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Hatred in the South and haze in the North

Updated On: Mar 20, 2007

The trouble never ends in Thailand.

The people are increasingly displeased with the junta and Surayud government. Fresh protests against the coup broke out on Sunday and people have appealed that the government’s takeover of iTV be probed for graft.

However troubling the issues are in Bangkok, the pressing issues now are the haze in the North and violence in the South of the kingdom.

The “committee responsible for resolving Thailand's haze problem in the North will meet Monday as toxic air pollution and related respiratory health complaints in three northern provinces has worsened”, the Nation reported. Environmental emergency has been declared in two northern provinces as so-called ‘hot spots’ have increased to 593 from 387 locations.

The haze is caused by bushfires in Thailand and Myanmar “where seasonal slash-and-burn farming practices in both countries have contributed to the large numbers of out-of-control fires”, the Nation noted. People of both countries have “fallen ill with respiratory symptoms”. According to the Bernama, Thai Deputy Public Health Minister Morakot Kornkasem has led a team to visit patients with respiratory illnesses in hospitals in Lampang, Chiang Rai, and Phayao. To clamp down on respiratory ailments, the health ministry “has sent 300,000 additional masks to the eight northern provinces shrouded in haze”. It is uncertain if this would help “as the provincial health authorities estimate that as many as two-thirds of local residents now have respiratory complaints, serious allergies and colds”.The other ministries are also gearing up on action to quell the haze. Deputy Prime Minister and Social Development and Human Security Minister Paiboon Wattanasiritham said “that all bush fires will be contained in the north within three days… When the situation improves, long-term measures will be planned and implemented”. Nonetheless, the efforts to curb the haze will be an uphill task. Pollution Control Department director-general Suphat Wangwong-watthana told the Nation that the situation is worsening as the authorities' fail “to control man-made fires in forest areas”. He added that “the rise shows that the villagers have not cooperated with the authorities”.

To date, the haze has affected “ten THAI flights and nine Nok Air flights between Mae Hong Son and Chiang Mai… and more than 16,000 people in the province [have] suffered respiratory problems”, the Nation reported.

Over in the South, the horror continues. Just after the execution of the Buddhist bus passengers last week, the Bangkok Post reported that “Southern extremists attacked a dormitory at a Songkhla province Islamic school on Sunday morning, killing three boys and wounding seven other students”.

This incident has exacerbated the tension between authorities and villagers. Authorities say that this is a tactic insurgents use to win the people’s support against the government. Police Col. Thammasak Wasaksiri told the Associated Press news agency, “Insurgents always use this trick of attacking Muslim people to instigate villagers and get them to believe that police or soldiers were responsible for the attack.” Hundreds of Muslim villagers have already publicly demonstrated that “they did not believe Muslims were behind the attack”, but that state paratroopers were the guilty of the crime. The police will only enter the school on Monday to scour for evidence as they were prevented by a roadblock comprising road spikes and a fallen tree.

Meanwhile the Nation has reported that “24 Muslims from Narathiwat have fled to Malaysia to escape alleged intimidation by the military”. Arriving at Rantau Panjang village in Malaysia on Saturday, the group said, “Last week after the bomb blast, which injured scores of my neighbours, Thai soldiers came and simply arrested the local youths.” He added that since then, “many youths were missing and some died after they were allegedly poisoned during detention”. The group insisted “they were not seeking political asylum in Malaysia, but wanted Malaysia to help stop the bloody violence”. This is the second incident of Thai Muslims fleeing to Malaysia for safety since the 131 crossed the border in 2005. It is uncertain if this event will cause strain on bilateral ties between Malaysia and Thailand.

The Thai government needs to step up efforts to resolve the problem as Surayud’s “soft approach” has so obviously failed. In the recent Dusit Poll, the Thai News Agency stated that a third of the 3,619 respondents felt “that the ongoing violence in the deep South must be quickly solved by the government”.

The International Crisis Group (ICG) has certain advice for the government to take in its recently released report –Southern Thailand: The Impact of the Coup (15 March 2007). ICG analyst Francesca Lawe-Davies said, “The government has to balance the need for stepped-up security measures with protection of human rights and efforts to address Malay Muslim grievances… With only six months to go before elections, there are clear limits to what this government can achieve, but it should use its remaining time to lay the groundwork for a serious political effort to bring peace to the region”. This should include respecting “local Malay culture and Islam, reforming the education system and allowing the local dialect to be used as the language of instruction”, the report stated. “[Additionally], the government needs to continue its efforts to establish dialogue with the rebel leaders who control the insurgency [and] at the same time it has to open a debate in Thai society to explain the need for negotiations, so an agreement can be reached in the future,” said Sidney Jones, ICG’s South East Asia Project Director.

Unfortunately, any change in government attitude is unlikely. The Thai Interior Minister Aree Wong-araya has told the media that while “it would be good if peace negotiations could take place… most of the troublemakers were youths and it was very difficult to identify the 'masterminds' who were behind them”. (20 March 2007)

Sources:

Environmental emergency declared (Today, 20 March 2007)

Graft busters may turn on the government (Bangkok Post, 19 March 2007)

Protesters demand democracy (Bangkok Post, 19 March 2007)

Poll: Public concerned over South (Bangkok Post, 19 March 2007)

Insurgents storm school, 3 boys dead (Bangkok Post, 19 March 2007)

Government to discuss northern haze (Bangkok Post, 19 March 2007)

Attack on school leads to stand-off (Bangkok Post, 19 March 2007)