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Terrorism in Russia: Thai lessons for Putin

The Russian leader must make the distinction between Islamist extremists, and separatist insurgents with legitimate grievances

Russian President Vladimir Putin came to power at a time when his country was locked in a bloody fight with the Chechen separatist movement. Former security chief Putin was handed a mandate to wield an "iron fist" to bring stability to a country rocked by a decade-old war in the Caucasus that left deep scars.

As he took up his presidency, images of Moscow apartment buildings destroyed by powerful explosions in 1999 were still etched in Russian minds. Putin made a vow to eradicate the terrorists, backed by overwhelming support among the electorate.

But the recent twin attacks in Volgograd demonstrated the president's failure to deliver on that pledge.

Battling an insurgency, needless to say, is nothing like fighting a conventional war, where the benchmarks of success are visible and quantifiable. But the end results of both are often the same - innocent civilians bear the brunt of the violence.

Unlike conventional combatants in war, insurgents remain effective while doing nothing. Essentially, insurgency is a communicative action. Separatist militants or terrorists - whatever term you prefer - carry out attacks to force the state to make concessions to their demand, be it complete independence, autonomy or what have you.

Some acts are motivated by revenge and the desire to teach the state a lesson for its conduct. For example, some observers compare suicide bombings against US targets to Washington's campaign of drone attacks, some of which have resulted in "collateral damage" - a nice way of saying civilians were killed. But over all, terrorism is a stealthy and "asymmetrical" threat. One never knows what's going to happen until it happens.

Few countries have succeeded in wiping out terrorism, and it is important that a state actor remain united in this fight.

A state can bring down an armed movement, as Thailand did in the late 1980s against Malay Muslim separatist organisations in the southernmost provinces. But a state can't kill the narrative that gives life to the separatism. It must address the historical and root cause of the tensions.

Thailand missed this important point. And so when a new generation of Malay Muslim separatist militants resurfaced in January 2004, a decade after the previous generation went under, Thailand was left scratching heads, wondering what happened.

Instead of trying to understand the true nature of the Patani conflict, the Thai state got busy using the religious card to condemn the militants. Today, 10 years after this wave of conflict surfaced, Bangkok is sounding like a broken record, repeating a stock mantra that these poor young Muslim men embraced a distorted version of Islam.

Putin could learn a thing or two from Thailand. First, he must make the distinction between Islamist extremists, and separatists seeking autonomy or independence. Lumping anti-state elements under one label - "terrorist" - to justify brutal tactics has not and will not work.

There is an old saying: Be careful what you wish for because you might just get it.

Thailand is playing the religious card to tackle the Muslim separatists in the deep South, when in fact the conflict is essentially about nation-state building.

Luckily, the political context of the southern conflict hasn't changed. But if and when it does, Thai authorities will be left scratching their heads, once again wondering what went wrong - as opposed to asking what they did wrong.


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