Violence in Southern Thailand

Trip Start Jan 08, 2004
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Tanzania  ,
Thursday, September 30, 2004

A few years ago whilst I was leading a group of young schoolgirls on a safari in Tanzania, we stopped to have lunch beside a lake in Ngorogoro National Park. The kids were all from Sydney, but one of them, Linh, had grown up for some time in Vietnam. We got out of our vehicles with the packed lunch the safari company had provided and looked for a place to eat. There was a group of monkeys also at the lake and they were interested in what we were doing and in our food. This was quite an amazing experience for a group of young city kids to be able to have lunch with a group of monkeys nearby and with hippopotamus' in the lake beside us.

I sat down on a log and starting eating my lunch. Linh also did something similar. The other girls were a bit apprehensive at first to get out of the vehicles but I assumed they'd get hungry and seeing my example, they would sit down and eat. Some monkeys came over to me to see what I was eating. It was great to be able to see them so close and I imagine also great for them to get a good look at me. There were a couple of monkeys that were aggressive at first and wanted to take my lunch but their attitude was easily adjusted by being firm with them. Once they knew where they stood, they were polite and I was able to share some of my food with them and have a good time and great experience. I noticed Linh, who also understood about monkeys was having a similar time.

The other girls had a totally different experience. They did eventually get out of the car and try to sit down and eat. But when the monkeys approached them, the girls got scared and squealed and ran away. The monkeys were a bit confused at this at first but decided to chase after the girls, who then got even more scared. One of the girls threw her food at the monkeys who then realized that by scaring the girls they would get fed. Soon an all out war between the monkeys and the girls had broken out with squeals of fear and rocks being thrown by the girls and the monkeys returning the aggressive behaviour. Eventually as I had to go and help the girls. I shoo-ed the monkeys away for them and this allowed them to get back into the vehicles to finish their lunch. When Linh had also finished her lunch we left.

It was fascinating that we had all been given the same situation and in my opinion a great opportunity. Linh and I were able to approach the situation calmly and with some previous knowledge and understanding of the monkeys. The rest of the group could not understand the monkeys and the monkeys could not understand them. Very quickly this lack of understanding turned to fear, which then turned to hatred and aggression. Whilst Linh and I had a nice lunch and shared some of it with some monkeys, the other girls were scared and had a terrible time fighting off the monkeys. I found it very interesting how quickly this little war started and how it was all really due to a lack of understanding between the two sides who could of actually both had a great time.

OK - the following is an update on the violence in Southern Thailand from my perspective (I am not an expert. I wasn't there and I am not 100% sure of the facts, however I expect this is a more balanced view than has been presented in the overseas media).

I came to Thailand a while ago, as I like it here very much. The people are generally gentle, clam, quiet and polite people. To be aggressive is not something that I often find amongst the Thai people. Instead I notice that they are often very considerate and generous people. Another thing I have noticed about Thailand is that there is racial harmony here. Despite the many different races and backgrounds, people in Thailand tend to see themselves as Thai. In other countries I have noticed that people see themselves as Chinese, Greek, etc etc first. Here people generally would look at themselves as Thai and if asked further they would recognize their family background is from China or wherever, however they would be very proud to be Thai.

What is happening in Southern Thailand then? Good question.

I believe the vast majority of people in the far South fit the above description.

This year there has been continual violence in the South. The victims have been both Buddhists and Muslims. They have been some government officials, but also monks, farmers, shop keeps, teachers etc. The people behind the violence don't seem to be highly organized and do not have the intelligence to carefully aim their attacks. They are to some extent random. I suspect the people carrying out the aggression are mainly young male Muslims that are being influenced by people from outside Thailand.

Since the violence has begun a large number of Thai soldiers has been posted to the South to try to help ease the tension. The soldiers are working amongst their own countrymen and I do not believe they have a hatred of "the enemy". Most soldiers themselves are probably from poor villages. They have been sent to try to help people and to get to know the people of the South and to gain their trust whilst securing the area and trying to track down the insurgents. I believe the Army understands it is in a very sensitive position and it generally acts in accordance, although this can be difficult when the attackers do not act with similar respect.

