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Military Murders Sparks New Thai Security Crisis

Military Murders Sparks New Thai Security Crisis


by Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Suspected Muslim insurgents avoided capture Thursday (Sept. 22) after torturing to death two marines by beating and stabbing their bound-and-gagged victims behind a human shield of defiant Muslim women and children, horrifying the government and plunging southern Thailand into a fresh security crisis.

Amid the world's most violent Islamist insurgency outside Iraq, angry and confused security forces hunted the elusive killers, described as three or four young men who ran away, leaving the marines' two bloodied corpses in Tanyong Limo village.

"They were brutally beaten to death with machetes and sticks, while their hands and legs were tied up, and they were gagged and blindfolded," Lt. Gen. Kwanchart Klaharn, commander of the Fourth Army and director of the Southern Border Provinces Peace-building Command, told reporters.

The marines' abandoned bodies were locked inside a building near a mosque, prompting security forces to break down a door to gain access before carting them away to a hospital morgue, Lt. Gen. Kwanchart said.

The brutality of the killings -- coupled with the security forces' failed attempt to negotiate a peaceful resolution to the hostage crisis, and the inability of the armed marines to defend themselves -- were urgently being examined by politicians, peace activists, army generals and Thai media.

"We will absolutely not let those two die for nothing. The law is the law," an agitated Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra told journalists after the killings occurred on Wednesday (Sept. 21) during a 19-hour stalemate between troops and villagers in violence-torn Narathiwat province.

"If I could, I would drop napalm bombs all over that village," a distraught Captain Traikwan Krairiksh was quoted in the Bangkok Post as saying after he viewed the two bodies of his former subordinates in a pool of blood.

"But the fact is, I can never do that. We are soldiers. We must follow the law. We can only take revenge by using the law," Capt. Traikwan said.

Throughout the stand-off, scores of shouting Muslim women dressed in traditional headscarves stood with children, blocking troops from gaining access to the hostages, and erecting banners which blamed the authorities including one which read in Thai: "You are in fact the terrorists."

Apparently hoping for a peaceful solution, troops did not attempt a forced rescue.

The two experienced marines, armed with a U.S.-supplied M-16 assault rifle and two pistols, were initially captured on Tuesday (Sept. 20) night when they stopped their vehicle near the village.

Locals blamed them for the drive-by shooting death of two men dining at a nearby tea shop earlier on Tuesday (Sept. 20) night, but authorities later claimed the marines were pursuing those unidentified attackers and were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

More than 1,000 people on all sides have died in southern Thailand since January 4, 2004 when the smoldering rebellion flared in a so-called "Night of the Fires" attack on security forces, including synchronized arson assaults on 21 schools, and a massive raid on a military base which netted the rebels hundreds of guns and heavy weapons.

Today, about 100 years after Thailand annexed the mostly ethnic Malay Muslim region, "mujahideen" holy warriors yearn for a separate state ruled by Islamic sharia law in a lush, tropical region where Islamists are waging similar insurgencies in the Philippines, Indonesia, and elsewhere.

No one is sure who leads the increasingly sophisticated, disciplined and successful Muslim fighters in southern Thailand.

The government blames indigenous rebel groups, allied with local Islamic schools, who are inspired by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and by Osama bin Laden's call to force non-believers from Muslim territories.

The ongoing violence threatens to inflame strained relations between Buddhist-majority Thailand and Muslim-majority Malaysia, because Bangkok accuses Kuala Lumpur not doing enough to stop suspected insurgents criss-crossing the porous border.

In July, the government clamped the south under a "state of emergency" which includes Article 17 -- granting impunity to security forces so they cannot be prosecuted for killings or other acts while deployed.

In August, when asked at a news conference if the decree was "a license to kill," Prime Minister Thaksin held up a toy sign marked with an "X", and sounded a toy's electronic "beep", to indicate the question was "not constructive."

Asked if international terrorists were involved in the south, the tense prime minister again held up his toy sign and sounded his toy beeper.

Scores of Thai Muslim men are believed to have underwent guerrilla training or religious study in Afghanistan before the Taliban's collapse in 2001, and many returned to southern Thailand shunning the region's popular Sunni Islam -- demanding instead the austere, retro-justice of Islam's Wahhabi sect, pushed by Saudi Arabia and Osama bin Laden.

Recent leaflets and word-of-mouth warnings in the south have called for all markets to shut on Fridays, Islam's traditional day of rest, or violators will be beheaded or have their ears chopped off.

As a result, many businesses throughout the south have shut during the past several Fridays, either in fear or in sympathy.

Earlier, a dozen people, mostly Buddhists, were beheaded in seemingly random attacks in the south in a strategy "copied from the violence in Iraq," according to Thailand's Interior Minister Chidchai Vanasathidya.

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Richard S. Ehrlich, a freelance journalist who has reported news from Asia for the past 27 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 www.geocities.com/asia_correspondent/

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