There has been a media storm over Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej's comments that the violent crack-down by ultra-nationalist militias, police, and the military on students at Thammasat University in 1976 didnt really happen. Countering the official death count of 46, and witness accounts that claim that hundreds died, Samak has claimed it was 'one unlucky guy' who was killed. Of course, the photos do tell a different story.
Although the PM's shameful distortion is being questioned in Thai and international media it is curious that Samak's comments about a more recent tragedy have gone virtually unchallenged.
On October 25th, 2004 in the southern border town of Tak Bai, Thai security forces killed 76 Muslim protesters while in police custody. You can also watch the video here.
Samak's recent comments about Tak Bai claim that the Muslim protesters died not because of grotesque negligence or violent collective punishment by security forces, but they died because they had been observing the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. In other words, they died because they were Muslim.
“…if they strong enough when they standing in the truck, it’s ok. But they spent the whole day, doesn’t eat, doesn’t drink water, doesn’t even swallow any kind of thing, because in the month of that thing, so, they just fall on each other. And 78 die…So that’s it…Nobody intend to kill them. They die because of their physical. So, so what’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with that?”
A transcript of the interview can be found at Rule of Lords.
One of the main barriers to reconciling the conflict in Southern Thailand is the issue of injustice committed by security forces and the Tak Bai incident - arguably, along with a long long list of human rights abuses by authorities - is an infamous example.
During the time when the Tak Bai incident happened, the Thaksin government seriously inflamed long simmering southern discontent and, through belligerent commentary by the Prime Minister and reliance on force, nurtured that discontent with the government into a full-blown insurgency.
After Thaksin, junta-installed Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont apologized to Thailand's southern Muslims in November 2006 for the violence committed by Thaksin's government. Although it was a small first step, it was still a step towards resolution rather than a step towards further violence.
But now, any past goodwill created or future efforts by Bangkok to win 'hearts and minds' in the South will be challenged by Samak's combative and unapologetic comments.By asking rhetorically "whats wrong with that?", when talking about the killing of 76 unarmed Muslim protesters while in police custody, Samak has just added more fuel to the fire burning in Southern Thailand.