A telecom tycoon’s wrong number about a Muslim insurgency was one of the key reasons for the coup in Thailand. Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s erratic response to an incipient Muslim insurgency was one of the most important divides between him and the Thai army chief.
The coup leader, General Sondhi Boonyaratkalin, was chosen to head the Thai army because his Muslim background was seen as an advantage in tackling a two-year-old Malay Muslim insurgency in south Thailand that has claimed 1,200 lives. The general had publicly called for talks with the insurgents, a position Thaksin rejected.
Sondhi is close to the Thai monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej. The king, known to support a softer stance, has been concerned about Thaksin’s confrontational manner in handling Thai problems, say Indian and Australian diplomatic sources.
A television announcement on Wednesday said the king endorsed Sondhi’s running the country. A poll by Suan Dusit University said 84 per cent Thais supported the coup.
The insurgency’s trends are less positive.
One, it may be losing its local character. The Muslim rebels have rebuffed overtures from Indonesia's militant group, the Jemmah Islamiya. But their reason for saying no was that “they had Afghan and Pakistani jehad veterans to help them”, say diplomatic sources.
Indian terrorism expert B Raman believes the insurgents are modelling their operations on those of Bangladeshi militant groups, the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HuJI) and the Jamiat-ul-Mujahideen. He says there has been considerable “people-to-people” contact between these two groups and the insurgents. An article in Pakistan’s Daily Times last July claimed that the “command and control” centre of the Thai insurgency was in Multan.
However, Thai analyst Francesca Lawe-Davies of the International Crisis Group argues "there is still no indication of any outside support".
Two, the Thai economy is increasingly under threat. The insurgents have shifted from targeting symbols of the state like offices and schools. The new targets seem to be economic. Last month, the insurgents hit 22 banks in succession. On September 15, bombs killed four people at the tourist site Hat Yai. "Tourism is the Achilles' heel of the Thai economy," says a diplomat.
Sondhi has announced the army will choose a new civilian leader in two weeks. However, says Lawe-Davis, "at present they don't even have an interim civilian leader". Sondhi and the king would want a prime minister who shares their views on the insurgency. There is a ready blueprint: specific political solutions made by the National Reconciliation Commission that were ignored by Thaksin.
But the clock is ticking. Unlike the other ethnic Malay revolts in Thai history, the present one has a far greater potential to become pan-jehadist. "It is basically nationalist, but is far more self-consciously Islamic than its forerunners," says Lawe-Davies. "There is a threat of it being hijacked." A reservoir of militant recruits exists: Raman estimates that about 1,000 Thai Muslims are studying in madarsas in Bangladesh and Pakistan. "These are madarsas controlled by the HUJI or the Lashkar-e-Taiba," says Raman.
Bangkok-based diplomatic sources say the insurgency has infected palace politics. "The violence has radicalised the Buddhist clergy here, which is strongly tied up with Thai nationalism," says a source. This has led elements of the monarchy, including the Thai queen, to favour a military solution. "This is a critical issue for the king and the military," says Lawe-Davies.
Ex-policeman Thaksin's worst legacy may be administrative laxity. A measure of Thailand's weak intelligence, writes Raman, is its continuing inability to identify "the organisation or organisations responsible for terrorism and their external linkages".