Indonesia’s Aceh as a model for Thailand’s south?

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Not all Muslims want to live under Sharia Law (the constitution of political
Islam). Non-Muslims definitely don’t. When Jakarta granted Aceh autonomy and
the right to enact Sharia Law it brought peace to Jakarta, but at the
expense of the Acehnese. The implementation, subsequent expansion and impact
of Sharia in Aceh is the subject of the latter part of this posting.

Now Thailand’s military-appointed Prime Minister is proposing the “Aceh
model” as a means of ending the Islamic insurgency in Thailand’s deep south.
This would doubtless bring peace to Bangkok, but it would be at the expense
of the southern Thai, 20 percent of whom are Buddhist (not even “People of
the Book”!). Southern Thai would pay for this “peace” with their lives as
Islamic terrorism morphs into religious persecution and ethnic cleansing.

It may be relevant to note that Thailand’s new interim Prime Minister,
Surayud Chulanont, was appointed by coup-leader and Army Chief General
Sonthi Boonyaratkalin, Thailand’s first Muslim Army Chief. They have a close
relationship. Surayud Chulanont, a former member of King Bhumibol Adulyadej
Privy Council, played a key role in the promotion of General Boonyaratkalin
to position of Army Chief. The recently installed cabinet is allegedly
little more than a political front for the military, and while Thailand is
less than five percent Muslim, the most significant and powerful posts are
now held by Muslims. The Defence Minister, Boonrawd Somtas, is a Muslim; and
the Interior Minister, Aree Wongarya, is also a Muslim.


Muslims count for only 4.6 percent of the 65 million population of Thailand,
but are concentrated in the southern-most provinces of Pattani, Yala and
Narathiwat where they form majorities. According to the 2000 census, Muslims
represent 69 percent of the 415,000 residents in Yala; 88 percent of the
600,000 residents of Pattani; and 82 percent of the 662,000 residents of
Narathiwat. Around 90 percent of Thai Muslims are ethnic Malay and speak a
Malay dialect.

While a separatist struggle has simmered in the deep south for decades, the
Islamic insurgency which erupted in earnest on 4 January 2004 has now
claimed more than 1,700 lives. Most Christians and Christian ministries have
fled the region. Militant Islamists target Buddhist monks (who are
frequently decapitated), government-run schools, karaoke bars and other
entertainment venues (which are frequently bombed), as well as Thai
soldiers, police, checkpoints and other pro-government individuals or
institutions. On Thursday 9 November, eight car and motorcycle showrooms
were bombed almost simultaneously at noon in Yala, leaving nine wounded.

While Thai Muslims have historically been well assimilated, several factors
have contributed to the growing Islamic unrest and the rise of Islamic
terrorism in the Muslim-majority southern provinces.

In May 2005, International Crisis Group (ICG) asserted that despite the rise
in “puritanical strains of Islam”, “Muslim anger at the deployment of Thai
troops in Iraq” and the growth in “Islamic consciousness and a sense of
persecution and solidarity with fellow Muslims”, the violence in the south
is not an Islamic jihad and is driven by local issues. ICG cites “historic
issues” as well as discrimination, the heavy handed tactics employed by the
Thai police and military, and the government’s tendency to send its most
inept and corrupt officials to posts in the Muslim south, frustrating the
local population there, as examples of local issues driving the insurgency.
(Link 1)

While these issues are definitely historic and contributing factors, the
pre-eminent factor behind the present insurgency is undoubtedly
radicalisation. As noted in mid 2004, “Authorities have
known for quite some time that many Muslim Thai activists went overseas to
Islamic schools, where they came under influence of hard-line teachers. Some
were reported to have joined the jihad war against the Soviet Army in
Afghanistan and returned to Thailand as extremists.” (Link 2)

Yet it is well known that radicalisation does not affect all Muslims. Many
Muslims, especially in south-east Asia, actively resist the introduction of
radical (Wahhabi) elements and ideology. For this they are labeled
“apostates” by the bearers of “true Islam”, and are persecuted and sometimes
killed for their efforts.

