Truth, not cranes

December 10, 2004

USING SOME 50 military aircraft, the government of Thailand last weekend celebrated the 77th birthday of that nation's widely revered king by dropping more than 100 million tiny "peace bombs" -- small white paper cranes -- across the landscape of its three southern and largely Muslim provinces.

The origami offerings -- of a Japanese-originated symbol of peace -- were as close as Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has come to apologizing for the deaths in army custody in late October of 78 Muslim protesters, largely by suffocation, and the shooting of six others.

However well-intended, a torrent of symbolic litter is hardly a sufficient answer for Thailand's 2.5 million Malay-Muslims, or for the United States, which relies on close ally Thailand to lead Southeast Asia on human rights issues and which cannot afford Islamic fundamentalism taking full root there.

What's needed is a sweeping and independent investigation into the deaths -- which were preceded by the Thai army arresting 1,300 protesters, tying their hands behind their backs and forcing them to lie face down in piles four to five humans deep in the backs of army trucks.

A Thai Senate committee has found that the protesters were not armed and that the military used excessive violence -- contrary to initial statements by the army and government. But Mr. Thaksin refuses to accede to international calls for a full-scale investigation.

Such accountability is the only path promising to defuse Thailand's growing Muslim separatist movement. Southern Thailand's Malay-Muslim minority has long harbored grievances; an insurgency rose in the 1970s and died out in the 1980s. This year, though, more than 500 people have died in escalating government violence and counterattacks as government security forces have ruthlessly pursued rights activists and insurgents alike.

Now Thailand, like the Philippines, faces a persistent Islamic rebellion, and there are fears that it is increasingly being exploited by outside jihadists -- supplied, some reports allege, via a so-called Osama bin Laden trail that starts in the madrassas of Bangladesh.

If Thai Muslims have been pushed to that point of no return, we can in part thank Mr. Thaksin's blindly heavy-handed approach to quelling minority unrest and rooting out potential terrorists.

Thailand's majority Buddhist culture has long been known for tolerance, and its government's international standing has long rested on its high degree of respect for human rights and democracy. Mr. Thaksin should live up to those traditions, rather than relying on grand but meaningless gestures.

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