Thailand: When People take Justice into their Own Hands


Deborah Johnson

When people take justice into their own hands then justice is not being served. In an incident on 21 September, two Thai marines were beaten and stabbed to death in Ban Tanyonglimo (Kampung Tanjung Lima) (about 40km north of the Malaysia border in Narathiwat Province in Southern Thailand) as government efforts were being mounted to negotiate for their release. The two victims had been in the vicinity of a teashop on the previous evening where patrons had come under automatic weapons fire, which killed two people and injured three. Villagers had concluded that the two plain-clothed marines were responsible for the killings and took them hostage, bound and gagged.

As the drama unfolded, hundreds of village women blocked the bridge and entrance to the village. The villagers (it was not clear with whom the authorities should negotiate) demanded that the government form a committee to investigate the teashop incident and allow foreign media to come and document the situation in their village in exchange for the lives of the marines. As the Malaysian journalists were being brought in by helicopter and as a 'military option' was also being put in place, the news came that the two hostages had already been killed by 'masked men' who had made their escape from the village.

This might be seen as just another incident in the strife torn south where around one thousand people have been killed since January 2004. Yet, it revealed in stark relief the depth of the problems the gulf of mistrust between villagers and the Thai government and the lack of faith in the law and the justice system. Not only has Thaksin's government been seen as 'the real terrorists cruelly killing ethnic Malays since coming to power', the Thai media has also been accused of being 'biased' and 'supportive of superpower nations who suppress Muslim countries'. The tensions have heightened since July, when emergency powers were put in place allowing security forces to search and arrest without warrants and to detain suspects for up to 30 days without laying charges. Clearly, the Thai government faces an uphill task in its campaign to win over the hearts and minds of the Muslim Malay peoples in its southern provinces.

This incident - and also the flight of some 131 people on 30 August from Southern Thailand to seek 'temporary shelter' in Malaysia's northern state of Kelantan - served to underline the rather delicate situation faced by Malaysia as Thailand's southern neighbour. While the Muslim Malay majority in Malaysia have strong sympathies with their ethnic brethren in Southern Thailand with whom they also share the same language and culture, the Malaysian government is clearly committed (in cricketing parlance) to 'playing a straight bat'. PM Datuk Seri Abdullah Badawi has left it to his Defence Chief (Adm Mohamad Anwar Mohamad Nor) and Deputy PM and Defence Minister (Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak) to handle the details of the relationship and the making of public comments. As the current chair of ASEAN, Malaysia has restated its commitment to the principle of non-interference in the affairs of its neighbours, and has given its assurance that it will cooperate with the Thai government in tracking down alleged terrorist elements, and in shoring up security along their shared border. Nonetheless, as the serving OIC chairman, Abdullah Badawi also has responsibilities to the global Islamic community in furthering its interests and concerns.

Clearly a steady hand on the straight bat has been needed. Though the Malaysian media response has been conservative and measured, it did report claims by Thai Defence Minister Thammarak Isarangura on 9 September that militants had planned some of their attacks on Malaysian soil in Langkawi claims which the Malaysian government vigorously refuted; it noted Thai objections to UNHCR officials interviewing the 131 refugees and made reference to remarks allegedly made by former Malaysian Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad that 131 fleeing Thai Muslims deserved permission to stay in Malaysia; it reported that since the Tak Bai incident last October more than 100 religious teachers had been arrested by Thai authorities and that a demonstration on 9 September by around 200 Islamic Party (PAS) supporters outside the Thai Embassy in Kuala Lumpur urged the Thai Government to repeal the emergency decree.

Whereas Malaysia has been invited by the Philippines government to play a mediating role in helping to resolve the conflict in its Muslim south, clearly it would be much more difficult for Malaysia - because of its vested political interests - to play a similar role in the Thai context. Though the villagers may have requested a Malaysian media presence, the solution to the problems in the Thai south will likely be homegrown and hard won.

WATCHPOINT: How will the Thai government seek to ameliorate its 'iron fist' image in the South and to ensure that justice is (and is seen to be) served?


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