Samart Disuma is one such Muslim. Samart, a community leader, has resisted
radical and separatist elements in the southern province of Yala for
decades. These days he and his family live in a virtual fortress. Rungrawee
C. Pinyorat writes, “While critical of government policies, a number of
Muslims in the south work for reconciliation and show no desire to live in a
separate nation. Although Samart’s fortress has never been attacked, at
least three Muslims in his village have been slain in the past two years.

“Over the years, the separatist movement has waxed and waned but never
completely ceased. In January 2004 it suddenly surged, and when the
government failed to ensure people’s safety, more Muslims and Buddhists
turned to guns for self protection.” (Link 3)

According to Samart there have been sporadic clashes between separatist
rebels and security forces for decades. But he says today’s violence is
different – it is more rampant and increasingly indiscriminate. And whereas
the old-time separatist rebels used to operate from bases in the jungle,
today’s insurgents operate from within village communities, putting everyone
at risk.

Regardless of their claims, political and militant Islamist leaders never
speak for all Muslims. Clearly they are not speaking for Muslims like


Reuters reported on 22 October: “Surayud Chulanont, the former army chief
appointed prime minister by the military, has said he wants a peaceful
solution to the violence and offered talks with militant leaders, a policy
u-turn from the days of Thaksin.

“During an official visit to Jakarta on Saturday, Surayud hailed Indonesia’s
Aceh peace accord signed in Helsinki last year to end a separatist
insurgency which had seen more than 15,000 killed since 1979.

“‘Indonesia has set a model in solving the conflict in the Aceh province
successfully,’ a Thai government Web site,, quoted Surayud
as telling Indonesian media after meeting President Susilo Bambang

“‘The Aceh model is a good example to bring peace to southern Thailand,’ the
Web site reported on Sunday.” (Link 4)

Thai News Agency reported on 8 November: “Prime Minister Surayud said that
Thailand will not let go of the territory of the south, but that the
government was open to negotiate various forms of polity including
self-rule, autonomy and the establishment of sharia (Muslim religious) law
in place of Thai civil law.” (Link 5)


When Jakarta ended the insurgency in Aceh by granting the Acehnese autonomy
and the right to implement Sharia Law, it was appeasing the real
power-brokers behind the insurgency: the Islamists. The deal ensu
red that
Aceh’s Islamists would no longer be Jakarta’s problem, only Aceh’s.

International Crisis Group (ICG) issued a report in July 2006 entitled
“Islamic Law and Criminal Justice in Aceh”. (Link 6)

This is an important and valuable report because the implementation and
expansion of Sharia in Aceh can serve as a model to demonstrate how Sharia
not only divides Muslims, but has a tendency to expand once implemented.

The ICG report notes that the Muslim Acehnese have long been divided over
Sharia. During Indonesia’s battle for independence Acehnese elites clearly
expressed their preference for Dutch-style secular administration. Even
Aceh’s ulama (religious scholars) were divided between those who favoured
secular administration and those who wanted an Islamic State based on Sharia
Law. ICG notes that for many, the issue had more to do with power than
ideology – the elites did not want a religious bureaucracy established that
could expand and threaten their authority, while the Islamists were
determined to establish a formal religious bureaucracy from where they could
expand and advance their influence and power.

ICG notes that the leader of the Acehnese Islamists, Daud Beureueh, led the
Acehnese in jihad against the “kafir” Dutch occupier specifically with the
aim of achieving an Islamic state. Sukarno courted and rewarded Beureueh
with assurances that Indonesia would be built on Islamic principles and Aceh
would have Sharia Law. This was radical as Sharia had no historic precedent
in Aceh.

