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Baptist Press September 20, 2006

Coup once again disrupts peace in Thailand

By Gregory Tomlin

WASHINGTON (BP)--Military forces in Thailand removed the country’s prime minister in a bloodless coup Sept. 19. Martial law was declared as Bangkok’s streets filled with tanks and troops.

Gen. Sonthi issued a statement claiming that the government had been placed under the direct control of King Bhumibol, regarded by the Thai people as “the soul of Thai kingdom.” The coup followed months of political stalemate and mounting charges of corruption against Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Yellow ribbons adorned military uniforms and gun barrels in a sign of loyalty to the king, who backed the coup over fears that Thaksin was gaining too much power. Bhumibol is the world’s longest reigning monarch.

Thailand’s parliament had not met in seven months, since its members began protesting the prime minister’s tax-free $1.9-billion sale of his family’s controlling interest in a telecommunications corporation to an investment firm owned by the government of Singapore in 2005. Street rallies, some in support of Thaksin and others against, led the prime minister to call for new elections earlier this year. He won a majority of the vote (57 percent), but critics charged that the election results were fixed.

Thaksin acknowledged at a presentation to the Council on Foreign Relations in New York Sept. 18 that opposition groups wanted him removed from power, a statement from the CFR said. In the presentation, he had said the military’s role in Thai politics was “reducing” and democracy in the country was “transparent.” Thaksin was in New York attending a United Nations conference when the coup occurred. He has since traveled to London, but several members of his administration were detained during the coup.

Alleged corruption, however, was only one source of discontent with Thaksin. Critics have charged that he has been ineffective in dealing with a growing Muslim insurgency in the nation’s southern provinces. Muslims account for only 6 percent of the nation’s population of 64 million, but radical groups have been emboldened by successful attacks on Thai military forces in the nation’s southern Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala provinces where 76 percent of the population is Muslim. More than 1,700 people have died so far in nearly four years of fighting.

Nearly 50 police officers in the southern provinces of Thailand have been murdered since 2001. The government originally blamed “bandits” and drug traffickers for the killings, GlobalSecurity.org reported. After several successful raids against government facilities in 2004, Thaksin acknowledged that the problem was the result of Muslim insurgents. Since then, the insurgency has become more organized and violence has worsened in the south, with the Pattani United Liberation Organization (PULO) and the Gerakan Mujahideen Islam Pattani (GMIP) claiming responsibility for some of the violence.

PULO advocates an end to Thai rule over Pattani, a predominately Malay Muslim region annexed by Siam –- as Thailand was once known -– in 1786. In 2003, the banned party claimed that Thai security forces were “falling like leaves” as Muslims attempted to regain control of the region from Bangkok, according to GlobalSecurity.org. GMIP, meanwhile, is a group of Muslim fighters comprised primarily of veterans of the Afghan war with the Soviet Union.

Muslims claim they have endured “decades of discrimination at the hands of the Buddhist central government,” CFR noted in its statement. “A few days ago, in spite of opposition from political leaders, the Thai military held a rally to seek support among the Muslim south, calling for a peaceful end to the thirty-three-month insurgency.”

The Center for Contemporary Conflict, an institute of the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., published a paper last year reporting that Muslims in the south of Thailand were dissatisfied because of economic deprivation, political subordination and social discrimination. The paper also noted that the failure of the Thai government to address Muslim rebellion in the southern provinces could result in an “authoritarian backlash in the political system.”

To date, little is known about the connection of Muslim insurgents in southern Thailand to international terrorist organizations. However, in 2003 three Thai nationals alleged to belong to Jemaah Islamiyah were arrested after police uncovered a plot to bomb foreign embassies in the country. Jemaah Islamiyah claimed responsibility for an October 2002 terrorist bombing in Bali that killed more than 200 people and wounded another 200. The group has ties to Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network.

For his part, Gen. Sonthi -– a Thai special forces officer -– appears not to have any sympathies for Muslim insurgents. Loyal to the king, as the Bangkok Post reported, the coup leader has for some time been engaged in both combat and talks with militants in southern Thailand. One scholar at the Universiti Sains Malaysia said that his leadership could bring reconciliation to Buddhist and Muslim Thais.

“Being a Muslim, coup leader army commander-in-chief Gen. Sonthi Boonyarataglin might gain the confidence of leaders in the southern province, the majority of whom are Muslim,” Johan Saravanamuttu Abdullah, a research associate at the university, told the Malaysia Star newspaper.

Thailand has a long history of military coups, with 19 such turnovers since 1932. The two most recent coups occurred in 1971 and 1991, though the 1991 coup was highly unpopular and lasted only a short time. Since World War II, when Siam was allied with the Japanese, the nation has been a constitutional monarchy.

Gen. Sonthi said the military planned to hand control of the government back to the Thai people within a year. In the meantime, a “Democratic Reform Council” has declared martial law and banned public gatherings of groups of more than five people.


Copyright 2006, Southern Baptist Convention, Baptist Press