Conflict in Thailand: Unrest in Muslim south largely political legacy

Muhammad Amin, 19, a resident of Thailand's southernmost region, lost his left leg and his job in an explosion set off by terrorists.

BANGKOK - An ordinary decision and bad luck cost Muhammad Amin, 19, his leg.

In the late afternoon of April 6, the young clothing shop employee was riding a motorcycle on his way home from work and was about to pass a car on a main street in Yala Province in Thailand's southernmost region. The car suddenly exploded, throwing him to the ground.

Muhammad tried to get up but found that his left leg had been blown off below the knee. He crawled from the scene and was taken to a hospital.

Released from the hospital four months later, Muhammad quit his job because he had lost the use of his right arm in addition to the lost left leg. As the sole breadwinner of a seven-member family, with an artificial leg he struggles to earn enough to support them.

Thailand is a Buddhist country, but 90% of the residents in its southernmost region are Muslims. While Muslim rebels seeking independence from Thailand have repeatedly staged shootings and explosions targeting Buddhists, Muslim bystanders are often caught up in the fighting, as in the case of Muhammad.

Over the past decade, 6,200 people have been killed in insurgent attacks.

Legacy attacks

The terrorism is one legacy of former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Thaksin, who took office in 2001, drew attention for his aggressive public order policy, which was criticised especially because of anti-terrorism measures adopted in the southernmost region of Thailand. In 2004, for example, some 80 Muslim demonstrators were captured, crammed into army trucks and died, mostly of suffocation.

The government's hard-line stance prompted retaliatory terror attacks, and the violence continues to this day.

The unrest in the southernmost region is not limited to religious conflict; it has also led to political turbulence.

The independence movement by Muslims began in the 1960s, but the situation stabilized in the 1980s as then Prime Minister Prem Tinsulanonda took a moderate approach that pardoned defectors to the government.

The policy adopted by the former army general, who now serves as the head of the Privy Council, was upset by Thaksin, who abolished the Southern Border Provinces Administration Center set up by Prem to promote the development of the southernmost region. Thaksin, a former police officer, also shifted the principal role of maintaining public order from the army to the police.

Thaksin miscalculated the strength and aggressive response of the insurgents, said Chaturon Chaisang who served as deputy prime minister in the Thaksin administration.

In 2005, Thaksin appointed Muslim General Sonthi Boonyaratglin as commander-in-chief of the army. Thaksin was ousted in a coup led by Sonthi the following year. Since it was Prem who had recommended Sonthi's promotion to the top army post, Thaksin fingered him as the mastermind of the coup.

The feud with Prem cost Thaksin support from people in the southern part of the country.

Prem was born in Songkhla, one of Thailand's southern provinces. A huge bronze statue of him stands in General Prem Tinsulanonda Historical Park, and a museum contains exhibits detailing Prem's personal history and achievements.

Among the people of the region, no one is more respected than Prem, noted an official at the museum.

The Democratic Party, Thaksin's political foe, has strong support in the southern region. Thaksin lured influential lawmakers away from the party but failed to beat it in elections.

Thaworn Senneam, former deputy leader of the party, admitted that Thaksin had asked him how much he should pay for his defection from the party. Thaksin, who dismissed Prem's policy and threw public order into confusion, would never win support from southern voters, he said.

The general election, held in February by the administration under Thaksin's strong influence, was nullified by the nation's Constitutional Court because a series of boycotts in the southern region made it impossible to finalize election results.

The administration sought an exit from political confusion through the election. But the court ruling clogged the exit and led to the army's coup in May.

Confrontation between supporters of Thaksin, who won votes from low-income people by offering ample support to them, and anti-Thaksin protesters is often seen as antagonism between urban and rural dwellers. But people in the southern region are mostly rural dwellers and mostly anti-Thaksin. As in the case of unrest in the south, the complicated situation stemming from the past makes it difficult to resolve the political confrontation in Thailand.

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