ANALYSIS: Thaksin’s blame game backfires
Published on December 23, 2004 - He sought votes by accusing KL, Jakarta – but at what cost?
The government has again employed the classic tactic of blaming neighbours for its failure to contain the violence in the deep South.
But history might just repeat itself, as such finger-pointing has a high cost in the form of diplomatic strife with Malaysia and Indonesia.
For the local audience ahead of the general election, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra publicly alleged that Malaysia’s jungles serve as a training ground for Islamic militants who have fanned smouldering violence that has killed more than 500 people since the beginning of this year. He implied that this is the main reason why his government still can’t fix the problems in the border provinces.
The blame-game has served him well, as seen in his early days in office when he accused Burma and the Wa army of flooding Thailand with methamphetamine and other forms of illicit drugs.
The tactic sparked a diplomatic rift with Rangoon, and it took two years until the two sides could kiss and make up – but not before using up a tremendous amount of political as well as financial capital. The premier had promised billions of dollars in cheap credit to the ruling junta.
On Saturday, Thaksin once again resorted to old tricks by accusing Malaysia’s northern state of Kelantan of being a breeding ground for the militants behind the spate of killings in Thailand’s Muslim South.
Thaksin next trained his guns on Indonesia, suggesting that the world’s largest Islamic country – which prides itself on its moderation and democratic aspirations – was the source of inspiration for the Thai Muslim militants.
Jakarta shot back and demanded solid proof from the Thai government.
Despite saying the government has received good cooperation from both Muslim nations, Thaksin knew his sensitive remarks would anger Malaysia and Indonesia, though he underestimated the degree of this anger.
Foreign Minister Surakiart Sathirathai said he has sent the full text of Thaksin’s statement to Malaysia, hoping that Kuala Lumpur would understand why he had to say what he said. There is no intention to spoil the country’s relations with Malaysia, Surakiart said.
In his attempt to back away gracefully from the heated debate, Thaksin shifted the blame to the press, saying his statement was distorted and presented out of context. He never explained how.
But it was too little and too late. The boomerang swung back and hit him smack in the forehead – Deputy Interior Minister Sutham Saengprathum unleashed his own rage and kept going until Thaksin shut him up.
Sutham claimed to have pictures to back up Thaksin’s insinuation and accused Malaysia of refusing to hunt down the insurgents or feel obligated to force them back to Thailand. Some local Malaysian officials even helped to hide the Thai-Muslim insurgents, he said.
Indeed, if Thaksin shot himself in the foot, Sutham cut his entire leg off.
Analysts said Thailand’s blame game stems from the need for Thaksin to find a scapegoat for the violence in the South.
And while the allegations against Indonesia and Malaysia were mainly for domestic consumption, Thaksin never thought that it would cause such an international stir. After all, these two countries have been at the forefront of the global war on terrorism, arresting scores of Jemaah Islamiyah suspects over the past three years in connection with major bombing incidents.
It didn’t cross his mind that the two countries didn’t necessarily see the violence in Thailand’s deep South the same way he did.
Moreover, it didn’t cross his mind that the state of Thai intelligence is way below par.
The evidence collected by Thai intelligence agencies and sent to Malaysian authorities, as seen by The Nation, provided very basic biodata – names of suspects and blurry pictures of them and their spouses, parents and relatives.
But none of these materials offered any convincing evidence linking the suspects to the southern violence. Past experience has shown that Malaysia will cooperate if it deems that the evidence it has is solid and sound – as in the capture of Haji Daoh Thanam.
Another point that Thaksin overlooked is that residents of the Thai-Malaysian border area see themselves as one community divided by an artificial border, a legacy of the colonial era.
And because the area is deemed to be the stronghold of the opposition Parti Islam Se Malaysia (PAS), Kuala Lumpur will definitely think twice before making any move that could further drive the local community away from the ruling Umno.
The bungling over this past week has many scratching their heads. There is a growing concern that the finger-pointing could be harmful to regional unity.
Indeed, just about every country in the region has to deal with some form of insurgency – whether locally inspired or linked to terrorist organisations with global reach.
And by putting the violence in the South in a regional context, Thaksin was rudely awoken to the fact that he can’t just make allegations and walk away from them. He also has to back them up.