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The Moral Compass Issue

The Phantom Massacre

Since 2004, almost 5,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed in the southern provinces of Thailand in a series of bombings, shootings, arson attacks, and decapitations.
December 16, 2011, 2:00pm

An injured woman is carried away from the scene of a motorcycle bomb in 2009, one of the many casualties of the insurrection in southern Thailand.  AP/Sumeth Pranphet Since 2004, almost 5,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed in the southern provinces of Thailand in a series of bombings, shootings, arson attacks, and decapitations carried out by Islamic insurgents pushing for separation from the chiefly Buddhist Thai state. The conflict can be traced back to 1902, when the central government annexed land adjacent to the Malaysian border, areas primarily populated by Muslims. Separatists were active in the 70s, but by the 1990s, the situation seemed to have calmed, until the government began to decisively crack down on acts of low-level resistance. This new hard-line stance ripped the stiches out of the old wounds, and they haven’t stopped bleeding since. According to Amnesty International, between 2004 and June of this year, there were a total of 10,890 incidents of violence in the region, resulting in at least 4,766 deaths and 7,808 injuries. With the country and its security forces focused on the damage from recent flooding, the past month has seen a markedly increased number of attacks. Since 2004, the government has sent more than 40,000 soldiers to the southern provinces to take part in counterinsurgency operations, which has done little to quell the attacks. In 2005, an “emergency law” was introduced allowing the detainment of suspects for up to 30 days and providing officials with immunity from prosecution if they commit human rights violations in the course of their duty. This legislation, widely popular among ordinary Thais, has precipitated more than 5,000 arrests and saw the Thai government accused of systematic torture and unlawful killings, as well as condemnation from international humanitarian groups. Amnesty’s Thailand researcher Benjamin Zawacki says the attacks are ideological and that the insurgents are deliberately targeting civilians. “The exact figures and percentages of ideological versus non-ideological killings are of course impossible to determine with certainty,” he says. “If non-ideological killings are indeed so few, why are Thailand’s other borders—all of which contain the same [criminal] elements—not as violent and deadly as the deep South?” While it’s rumored that traditional symbols of the Thai state are being increasingly targeted, the violence also appears indiscriminate, with as many Muslim casualties as Buddhist. Amnesty recently called the situation an “internal armed conflict” and said that by deliberately targeting civilians, the perpetrators are, according to international law, liable to be tried for war crimes. Fat chance of that happening, though. In an article published shortly after the release of Amnesty’s report, University of Melbourne political scientist Marc Askew questioned the human rights groups’ claims, arguing that 30 to 40 percent of the deaths in the SPBs may be related to criminal activity, which is rife along the Thai-Malay border. Indeed, it’s a claim supported by the Thai government, who have long linked the insurgents with the drug trade in southern Thailand. Theories regarding who is responsible for the violence have varied over the years. Some have suggested it could be attributable to “traditional” separatist groups in the area, the rise of global jihad movements, and Al-Qaeda. Undoubtedly, the most striking aspect of the conflict is that eight years on, the attacks remain a largely faceless threat. While experts, NGOs, media outlets, and the Thai government squabble over legal terminology and percentages, people are dying, steadily and horrifically.