Soldiers stand in row. Gun in hand. Army, Military Boots lines of commando soldiers in camouflage uniforms Thailand
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In most parts of Thailand, it’s difficult to avoid the vibrant nightlife. At dusk, food vendors wheel their carts out into public squares and start cooking phat thai, stir-fries, and grilled fish. Thais nibble until late: Night markets stay open until the early morning, and people shop for essentials close to midnight. Even Thailand’s smallest towns usually have one or two nightspots, and Bangkok has a reputation as one of the world’s after-dark capitals.

But in Yala, a small city in the deep south of Thailand, the situation is far different. As the sun sets around 6:30 in the evening, shopkeepers frantically draw metal gates over the front of their stores. Traffic exits the center city, and people hurry home as quickly as they can, rarely walking alone. When I try to stop someone to ask for directions, he shrugs me off and walks quickly in the other direction, a coldness rare in normally friendly Thailand. Even the brothels that used to cater to visiting Malaysians don’t open at night. At army checkpoints set up across the town, Thai soldiers dressed in camouflage and carrying heavy assault rifles stop locals and search them from head-to-toe. Every few hundred meters, groups of soldiers set up heavy machine guns, surrounded by sandbags, at intersections. The entire town seems cloaked in fear.

There’s reason to worry. Over the past two years, the deep south of Thailand–the three Muslim-majority provinces abutting the Malaysian border–has been hit with a wave of brutal violence. Encouraged by al Qaeda’s Southeast Asia affiliates, some Muslim Thais have engaged in terror attacks, and the Thai government has reacted with deadly force. Though the bloodshed has received almost no attention in the Western media, nearly 1,000 people have died during the past year. Almost every day, soldiers, schoolteachers, provincial officials, policemen, and monks are shot, knifed, or attacked with bombs. With foreign assistance, southern Thai insurgents are beginning to form into groups and launch more sophisticated attacks.

Just five years ago, southern Thailand was relatively peaceful. The army had only a limited presence in the region, and no one feared walking on the streets at night. Tourism flourished, and Buddhist, Muslim, and Christian religious leaders maintained close contacts. In fact, many political scientists cited southern Thailand as a model of how a government could successfully promote interfaith harmony and integrate a Muslim minority.

It’s no surprise that the change is partially due to al Qaeda, whose networks have pressed to politicize and make more violent a growing Thai Islamism. But the ratcheting-up of the conflict also owes much to decisions made by the government itself. The leadership of the aggressive, autocratic, self-aggrandizing Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has exacerbated the insurgency problem. But though Thaksin’s heavy-handed tactics–repressing independent voices in the media and bureaucracy in times of crisis, locking up members of Islamic opposition parties, and cracking down on institutions that gave the country’s Muslim minorities a role in their own governance–seem like the work of a tyrant, they’re not. When the most sweeping of the prime minister’s actions came to light, the electorate endorsed them, returning Thaksin to office with huge majorities in Parliament.

In times of conflict, this is how even democracies tend to behave: Leaders consolidate executive power and punish dissension, while the electorate rewards them–at least initially–for such shows of strength. The war on terror has given cover to governments around the globe–from Italy and Russia to the Philippines and Thailand to even the United States–that have followed this pattern, becoming imperial democracies. But as the example of Thailand vividly shows, heavy-handed efforts in the name of taking on terror have succeeded only in making violent Islamism a more profound and urgent threat.

Thais Love Thais

Up until the turn of the twentieth century, much of southern Thailand was an independent Muslim sultanate called Pattani. When Bangkok annexed the region in 1902, anger in the Muslim population began to slowly simmer. By the 1960s and 70s, it was boiling over, and southern separatists formed a group called the Pattani United Liberation Organization, or PULO. In response, the military governments that ruled Bangkok dispatched battalions to the South, leading to constant skirmishing over the course of two decades. Still, even in the midst of the worst violence, PULO never had a strong religious component–it was instead a Malay nationalist organization. After the end of the Vietnam War, the Thai government finally focused on its problems in the south. And as the country moved to democracy in the 1980s and 90s, Bangkok utilized wise policies to pacify its southern citizens.

