hard to substantiate in the past, the events of October 25, 2004 turned suspicion into fact.

Malay-Muslims had gathered in protest at a police station in the far Southern border town of Tak Bai.

The protesters were angry over the arrest of local village defense volunteers whom, the police had claimed, had surrendered their government supplied firearms to suspected Islamic insurgents.

Water cannons were initially used to break the lines of protesters yet non-lethal tactics were quickly abandoned when protesters responded by throwing rocks and a firearm was rumored to have been discharged.

The security forces, comprised of both police and Thailand’s Fourth Army, trained their new American made M-16 rifles on the crowd and opened fire.

In the ensuing violence seven protesters died from gunshot wounds while hundreds were handcuffed, dragged into the police station compound, and “stacked like bricks” onto waiting trucks (BBC –

As news began to emerge from the confrontation it was revealed that 76 protestors died in the protest - the majority suffocating will stacked on the military trucks awaiting transportation.

The incident in Tak Bai drew global protest from Islamic groups, human rights organizations, foreign governments, the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights, and considerable wrath from the Malaysian government.

Yet most damaging for Thaksin’s government was the fact that Thai security forces had filmed the whole violent episode.

The video footage was leaked to the public and cheap VCD's of the incident were sold in the markets across the country. For anyone willing to spend 100 Baht (€ 2) they could watch uniformed Thai security forces shoot, beat, and ultimately murder 76 Malay-Muslim citizens of Thailand.

As the video footage was replayed across Thai TV screens the country was both shocked and outraged.

Anger at the government and sympathy for the victims were common sentiments expressed in Bangkok. Yet the way the video was perceived in the deep South was a little different.

Obviously shock and anger were felt but many Southern residents looked at the video as proof to claims that the Thai state was actively persecuting Malay-Muslims.

It is not hard to imagine that the video created a new flood recruits into the ranks of militant organizations.

Although the video was a clear public relations disaster in the effort to pacify the South, Prime Minister Thaksin further enraged Southern residents, and arguably the country, by refusing to at least offer a public apology.

Sunday, April 2, 2006

Between Armed Factions,Drug Production,and International Borders

Thai Rangers on border patrol near Mai Sot.

“Burma is currently a land where there is no human security and where several millions are displaced externally as refugees or illegals in neighbouring countries. Burma and Shan state is a land where hundreds of thousands are dispossessed, dislocated, and hunted down like animals by army columns and search and destroy patrols. It is a country where almost everyone is without hope, living lives of utter desperation in abject poverty, without a shred of dignity or human rights of any kind” - Chao Tzang Yawnghwe

On the opposite side of Thailand’s far northwest border, in Burma, is a large mountainous region called Shan State.

Everyday refugees and drugs flow across the border from Shan State into Thailand.

In order to understand what refugees are fleeing from and why drugs continue to flow across the border it is necessary to understand the dynamics of drug production, resistance armies, and Thai policy towards refugees.

Burma is the second largest producer of heroin in the world and the majority of its poppy fields and drug refineries are located in Shan State.

Shan State is also home to a bewildering array of armed factions and most of them have been locked in a seemingly intractable conflict with the government of Burma.

How the politics of drug production mingle with the politics of armed resistance is often misunderstood and insurgent armies are mistaken for narco-armies.

In order to understand the various armed factions it is important to first clarify drug production in Shan State.

Along with the more traditional opium/heroin production there is a booming methamphetamine industry.

Yaba (ยาบัา or ‘crazy medicine’ in Thai) is produced from a cocktail of chemicals, with minimal labour, in drug labs lining the Thai border.

The primary motive is profit, the market is largely confined to Thailand and China, and the business is dominated by apolitical drug runners.

Opium, in contrast, is an agricultural product that a large number of peasant farmers depend upon for their livelihood.

It is transported by farmers to local market dealers who then take the raw opium to a broader network of dealers, primarily Chinese, who render it down into a more concentrated form or refine it into heroin 'number 4’.
It is then transported by large drug syndicates across the Thai and Chinese borders where it then joins the world market.

The armed factions that operate in and around Shan State cross the whole political spectrum from ethnic nationalists to the Burmese military to multi-ethnic communists to Chinese Nationalists to well armed criminal gangs.
All armed factions are somehow linked to the drug trade.

Ethnic nationalist armies are primarily associated with opium/heroin through the taxation of trade goods passing through their territories.
Many of the ethnic nationalists, such as the Shan State Army, have/are attempting to wean their economic dependence away from drug profits and to end the growing of poppies within their spheres of control.

The Burmese government and its military, the Tatmadaw, may not be active in drug production yet they are a main beneficiary of the profits and are directly responsible for creating a drug based economy in Shan State.
The grotesque economic failure of ‘Burmese socialism’ dismantled the country’s economy to such an extent that paper currency, the Burmese kyat, became worthless. The economy reverted back to the bartering of commodities.
In Shan State, opium became the principle commodity because it is easy to transport, can be stored for long periods, and is far more valuable than any other agricultural crop farmers can grow.

The opium economy in Shan State has also been encouraged by the Tatmadaw’s brutal 'four cuts' military campaign.
The four needs of insurgent armies were deemed to be access to food, finance, recruits, and intelligence and the Burmese military launched a campaign to eliminate those resources.
The campaign directly targeted the civilian population with search and destroy patrols that murdered, tortured, raped, and confiscated land and property from peasants in order to cut any supplies from reaching insurgent armies.
Opium became the single commodity that peasants could take with them when fleeing from rampaging Tatmadaw patrols.

Flourishing in the chaotic environment are the remnants of the Kuomintang (KMT or Chinese Nationalists) army and various criminal gangs.
The KMT have been involved in drug production in Shan State since retreating from China after Mao’s victorious communist revolution in 1950.
Being capitalists, and rationalizing their need to purchase arms as well as being apathetic to Shan nationalist aspirations, the KMT were uniquely qualified to revolutionize the opium trade.
Their global connections to Chinese diaspora afforded them both the global reach and capital to reap enormous profits from drugs.
Criminal gangs, with various allegiances and ethnicities, account for the rest of the drug trade.

As many Shan State residents are internally displaced by the political chaos and endless conflict they are being pushed up along and over the Thai border.
How refugees are received in Thailand is a reflection of the Thai held stereotype that everyone from Shan State is either a drug runner or an insurgent soldier.
Refugee camps lining the border are filled with Shan State residents who have fled conflict and the Tatmadaw but live as prisoners surrounded by barbwire fences and bristling with Thai military sentries.

More worrying has been Thai Prime Minister Thaksin’s ‘war on drugs’.
In a reactionary and ineffectual response to the flow of drugs, particularly the near epidemic use of yaba in Thailand , Thaksin launched a draconian extermination campaign against drug dealers.
Because Shan State is a major source of drugs, the power of the police and military has been unleashed and focused upon the border.
Low level drug dealers, suspects in rural and poverty stricken villages, and often those with out any connection to drugs, were not just at risk of mass arrests but were at risk of state-sanctioned assassination.
Approximately 3000 extrajudicial killings have been carried out by joint military/police patrols under the orders of Prime Minister Thaksin.

The aggregate result of both drug production and politically diverse armies in Shan State and the hostile reception that refuges receive in Thailand has been the immense suffering of peasants caught between armed factions, drug production, and international borders.
The one simple truth, and articulated in the opening quote, is the abysmal conditions forced upon the average resident of Shan State.