BANGKOK – A spate of shootings, bombings and military raids last week left 12 people dead and dozens wounded in Thailand’s restive south, where a terror campaign has killed more than 3,700 people since January 2004.
The surge in violence coincided with the Muslim celebration of Ramadan. ‘‘The number of incidents goes up every year during this period,” said Srisompob Jitpiromsri, of Pattani’s Prince of Songkhla University. ‘‘Some believe that insurgents stage symbolic attacks during Ramadan, to demonstrate that their objective is ethno-political, rather than religious.”
Last week’s killings took place just a few hours’ drive from Thai land’s popular southern beaches and resorts. So far, however, the insurgents have not targeted foreigners or Thailand’s tourist infrastructure, which may explain why the beheadings, bombings and drive-by shootings have not yet altered tourists’ perceptions of this holiday paradise.
However, the country’s export-oriented economy is struggling amid the global downturn, and is expected to shrink by between 2.8 and 3.6 per cent this year.That downturn, combined with domestic political unrest, has also hit tourist numbers.
In the first seven months of 2009, the number of arrivals fell by 15.5 per cent, a significant drop as the sector contributed almost 6 per cent to the country’s GDP last year. Most of the 1.8 million people in Thailand’s three southernmost provinces are Malay-speaking Muslims, but they make up only 2 per cent of a largely Buddhist country. More Muslims than Buddhists have been killed since the violence began in 2004.
The region – once known as the Pattani Sultanate – was incorporated into the kingdom of Siam under a 1909 treaty with Britain, which then ruled what later became Malaysia to the south. Siam, now called Thailand, was never colonised. But attempts to assimilate the Muslims have been met with rebellion.
The current hostilities erupted under former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who is now in exile after being ousted in a military coup three years ago. Unlike Islamist terrorists or insurgency elsewhere, the perpetrators neither declare responsibility for attacks, nor align themselves with any particular political goal. It is assumed that they are seeking increased regional autonomy for Malay Muslims, though their precise motives remain unclear.
Despite the spiral of violence, the Muslim insurgency in the south is something of a sideshow to mainstream Thai politics.
The capital, Bangkok, remains beset by ongoing protests and demonstrations by redshirted supporters of Thaksin and yellow-clad royalists. The redshirts postponed a rally scheduled for last weekend after the government deployed 5,000 troops on the city streets.
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