Thai prime ministers during this period promoted decentralization, investing local and provincial officials with more decision-making power. They also created an institution called aw baw taw, a task force comprised of local officials, military and policy commanders, and citizen representatives that provided an outlet for grievances–the aw baw taw allowed local journalists, lawyers, and human rights activists to uncover abuses and make them public. Bangkok also reduced the army presence in the south, withdrawing battalions and confining troops to bases. According to Zachary Abuza, an expert on terrorism in Southeast Asia at Simmons College, even when the military had to search for insurgents, it was careful not to alienate local communities by assigning military leaders to the effort who were southern natives and spoke the local languages.

Through such measures, the government in Bangkok was able to convince many Muslims that they had a stake in Thailand’s political and economic future. In the late 1990s, the prominent sociologist Saroja Dorairajoo found that most Thai Muslims considered themselves Thai first and Muslims second. Perhaps most importantly, PULO had become wildly unpopular with the southern population and essentially dissolved.

In the run-up to the 2001 national election, the country was still recovering from the Asian financial crisis, which many Thais blamed on the ruling Democrat Party. Sensing an opportunity, Thaksin Shinawatra, a telecommunications mogul, formed a new party called Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais). Thaksin’s personal charisma and savvy campaign strategies, along with lingering resentment at the Democrats, helped Thai Rak Thai sweep 249 of the 500 seats in parliament, the largest number a single Thai party had ever controlled.

Early on, Thaksin displayed some authoritarian tendencies. His flagship company, Shin Corporation, purchased Thailand’s most independent television station, iTV, and promptly fired 23 journalists who had been critical of the new prime minister. Shin also pulled advertising from print publications that did not back Thaksin.

Primed for Disaster

After September 11, Thaksin initially downplayed the threat his country faced from Islamic terrorists, for fear that heightened concerns would hurt Thailand’s booming tourist industry. But in 2002, leaders of Jemaah Islamiah–an al Qaeda-linked group that seeks to establish an Islamic caliphate in Southeast Asia–met in Thailand to plan attacks. Soon after, Thai police foiled a bomb threat against a luxury hotel in Bangkok. JI members began crossing into southern Thailand, and intelligence forces identified a small number of close associates of Osama bin Laden, including top bin Laden deputy Walid Muhammad Salih, who were living in Thailand.

As the threat of terror become more real, Thaksin stopped downplaying it. As had leaders in other democracies facing terrorist attacks, Thaksin worked to convince Thais that some abrogation of their civil liberties would be necessary for the upcoming battle, and that they needed a strong, vigilant leader. “Whenever or wherever a society or community is not safe, freedoms and personal rights… must face some limitations in order to have all people living together in peace,” Thaksin told Thais in a national speech.

Initially, most Thais accepted this argument. With their support, Thaksin pushed to pass an emergency powers law–think of it as a Thai Patriot Act–which gave government the power to tap phones, hold suspects without charges, and censor the press regarding issues related to the south.

Thaksin also weakened judicial institutions by publicly challenging the authority of prominent judges and attempting to name his associates to the bench. Thaksin also dismantled the aw baw taw, thereby eliminating the main outlet for local grievances. Civil servants who questioned the government, most notably reformist army chief Surayud Chulanont, were dismissed or reassigned to ceremonial posts. The prime minister also took care to strengthen ties between the state and the business community in order to ensure corporate support for his policies. A 2003 study by Vanderbilt University revealed that Thailand had the second-greatest number of companies with connections to the governing party (Russia had the most), and eight of the ten largest conglomerates in the country had representatives in Thaksin’s cabinet. Finally, in February and May 2003, alone, Human Rights Watch reported, an astonishing 2,275 people were shot dead in Thailand in apparent extrajudicial executions. Thaksin gave no ground. Questioned about the killings, he bluntly responded, that “being ruthless… is not a bad thing.”

The public didn’t seem to care. New elections in February 2005 added more than 150 seats to his party’s total in parliament. And Thaksin’s personal popularity remained high, bolstered by the perception that he was a strong leader. Drawing upon this widespread approval, Thaksin was able to portray opponents as isolated voices, unpatriotic losers. Last year, after enduring heavy criticism from liberal Thai media outlets, Thaksin announced that the press should “think of the country. These days, when foreign countries criticize us, they quote media reports.”