Currently it is Ramadan. The Islamic holy month where Muslims are probably feeling even more different and isolated from people of other backgrounds. This situation is not helped by world events. Everyday as the people in the South watch the news from places such as Israel and Iraq it appears that Muslim people everywhere are under attack from the more powerful nations and from the authorities.

This week a group of Muslims staged a protest outside a government building. Who organized the protest and why I am not sure, however the protest was calling for the release of some locals who had been arrested and charged with passing on weapons to a separatist group. Soldiers and police protected the building. They asked the crowd to peacefully disperse and they even had local Islamic leaders talk to the crowd and ask them to behave peacefully. The crowd did not respond to these requests. The numbers grew and it became more rowdy. The people in the crowd were sure to be a mixture. Probably a group of troublemakers who had weapons and were urging for violence. Some young local youths who were easily influenced. Some older Muslims who felt the government is not listening to them. Some by-standers that wanted to look at what was going on. I am sure many were innocent people who got carried away with the feelings, however I also suspect that there were some people in the crowd intent on causing destruction.

As the crowd grew to well over 1000 and became violent, the relatively small number of soldiers guarding the building used tear gas and water cannons to disperse them. I cannot be sure what exactly happened but it seems likely that there was an exchange of gunfire at one stage. The soldiers must have done a good job as eventually by the afternoon they had the crowd under control and had arrested more than 1000 people. 6 or 7 of the protesters had been shot by that stage. Was this justified? It's hard to say. Possibly. It seems there were plenty of guns and even grenades amongst the crowd.

The arrested people were then tied up and loaded on the back of trucks. There was only a limited amount of trucks available and so they were crammed on. Were some of the prisoners hit? I am sure some were. Trying to arrest over 1000 people and load them on the back of trucks must have been a difficult task. Already the soldiers had been through a full and stressing day. If the protesters then struggled I am sure some soldiers used force to control them. With 1000 prisoners who could at any stage get out of hand this was probably a fair thing to do. Also the soldiers did not know if another wave of 1000s of angry Muslims from other towns might turn up. It was clearly a good idea to get the prisoners away from this scene and to a more secure location. This is what the soldiers did and I suspect exactly what Australian, USA, Malaysian or any other soldiers would have done.

However the next event was extremely tragic. By the time the trucks had reached the Army base, another 70 plus prisoners had died of being crushed or of suffocating. It seems they were packed too tight on the trucks and the drive had taken a lot longer than normal. There have been some suggestions that many of the prisoners were on illicit drugs prior to the protest and that that contributed. I am not sure. There was also a silly comment from the Prime Minister that the Muslims were weakened due to fasting. (Muslims fast during daylight hours of Ramadan. This can cause people to become a little tired but my experience of Ramadan is that people still do their daily chores and in fact they have great feasts at night. Often more food is consumed during Ramadan than outside that month). At this stage I believe the deaths were due to a mistake of the soldiers to put so many on the trucks. However what other choice did they have? Stay at the site and wait for more trucks. They would have had fear for their safety and would have had difficulty controlling the arrested protesters. They probably did what they thought was correct and after the day that they had had I can understand that they did not foresee the extra deaths.

What will happen now?

Many Muslims are sure to now have further distrust of the government and perhaps hatred towards the Army. I am sure terrorist organizations and religious extremists from within and outside Thailand are going to use this incident to stir up more trouble and hatred. Already some have called for revenge and they have threatened to bomb parts of Bangkok. This whole situation seems totally pointless and it seems to be getting further out of hand. Will they bomb Bangkok? ??? I do not know. So far they have not had the ability to do anything like that, but maybe now they will try. Who will be the victims? Mostly innocent people as per usual and that will cause further hatred and aggression. Hmmm.

Am I scared? No. Certainly I think cities in Australia are far bigger targets to bigger organizations than Bangkok is. However it does seem more possible now that some idiot will do something stupid in Bangkok or at a tourist site somewhere in Thailand. I think the people involved however have limited capacity and anything they do will hopefully be quite small. Again, I think compared to the threat against Australian cities, as an example, I think it is safer here. More importantly I think the danger of me smiling a lot and having fun here is much greater than it is elsewhere. So I will be staying.

Hmmm. Oh well. I hope things improve, but I suspect they will get worse first.

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