Absolute Power

Believe it or not, the United States is not the only country with a screwed up government. In Thailand, things appear to be going from tolerable to frightening. In his latest power grab, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra (ex-telecommunications mogul and perhaps the richest man in Thailand) has issued an emergency decree that gives him unprecedented new powers. His grab-bag of new perks includes the right to censor news, detain suspects that haven't been officially charged, confiscate property, expel foreigners deemed to be “troublemakers,” check e-mails, and tap telephones. Hmm…has the familiar smell of post-9/11 Bush actions, doesn’t it? All of the new Thailand measures are justified by Thaksin (pronounced, ironically, as “Toxin”) on the grounds of “protecting the national interest and security.” Once again, this has the eerie odor of “Homeland Security” written all over it.

Why the sudden need for such over-the-top actions in Thailand? Last week there was a coordinated series of bombings in the southern city of Yala. This prompted Thaksin to ask his cabinet for the “absolute power” to “stamp out unrest” in the region. And the region certainly is a mess. The Yala attacks are the latest in a spiraling wave of insurgency that has occurred in Thailand’s Deep South since early last year. Most incidents have occurred in the three southern, mostly Muslim provinces, that border Malaysia. This region has been the scene of almost daily disturbances, ranging from shootings and bombings to beheadings and arson. Police officers, government officials, school teachers and even Buddhist Monks have been victims of the attacks. The violence in the past 18 months is unprecedented; over 800 people have died.

Thailand has endured an active separatist movement in the South for decades. As recently as the 17th century, the province of Pattani was a separate kingdom with its own rich history. In 1902 it was formally annexed to Thailand (then known as Siam). Due to its previous independence, many people in Pattani still argue for a separate state. Is this the main reason for the recent violence or are there other factors percolating under the surface? Whatever the case, the Thai government has done nothing to effectively stifle the unrest.

Naturally, Thailand’s media are up in arms about the possibility of news coverage being censored. One highly-regarded figure is also skeptical of the government’s plan. “Authorities have worked inefficiently,” says former PM Anand Panyarachun. “They arrested innocent people instead of the real culprits, leading to mistrust among locals. So, giving the government broader power could lead to increased violence and eventually a real crisis.”

That’s what I fear also. The Thai government is fanning some very dangerous flames.

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