Media intimidation was one thing; the fate of Thaksin’s political opponents was even harsher. Human rights workers reported that during the same period, at least 100 anti-government activists in southern Thailand had disappeared.

Anger in southern Thailand resurfaced. In addition to outrage over Thaksin’s increasingly harsh “anti-terror” policies and treatment of political opponents, southerners were outraged that while the post-9/11 economic downturn had hit them hard, prominent politicians and business leaders seemed not to be suffering. The assets of Thaksin’s family reportedly grew by 70 percent in 2004 alone.

The prime minister increased the military and police presence again in the south, rotating in fresh troops, building roadblocks and preparing for a more serious crackdown, moves which slid under Washington’s radar. The situation in Thailand was primed for disaster.

“A Mini Afghanistan”

Five years earlier, Thais in the south could have aired their problems with the aw baw taw, or through local MPs. Now, with the aw baw taw disbanded and Thaksin consolidating government power, many southerners had nowhere to turn.

At the same time, the Thai government reported that Jemaah Islamiah and other groups connected to al-Qaeda were moving into southern Thailand in greater force. In 2003, according to Zachary Abuza, Thai immigration noted that 128 “followers of Al Qaeda” passed through Thailand. Some of these bin Laden associates were traveling to the south, where they searched for recruits and used funding from the Persian Gulf states to establish radical Islamist schools and charities. Small-scale bombings erupted in southern Thailand in 2002, and fighters began raiding government arsenals, presumably to stockpile weapons for future terrorist attacks. Four new Islamist/separatist organizations sprung up in the south, according to Abuza, and appeared to have at least informal communication with each other.

Meanwhile, with the expansion of Thai satellite television in the late 1990s and early 2000s, it became easier for southerners to obtain channels from the Middle East. As coverage of the war in Iraq turned into a stream of anti-Western sentiment, some southern viewers turned more openly religious and political. Teachers in the provinces reported larger numbers of students coming to school veiled, and mosque attendance rose; suddenly, there were Hamas-style pro-Palestine rallies in southern towns, complete with violent anti-Semitic imagery and militant rhetoric. Southern Thailand’s conflicts started appearing on Islamic satellite television channels, alongside Iraq and the West Bank. Professor Abuza believes that JI sees southern Thailand as a “mini-Afghanistan”–a place to foster sectarian conflict and then send recruits.

With economic and social grievances rising in the south of Thailand, little outlet for dissent, and an increasingly internationalized population, only a spark was needed. In January 2004, it finally came when a small group of insurgents raided a government army camp, killing four soldiers and making off with a cache of arms. The frequency of terror attacks–and the severity of the government’s response–increased immediately. Later that same month, three Buddhist monks were stabbed to death near Yala. In March, a bomb destroyed a tourist bar on the Malaysian border, and 29 government buildings were torched.

Thaksin dispatched thousands more soldiers to the south and set up military checkpoints around the region–today the forces dominate towns like Yala and Narathiwat, forcing pedestrians and drivers to stop every 100 or 200 meters–officially turning southern Thailand into a war zone. While many Buddhist Thais in the south welcomed this military intervention, most Muslim southerners, who were not targets of insurgent attacks, were further inflamed by the deployment. On April 28, a group of radicals allegedly attacked government targets; security forces who battled with the men killed more than 100 teenagers and men. Human rights activists questioned whether the killings had been executions, since local reports suggested many people had actually been shot in the back. Many of the casualties occurred in the sacred Kru Se mosque, splattering its walls with blood, and further offending Muslims in the region.

As the situation in the south worsened, Thaksin chose not to respond by restoring rights and freedoms. Strengthened by his personal convictions and by the idea that as a democratic leader he would enjoy public support for anything he did, he took the opposite approach, muscling the press more and consolidating power. His notion of democracy only strengthened his resolve. “Thaksin’s idea of democracy is he does what he wants, every four years you decide whether he’s right, and then if you vote for him, shut up again for four more years,” one Thai expert told me.

