Sharia law for Thailand?

From the Brunei Times, Nov. 9:

Surayud eyes autonomy for Thai south
Thailand’s military-appointed prime minister, whose visit to the troubled deep South yesterday sparked a new wave of violence, is mulling to allow the rule of sharia law in the majority-Muslim region as a long-term solution to its problems.

Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont’s arrival in Yala city, 760 kilometres south of Bangkok, yesterday was greeted by two attacks on government authorities and public property.

Suspected militants opened fire on paramilitary troops in Bannang Satar district, Yala, sparking a firefight that left one soldier and two militants dead at 10 am, about an hour after Surayud’s arrival.

Meanwhile, in neighbouring Pattani province a bomb exploded at the city’s fishing pier at 10:45 am, seriously injuring one policeman and several fishermen, radio reports said.

Violence has been on the rise over the past week in the deep South, comprising Thailand’s three southernmost provinces Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala, despite Surayud’s public apology to the region’s majority Muslim population last Thursday.

Surayud, in a speech to more than 1,000 southerners in Pattani, admitted that past governments had been largely responsible for the region’s problems through decades of neglect and heavy-handed tactics in cracking down a long simmering separatist struggle.

The region, once the independent Islamic sultanate of Pattani, came under Bangkok-based bureaucratic rule in 1902. A separatist struggle against Thailand’s predominantly Buddhist state has simmered on and off since, but took a more violent turn in January, 2004, when militants attacked army bases and stole 300 guns.

More than 1,700 people have died in government crackdowns, bombings, revenge killings and beheadings in the region over the past two years and 10 months.

Former prime minister Thaksin Shinwatra, who was ousted by a military coup on September 19, was widely criticised for exacerbating the region’s security problems through strong-arm tactics and culturally-insensitive publicity stunts.

Besides apologising for past atrocities committed by his predecessor, Surayud last week pushed for the release of 56 southerners imprisoned for participating in an anti-government protest two years ago and has vowed to restore justice to the region.

The military-appointed premier has also shown a willingness to open negotiations with the separatists, although government sources admit that they are not sure which groups are behind the rising violence.

Surayud has even raised the possibility of introducing Islamic law, or “sharia,” to the region, where 80 per cent of the 2 million population are Muslims.

“They should have Islamic law in practice, sharia, because their way of dealing with normal problems in their lives is completely different from us,” Surayud told the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand (FCCT) on Tuesday night.

The Thai premier has recently indicated that he was interested in following Indonesia’s tactics in dealing with a separatist struggle in Aceh, northern Sumatra. Secular Indonesia has allowed the partial practice of sharia law in Aceh, as part of its agreement to grant the predominantly Muslim state greater autonomy.

Like Indonesia, Thailand is willing to discuss a measure of self-rule for its southern Muslims but will not brook calls for separation from the Thai nation.

“No separation. That is the only condition that we have,” said Surayud, of any future negotiations with the militants.

See our last post on Thailand.