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A Burned Body Illustrates Martial Law In Thailand

A Burned Body Illustrates Martial Law In Thailand


by Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Traumatized Thais scooped the charred chunks of a Buddhist woman's corpse off the street, wrapped the blackened pieces in white cloth, and showed the grisly evidence to Thailand's coup leader.

Residents suspect Islamist insurgents shot the woman while she drove her motorcycle on Tuesday (April 10) morning and then burnt her body, along with her motorcycle, where she collapsed in the street.

Patcharaporn Bunmas, 26, moaned in agony because rebels burnt her alive, some witnesses told reporters.

But it was not confirmed if the woman, who worked as an automobile inspector, survived the shooting in the southern province of Yala.

Army Commander-in-Chief, Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratkalin -- a Muslim who seized power in a bloodless military coup last September -- examined the corpse while visiting Yala, and listened to demands that he crack down on the guerrillas.

"Beheading or burning alive, no one is arrested," read a demonstrator's sign confronting Gen. Sonthi.

"Villagers must be patient," Gen. Sonthi said.

"The militants want to create a sectarian war" between Muslims and Buddhists, he said.

The U.S.-trained military divides its attention between the worsening war in the south, and the political and economic problems of running this globalizing, capitalist, Southeast Asian country.

Their coup sparked an economic slump which scared international investors, and fueled squabbles among the military's officials, collaborators and detractors.

The junta also ripped up Thailand's constitution, shoved much of the country under martial law, and blocked Web sites perceived as offensive.

The junta blocks Web sites "illegally and in secret," including reports about "the insurgent situation in our Muslim south, commentary from our deposed prime minister [Thaksin Shinawatra], and those [reports] related to the hundreds of tortured and disappeared, and the thousands of extrajudicial killings" which allegedly occurred during Mr. Thaksin's elected administration, the Freedom Against Censorship Thailand (FACT) group said in an open letter published on Thursday (April 12).

The junta also failed in its much-trumpeted promise to bust ousted prime minister Thaksin for allegedly speaking against King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

In a 44-page "white paper" published by the junta and sent to journalists earlier this month, coup leaders justified seizing power for several reasons, including "former Prime Minister Thaksin's actions or speeches verging on lese-majeste against the monarch on a number of occasions".

Prosecutors on Wednesday (April 11), however, dropped lese-majeste charges against Mr. Thaksin because they could not find any malicious intent in his speeches and actions during his five-year reign.

"We probably have to accept their decision," Gen. Sonthi said, though police could enforce further prosecution.

Thailand is meanwhile bracing for more bomb blasts in Bangkok after officials earlier warned that Islamists, or "people who lost power" because of the coup, could assault the capital.

Officials were unable to determine who planted nine bombs in Bangkok during New Year's Eve celebrations which killed three people and injured 30 others.

Published evidence indicated Islamists set off the synchronized bombs in Bangkok to escalate their fight to achieve independence for the southern provinces of Yala, Narathiwat and Pattani where ethnic Malay-Thai Muslims form a majority.

Many attacks appear to be tit-for-tat retaliations.

For example, near where the burnt Buddhist woman was discovered, Buddhist "village defense volunteers" had shot dead four Muslims, including a 12-year-old, who were returning from a funeral on Monday (April 9) in Yala province.

But Muslims in the vehicle "attacked the volunteers with sticks and rocks, and the volunteers were within their rights to fire at them out of self defense," army spokesman Col. Acra Thiproj told reporters.

Bangkok gave weapons, and minimal training, to village volunteers so they can dominate southern areas if security forces are unable to immediately arrive.

"It does not matter if they are voluntary security personnel, or members of the national army, they must be subject to legal responsibility and the military code of conduct," said Sunai Phasuk, a local official for New York-based Human Rights Watch.

Unable to win an outright military victory, the rebels use beheadings, assassinations, drive-by shootings, bombs and arson to frighten Buddhists and moderate Muslims into fleeing the south, so Islamists can grab their land and businesses in a region which borders Muslim-majority Malaysia.

More than 2,000 people on all sides have perished in the south since Islamists reignited their separatist campaign in January 2004.

There is "widespread paranoia within the [Buddhist] clergy against Islam, following the southern violence," wrote Bangkok Post assistant editor Sanitsuda Ekachai.

"There has also been wide distribution of leaflets alleging that Islam is a threat to Thai Buddhism," she said.

Amid the bloodshed and chaos, the junta has embarked on a "public relations" effort to convince Thais and foreigners that the coup was justified and democracy will be restored in elections promised for December.

"But it won't be easy, because in the other corner stands the pro-Thaksin camp, waiting to bitch-slap every little thing the junta and the government puts out," said Thailand's Nation newspaper on Thursday (April 12).

*************

Copyright by Richard S. Ehrlich, who has reported news from Asia for the past 28 years, and is co-author of the non-fiction book of investigative journalism, "HELLO MY BIG BIG HONEY!" Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews. His web page is http://www.geocities.com/asia_correspondent

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