By early 2005, it was becoming apparent that the situation was out of control. Security checkpoints made it almost impossible for many southerners to get to the area’s rubber plantations, a vital source of income. The insurgents were gaining popularity, and many southerners regarded the men killed at Kru Se as martyrs. In one famous incident, scared Thai security forces bound up more than 100 demonstrators, threw them in the back of trucks, and drove them four hours away to a military base–three-quarters of the prisoners died of asphyxiation during the journey. Today, rebels launch well-coordinated bomb attacks on a daily basis, and some insurgents have started kidnapping civilians and beheading them, Iraq-style. Assassinations of provincial officials, teachers, and monks have become routine. Over 30,000 people have fled the south in the past year alone.

Don’t Drink the Orange Juice

Other democratic leaders have also used the cover of the war on terror to turn their nations into imperial democracies, suspending rights and wielding military power in the name of security. In Russia, Vladimir Putin is less charismatic than Thaksin, but he benefits from a citizenry that has already soured on some aspects of democracy, which they link to the sometimes venal and often chaotic rule of Boris Yeltsin. After 9/11, Putin quickly made common cause with the White House’s war on terror, using it as an opportunity to deal with the insurgency in Chechnya, which had spilled over into attacks in Moscow and other major cities. Money from the Persian Gulf was allegedly flowing into Chechnya, and–as in Thailand–al Qaeda-linked groups were targeting the region, looking for radicalized young recruits.

In response, Putin argued that a strong state was the only solution to dealing with terror. He also rallied nationalism, portraying Chechnya as an existential threat to Russia, and making few comments when gangs in the streets of Moscow and St. Petersburg began to target Chechens and many other dark-skinned people, including foreigners from Africa.

From there, Putin only tightened his control of the press and independent institutions. Earlier this year, he dismissed his prime minister, Mikhail Kasyanov, one of the few politicians willing to criticize his policies, and solidified even more ties between big business and the government than the Thai government did. Putin pushed through a rule making provincial governships appointed, rather than elected, positions. Finally, critical programs on NTV, the last truly liberal Russian station, were shut down in 2004, and prominent, and critical, NTV journalist Leonid Parfenov was fired after he interviewed the wife of a Chechen leader and questioned whether the Russian security services had murdered her husband.

Putin wasn’t shy about using his power, and politically it worked. According to Reporters Without Borders, coverage of the hostage crisis in Beslan in 2004 was blatantly censored, and prominent journalists disappeared or were killed; Forbes writer Paul Klebnikov, who wrote articles critical of Putin and his business allies, was murdered in 2004. Russia’s liberal political parties have been eviscerated, with Yabloko–the prominent liberal bloc–taking only four percent of the vote in the most recent parliamentary election.

Meanwhile, in Indonesia, President Megawati Sukarnoputri used the fear of terror after 9/11 to rally Indonesia against insurgents in the province of Aceh. The province had been the site of a long-running battle between insurgents and the armed forces, but in the early part of this decade, violence in Aceh had subsided, as both Jakarta and the rebels had moved towards peace negotiations. When the peace talks broke up in 2003, however, Megawati unleashed combat operations in Aceh and declared martial law in the province, hoping to pressure the insurgents into returning to the negotiating table. Journalists and Indonesian NGOs had their access to Aceh restricted, while the armed forces killed hundreds of civilians.

Like Thaksin, Megawati defended her policies through appeals to nationalism–the Jakarta government even instituted a patriotism test for civil servants. Again, this nationalism worked politically. Even after sketchy reports of widespread casualties in the province, the crackdown in Aceh was broadly popular in other parts of Indonesia.

A few critics did speak up. “We are now afraid that this situation in Aceh is (becoming) like a stepping stone to develop a new authoritarian regime in Indonesia,” said Munir, the country’s leading human rights activist. But Munir paid for his sentiments. On a flight from Indonesia to Europe in September 2004, Munir was invited into business class by an off-duty airline employee who allegedly had been in close contact with a top Indonesian intelligence officer, and was served some orange juice. By the time the plane arrived in Amsterdam, the activist–who had been healthy when he got on board–was dead. An autopsy uncovered a deadly dose of arsenic in his body.

