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Thailand Rocked By Bombing Spree


Thailand Rocked By Bombing Spree

By Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Despite a massive security crackdown, explosions killed at least three police on Monday (Jan. 5), one day after attackers killed four soldiers, set fire to schools and police checkposts and stole weapons in the Muslim-majority south near the Thai-Malaysian border.

Thailand's pro-U.S. Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra declared martial law would be enforced in the area while he investigated if the assailants were Muslim insurgents angry about Thai troops in Iraq, or sophisticated criminals destabilizing the south so they could commit illegal acts amid the confusion and intimidation.

Martial law was already in existence in the south, but would now be strictly implemented where the attacks occurred because "ordinary jurisdiction will not work," the government's spokesman, Jakrapob Penkair, said in an interview on Monday (Jan. 5).

"There was a fresh round of bombings in Pattani," which killed at least three policemen and injured several others, Mr. Jakrapob said referring to explosions on Monday (Jan. 5) in Pattani city about 540 miles south of Bangkok.

In May, the illegal Pattani United Liberation Organization (PULO) boasted Thai security forces were "falling like leaves" because Muslims were fighting to free southern Thailand from Bangkok's rule.

"It is too early to tell" who the culprits were, Mr. Jakrapob said. "A bomb exploded in a guard booth" killing one police officer and injuring three other policemen in Pattani, Mr. Jakrapob said.

About an hour later, another bomb exploded in a police station in the city's park, severely injuring another policeman.

"Police found more bombs planted near a department store" but while trying to defuse it, "we lost two more policemen," he said. The Pattani explosions occurred while hundreds of troops began stalking the south, hunting for people linked to an earlier assault in Narathiwat which left four soldiers dead.

That wave of daring, pre-dawn attacks occurred on Sunday (Jan. 4) about 100 miles south of Pattani, in Narathiwat province, between the Gulf of Thailand and the Thai-Malaysia border.

Whoever staged the Narathiwat assaults displayed synchronized guerrilla techniques enabling them to seize more than 100 American-supplied M-16 assault rifles, burn down about 20 schools and also destroy several police posts, according to reports from Narathiwat.

The assailants drove a pick-up truck into the Thai army's camp at Narathiwat Ratchanakarin and opened fire, killing four warrant officers guarding a weapons stockpile.

The attackers fled, scattering spikes on the road to deflate pursuers' tires, and blocked the route with felled trees containing booby traps amid the branches, according to Thai news reports.

Assailants also splashed gasoline onto about 20 schools and ignited the buildings -- a tactic favored by Muslim separatists during the past decade amid complaints that minority ethnic and Islamic subjects were not given priority by Buddhist-majority Thailand's education system.

"These people should be called robbers" who had "no ideological" motivation, Mr. Jakrapob insisted, describing the Narathiwat attacks.

Thai officials appeared flabbergasted by the bloodiness and success of the attacks, and said corrupt officials may have played a role.

"It is inconceivable that a civilian could have sneaked inside the camp and sent information to the bandits," said deputy prime minister, Gen. Chavalit Yongchaiyudh.

"The attack was well planned," Gen. Chavalit told reporters.

"We never thought it [the attacks] would be so fast, so intense," Fourth Army Commander, Lt.-Gen. Pongsak Ekbannasingh was quoted as saying.

"In the coming months, there will be growing violence against army positions as well as civilians in the predominately Muslim south," the respected Nation newspaper predicted in an editorial on Monday (Jan. 5).

"Our leaders must stop describing the perpetrators as amateur bandits who just want to steal weapons and then sell them illegally," it warned.

"Following the recent truck-bomb attack on Lima Camp in Karbala, Iraq, in which two Thai soldiers were among the 19 coalition members killed, our government must be more vigilant about possible terrorist attacks inside the kingdom," the Nation said.

More than 420 Thai troops are currently in Iraq, and U.S. President George W. Bush recently upgraded Thailand to "major non-NATO ally" status.

Thailand also sent forces to Afghanistan to support the U.S.-led occupation.

"On the one hand, [Thai Prime Minister] Thaksin admitted...there are still a handful of uprisings in the form of liberation movements [in southern Thailand], but said that they are not powerful enough to be considered as a threat to his territorial ambitions," wrote PULO's deputy president Lukman B. Lima in a rare dispatch from exile in Sweden.

"If his conglomerates and himself are so powerful in practicing 'might is right' -- which is the law of the jungle -- then why are his serving security men falling like leaves?" Mr. Lukman said in remarks published in the Nation newspaper in May.

Bangkok "illegally incorporated" the far south into Thailand 100 years ago and now rules it with "colonial" repression while "committing crimes against humanity in the area," Mr. Lukman said.

Bangkok denies all allegations of intentional mistreatment of Thailand's Muslims and insists separatist guerrillas are "bandits" enriching themselves while spewing religious and political rhetoric.

About 90 percent of Thailand's 63 million citizens are Buddhist. Most of Thailand's four percent Muslim population live in the south, in and around Pattani province.

About 80 percent of these Muslims are of ethnic Malay descent, inspiring PULO to demand a so-called Malay Kingdom of Pattani, or Greater Pattani.

It would include the southern Thai provinces of Narathiwat, Yala, Pattani, Satun and part of Songkhla -- a region Thailand annexed in 1902.

For more than 500 years, Muslim ethnic Malays have battled Thai security forces in hit-and-run skirmishes to end what they perceive as Thailand's "racist" Buddhist domination.

Thai Buddhists crushed southern Muslim uprisings in 1564 and 1776, but the area remains relatively poor, alienated and misunderstood by Bangkok's government and military officials.

Today, PULO is believed to possess a couple hundred fighters scattered on both sides of the Thai-Malay border.

In June, the U.S. Embassy hailed the arrest in Thailand of three suspected Muslim terrorists who allegedly conspired to explode car bombs at embassies and tourist sites in Bangkok.

The trio were suspected of belonging to Southeast Asia's Islamic militant group Jemaah Islamiyah, blamed for the October 2002 bombing in Bali which killed 202 people.

After they were arrested in June in Narathiwat city, the three men pleaded innocent and their trial is underway.

"I was informed that about 30 trained terrorists had crossed the border" from Malaysia into southern Thailand, Prime Minister Thaksin told journalists in April.

"The [Thai] military units, they did not seem to take proper precautions," the prime minister said at the time.

*****
Richard S. Ehrlich, a freelance journalist who has reported news from Asia for the past 25 years, is co-author of the non-fiction book, "HELLO MY BIG BIG HONEY!" -- Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews. His web page is http://www.geocities.com/glossograph/

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