Tired of Aceh, Afghanistan, Algeria, Chechnya, and Kashmir as places to do a spot of “Jihad”? Feeling that Iraq may be a shrinking market for terrorism while Pakistan is proving more difficult to destabilise than commonly thought?
If the answer is yes, why not consider a new destination for Jihad: southern Thailand where a little publicised war has raged between Muslim Malay insurgents and Bangkok’s army since 2002?
These are some of the questions now circulating in international Jihadists circles in both cyberspace and the network of mosques controlled by radicals from London to Sydney and passing by Amman and Jakarta.
It is difficult to know where all this talk may lead to. But the buzz in Islamist circles is that well-funded Jihadist organisations may be preparing a take-over bid for the southern Thailand insurgency.
And if that happens, the first and principal losers would be the Malay Muslims who have been fighting for autonomy since their land was annexed by the Kingdom of Siam in 1902. At the same time, however, transforming what is essentially an ethnic rebellion into a religious war is sure to do great harm to Thailand’s efforts to build a modern society.
That the arrival of professional Jihadists is a kiss of death for Muslim movements, including those with the most legitimate grievances, has been repeatedly proven in history.
The Kashmir conflict, for example, started in 1947 as a territorial dispute between India and Pakistan as they emerged from the debris of the British Raj. That conflict was about land, borders, water, and national security, not religion. It could not have been about religion because there were, and still are, more Muslims in India than in Pakistan. Initially, all the Kashmiri parties, including those that sought independence or union with Pakistan, were secular, thus keeping alive the possibility of a political solution.
But as professional Jihadists started to arrive on the scene the conflict lost its political aspect and assumed religious characteristics beyond its immediate significance. The Pakistani military created several Jihadist organisations, including the Lashkar Tayyibah( Army of the Pure), Jaish Muhammad ( Muhammad’s Army), and the Sepah Sahabah (Corps of the Companions), to fight in Kashmir. All are now threatening Pakistan’s own security.
Turning Kashmir into a religious conflict had another negative result: it created a terrain in which radical Hindu supremacists could grow as a political force. It was partly in reaction to the “Jihad” in Kashmir that the Indians voted a coalition of radical Hindu parties into power for the first time, and kept them there for almost a decade.
In the early 1990s the Chechen nation was building a position to seek an independence for which it had intermittently fought for over two centuries. After many ups and downs Chechnya and Russia concluded the Lebed-Mash’hadov accord that envisaged an amicable divorce, if and when a set of conditions were met.
But that was not what the professional Jihadists wanted. They did not care whether or not Chechnya would achieve autonomy within the Russian federation or even become independent. They did not want to simply defeat the Russian “Infidel” but to humiliate and destroy him.
They wanted a “holy war”, not a compromise peace. In the process, these Jihadists, led by Shamil Paha’ev, ended up killing more Muslims than ‘ Infidels”. They provoked a full-scale war that forced more than half of the Chechen nation to become refugees all over the world.
They also killed Chechnya’s hopes of either autonomy or independence. A decade ago a majority of Russians supported independence for Chechnya and regarded Chechens as victims of Stalin’s bloody rule. Today, however, there is virtually no sympathy for Chechens in Russia as people remember the atrocities committed by professional Jihadists.
The impact has also been disastrous for Russia. It has allowed President Vladimir Putin to impose an authoritarian style of rule and to put large segments of government under military or security control.
With obvious differences, Algeria has had a similar experience.
In 1991 the country was divided over whether or not a controversial general election in which an Islamist coalition was slated to win a majority should go ahead. Once again, this was a political conflict which could have been resolved through political means. In fact, some leaders of the Islamist group, including the late Abdel-Qader Hachani were already engaged in secret talks with the Algerian army leaders to find a compromise. But then the professional Jihadists intervened, starting with series of brutal killings of civilians which had nothing to do with the immediate conflict.
Once again, these Jihadists were not interested in elections, parliaments and other “Satanic concoctions of the Infidel West”. In the words of one of their leaders, Jamal Zeituni, they wanted to “shed blood to irrigate the tree of martyrdom.”
The Jihadists have been defeated in Algeria as they have been, and will be, everywhere else. But during a decade of terrorism they provoked the death of over 150,000 people, halted Algeria’s economic development, and slowed down its democratisation. They also drove more than three million Algerians into exile.
Is it possible to avoid a similar experience in Thailand?
The answer is: yes.
But the task is not easy. Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, now facing a general election, appears to be walking into a trap laid by Islamist Jihadists. A former police chief, he is cultivating his image as “strongman”, and promises to “crush the criminal”, his code-word for Malay rebels, with ” an iron fist”. Encouraged by Thai nationalist groups who fear further democratisation, Thaksin is trying to appear like an Asian version of Vladimir Putin.
Just as it takes two to tango, the Jihadists always need a partner like that to transform a political conflict into a religious war.
Urgent moves must be made to prevent the southern Thailand rebellion from becoming another front in the global war that Islamist terror is waging against many different states, including half a dozen Muslim ones.
One initiative could come from Indonesia’s President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono as the leader of the world’s most populous Muslim state and the key power in southeast Asia.
Yudhoyono could invite the Malay rebel leaders and the Thai officials to a dialogue in Jakarta, the Indonesian capital, with a view to organizing a ceasefire followed by negotiations. The Indonesian leader has the moral authority to make such a move because of his success in ending the 40-year long Islamist rebellion in the island of Aceh. A former general, Yudhoyono decided not to play “ the strongman”, and, instead, offered the Achenese a large measure of autonomy, some control over their natural resources, and linguistic and cultural freedom, in exchange for laying down their arms.
The Achenese leaders who have a long history of close relations with the Malay rebels in Thailand could join such an initiative.
The Islamic Conference Organisation (OIC) could provide a broader diplomatic cover. Thailand has joined the OIC as an associate member and could thus present any peace initiative as a friendly gesture by Muslim countries rather than an imposition by hostile powers.
Thaksin must abandon the dream of “assimilating” the Malays by destroying their language, culture and religion. That is not going top happen. Instead, he must lift the state of emergency that he imposed in 2002 and restore at least part of the local autonomy that the southern provinces enjoyed until the late 1990s. In exchange the four principal Malay national groups should agree to a moratorium on their demands for full independence and negotiate greater linguistic, cultural and religious rights for their constituents.
All the signals that we receive from southern Thailand indicate that a substantial segment of the Malay leadership is desperate for a political settlement and apprehensive about the hijacking of their cause by foreign Jihadists.
The United States, probably the most influential foreign power in Bangkok, should also take an interest in preventing the emergence of a new Jihadist war front in southern Thailand. While military force should never be ruled out in fighting terror , it is important not to forget the role that the intelligent use of politics could play in meeting the global terrorist challenge.