In Pakistan–where democracy is weak and intermittent–Pervez Musharraf has leveraged the war on terror to win support from the Bush administration, bolstered the powers he won through a military coup with a series of farcical referendums, and manipulated national elections to sideline the major opposition parties. Mikhail Saakhashvili, the Georgian president brought to power by the Rose Revolution, has used nationalistic appeals in the face of a hostile Muslim minority to jail critical journalists, amend the constitution to centralize executive power, and win a mid-term election with the Stalin-like vote total of 95 percent. In the Philippines, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, whose military is fighting a guerrilla war against armed Muslim groups in the country’s south, has suggested outlawing protest rallies and pushed for a Patriot Act-like counterterrorism law.

Four years after the global war on terror began, problems with Muslim insurgencies have not subsided–and in some cases, they have actually worsened. And at the same time, many of the strong-arm tactics adopted by these democracies have begun to backfire politically. By trying to restore to Russia the same sort of overbearing, centralized system that characterized the Soviet Union, and by 1aunching new military campaigns in Chechnya, Putin has made the situation in the North Caucuses worse than it was when he took office. In Indonesia, Megawati’s strategy of pouring more and more troops into Aceh without creating any system for dialogue with the people there succeeded only in turning more provincial residents against the government.

The United States, of course, is no Indonesia or Russia, but even on a smaller scale, the similarities persist. President George W. Bush tapped a powerful vein of nationalism and fear after 9/11 to expand his authority, intimidate opponents, reward corporations allied with his party, and punish dissent within the government. He then used his enhanced powers to invade and occupy Iraq and to capture and imprison thousands of individuals suspected, rightly or wrongly, of being terrorists. But news of the brutal treatment of Muslim prisoners in U.S. jails has only deepened anti-American anger in the Islamic world, and the ill-advised invasion and inept occupation of Iraq has turned that country into a bloody and chaotic breeding ground for the next generation of terrorists and insurgents.

Democratic Strength and Weakness

In democracies–even those with weakened civil societies and enfeebled judiciaries–popular opinion still matters. For their part, Thais have begun to wake up from Thaksin’s spell. This summer, the prime minister’s popularity ratings fell below 50 percent, and confidence in his government has remained low ever since. The Thai media, like its counterparts in the United States and other democracies where initial rally-around-the-flag sentiment has waned, has become more aggressive. Thai journalists have probed procurement scandals in Thaksin’s government, and they united to help defeat an effort by one of the prime minister’s allies to buy into the most respected Thai-language newspaper, Matichon. Even in parliament, where Thaksin controls the majority of the seats, MPs have become so disgusted with Thaksin’s style, as well as the continued violence in the south, that some of the prime minister’s own party members have begun to speak out against him. Elsewhere, a popular movement in the Philippines has attempted to push Arroyo out of office, Bush’s ratings are among the lowest for a second-term president in modern history, and even Putin’s popularity fell to record lows earlier this year.

So far, Thaksin, Putin, Bush, and others have been unwilling to heed the shift in public opinion. This refusal is due in part to the fact that these leaders all seem to have a tendency never to admit mistakes. But it is also because once the idea of imperial democracy becomes entrenched in a leader’s mind, it is very hard to give up. After all, the institutions and culture of a democracy–a powerful judiciary, an aggressive press, a vibrant civil society–can prove extremely frustrating to leaders who want to push through massive changes. In the past four years, as many of those institutions vanished, democratic leaders around the world got used to operating with few constraints, and found they loved it.

Terrorism and insurgencies provide elected officials with an opportunity to exploit an inherent weakness of democracies–the willingness, even eagerness, of their citizens to hand near-authoritarian powers to strong leaders in return for the promise of security. But the lesson of the last five years is that authoritarian tactics tend not to quell insurgencies, but to make them worse. And when that happens, democracies exhibit an inherent strength: their tendency to demand accountability.

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Joshua Kurlantzick

Joshua Kurlantzick (@JoshKurlantzick) is Senior Fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. This article is adapted from his new book Beijing’s Global Media Offensive: China’s Uneven Campaign to Influence Asia and the World