AP Interview: Leader warns of foreign militants joining Thailand’s Muslim insurgency
JAKARTA, Indonesia – A veteran leader of Thailand’s insurgency has issued a warning: militants from Indonesia and Arab nations might join the fight for a separate homeland if the Thai government continues a crackdown that’s provoking a new generation of Muslim fighters.In his first interview with a news organization, Lukman B. Lima told The Associated Press that violence could spread from Thailand’s southern provinces to the capital unless the government accepts an offer to negotiate an end to the conflict.Although he suggested peace talks, Lukman lashed out at the government of Thaksin Shinawatra, likening the prime minister to Stalin and Hitler.”If the government opts to kill and kill without reason, perhaps fighters from Indonesia and Arab countries will help us because, according to Islam, real Muslims cannot just stand by when their brother Muslims are being slain,” he said.The 21-month-old insurgency – in which more than 1,000 Muslims and Buddhists have been killed – is getting moral and financial support from abroad, especially from Islamic sympathizers in Malaysia and Saudi Arabia, according to Lukman. But weapons have been obtained locally and wielded by Thai Muslims, he said.”I assure you that many among the young generation are being trained to use the weapons to defend themselves. We train them in the mountains, jungles and sometimes in villages but only inside Thailand,” Lukman said.Malaysia denies Thai suspicions that rebel training camps exist on its soil. However, it has long served as a sanctuary for Thai Muslim dissidents and a source of funds from sympathetic Muslims.Lukman is vice president and acting head of the Pattani United Liberation Organization, or PULO, one of several groups involved in the century-old struggle to gain independence for the predominantly Muslim far south of Thailand, a Buddhist country.The PULO works “hand-in-hand” with groups involved in the fighting, Lukman said, with his organization focused on the political arena although it also has fighters on the ground. It’s unknown, however, to what extent his comments reflect the views of the shadowy insurgent groups or how much influence he and PULO exert over rebel military operations.Lukman offered negotiations with the Thai government on condition that it removes all the more than 20,000 troops from the south; revokes tough emergency measures aimed at the insurgency – thought to be about 2,000 fighters strong; stops killing innocent people; and frees the PULO’s imprisoned president and military chief.Thai Defense Minister Thammarak Isarangura na Ayutthaya said informal talks with the insurgents were possible – but not formal negotiations. “We don’t want to elevate their status,” he told the AP in Bangkok this week.Prime Minister Thaksin recently set up a reconciliation council – comprising military officers, academics, Muslim community leaders, and other concerned parties – to explore peaceful solutions to the conflict. But he’s been criticized at home and abroad for trying to resolve the problem with military force. In two separate incidents last year, nearly 200 Muslims died when security forces gunned down militants, protesters and bystanders and put some into army trucks, where they suffocated.Lukman blamed Thaksin for the surge in violence, saying previous governments were more flexible in dealing with Muslim aspirations. A one-time police officer, Thaksin recently replaced martial law in the south with an emergency act which critics describe as a “license to kill” because of the powers and immunity it affords security officials.”The wrongful policy of Prime Minister Thaksin instilled fear and forced people to fight back,” Lukman said. Asked why some Muslims were also being targeted by insurgents, he called them government spies and collaborators who had to be eliminated.”I would like to send Thaksin this message: don’t touch our pondok (religious schools), don’t touch our religious teachers or otherwise the bloody days will continue, and I cannot stop this young generation from turning their aggression against other parts of Thailand, like Bangkok,” he said.Lukman spoke Monday on condition that the interview not be released until he left Indonesia on Friday. An exile in Sweden, Lukman didn’t say why he wanted the delay. He’s not a wanted man in Indonesia or Thailand, although as an avowed separatist he could become a government target.Wearing a bluish-gray robe, the soft-spoken and professorial-looking 54-year-old was interviewed in English for an hour at a luxury Jakarta hotel.”I’ve never been on the battlefield. Killing people is not my objective. I prefer to fight for my right to return back to my country, which is occupied by Thailand, through the diplomatic way and dialogue,” he said, adding that he had been an activist for 34 years.A native of Pattani province, Lukman said he went abroad to finish high school in Pakistan. He then studied medicine in Cairo, attended military schools in Arab countries and Poland, and continued his studies in Sweden and the United Kingdom.Lukman said he had approached the Foreign Ministry in Norway to act as a mediator in any peace talks. But Foreign Ministry spokesman Anne Lene Sandsten told the AP, “We are not involved in that.” When pressed about whether Norway had even been approached, she refused to comment further, saying, “That is all I have.”Lukman also called on members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to play a more active role in a peace process. Thailand, he said, should learn from Indonesia’s resolution of conflict in East Timor and a separatist rebellion in its province of Aceh, where rebels recently signed a peace agreement with the government.In offering peace talks, Lukman said he was speaking on behalf of all the insurgent groups, but this was not possible to confirm. Some analysts speculate that radicals among the separatists have no interest in a dialogue with Bangkok.Thaksin, meantime, has said he would not give up one inch of Thai soil.Lukman estimated negotiations could take five years, saying the provinces of Pattani, Narathiwat, Yala and parts of Songkhla could become an independent Islamic republic by 2010 – more than a century after Thailand annexed what was once the autonomous sultanate of Pattani.