After Suharto’s downfall, President Habibie offered Islamic Law to Aceh as a
political solution to Acehnese unrest and disaffection, which really arose
out of neglect and frustration. ICG reports that Jakarta regarded Sharia law
as “something the Acehnese wanted (although how much was debatable – after
the Indonesian parliament granted it, one Acehnese called it an ‘unwanted
gift’, and he was not alone)”. (ICG p 4)

Since Sharia has been legitimised and implemented in Aceh it has expanded
considerably, for the religious bureaucracy tasked with codifying and
implementing Sharia in Aceh is committed to “its own expansion; a focus on
legislating and enforcing morality; and a quiet power struggle with secular
law enforcement”.

According to ICG, many Acehnese worry “that extension of Shari’a has been
taken on as an agenda by conservative organisations. . . Women’s
organisations have been particularly active in raising questions about
proposed changes to the khalwat qanun [laws on relationships between men and
women] but in general, the conservatives, who support more extensive Shari’a
application, are more vocal than those concerned about its consequences”.
(ICG p7)

The religious bureaucracy constantly extends the reach of Sharia by revising
legislation and increasing the number of crimes that can be dealt with by
the Sharia Courts. It has already been proposed that revisions be made to
the laws covering khalwat (illicit relationships between men and women) so
that any woman who alleges she was raped must follow Sharia protocols and
produce four male adult Muslim eye-witnesses to support her claim in order
to prove it. If she cannot, she will be found guilty of making a false
accusation of rape, guilty of illicit sex, and caned accordingly.

In 2004, Aceh established the highly unpopular vice and virtue patrol, the
wilayatul hisbah (WH), which is responsible for monitoring compliance with
Islamic law. Not only has Aceh’s WH already grown from 13 members to 33 in
one year, its powers are constantly increasing. What’s more, the very
presence of the WH is fueling the rise of hard-line Islamic vigilantism.

ICG also notes that as the religious bureaucracy expands it will rely more
and more on young recruits who are motivated primarily by their contacts
with intolerant radical foreign elements, in particular Wahhabis, jihadists,
and groups like Hizb-ut-Tahrir.


Appeasing Islamist terrorists by granting them the right to enforce Sharia
Law is a betrayal of all non-Islamist citizens, both Muslim and non-Muslim.

Employing the “Aceh model” in southern Thailand would doubtless bring peace
to Bangkok, but it would also close southern Thailand off to Christian
ministry and mission; and it would strip all southern Thai of their right
with security under Thai civil law and under the Thai Constitution which
guarantees religious liberty. It could also result in southern Thailand
becoming a haven and base for terrorists.

Most immediately and seriously, it would involved abandoning up to 400,000
Buddhists to their fate in an Islamic State. Ethnic-religious cleansing is
already underway. Escalating Islamic terror directed at local Buddhist
civilians recently forced all the Buddhist living in the districts of Than
To and Bannang Sata, Yala province, to flee their homes. These Buddhist,
amounting to 122 people, or 52 families, have taken refuge in the nearby
Buddhist temple of Nirotsangkha-ram in Yala’s Muang district and are
awaiting humanitarian assistance. (Link 7)

Elizabeth Kendal
[email protected]


1) Southern Thailand: Insurgency, Not Jihad
Asia Report No 98. 18 May 2005

2) Thailand Islamic Insurgency

3) Thai Muslim village leader builds fortress against rebels
By Rungrawee C. Pinyorat KRONG PINANG, Thailand, AP, 30 Oct 2006

4) Bomb kills soldier, wounds monks in Thai south. 22 Oct 206

5) Thai PM presents Thai road to democracy to world media

6) Islamic Law and Criminal Justice in Aceh
(Asia Report No 117 – 31 July 2006)

7) Exodus of Buddhists. The Nation, Thailand. 10 Nov 2006
ALSO: Thailand: Buddhist flee from majority Muslim villages.10 Nov 2006
AND: Monks in Narathiwat to cease daily alms (dpa) 12 Nov 2006
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