Random Play by Graham Reid

Days of Rage

America has re-elected its president. Well, as Forrest Gump said, that’s all I have to say about that. Other than this.

When it all went down television’s Jane Young breathlessly informed us the election proved America was a deeply conservative country. Uh-huh.

This statement of the bleedin’ obvious, delivered by Young as if it were a mystic revelation, confirmed my belief that too many of our political observers view America through the distorted lenses of Los Angeles or New York.

It is from there we read most political comment and columnists, so it’s hardly surprising people here assumed everyone in America was wise to Bush’s canny ways.

Well, there is a fair chunk of America between those two points of liberalism and out there in the small towns people don’t read, hear or see much of that sentiment. They are, and have always been, deeply conservative Jane.

So while we are polishing opinions about the failure of Democrats to capture the White House -- “If you’re so smart why ain’t you president?” -- we might also want to consider this: we live outside America and our attention is on the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, those living inside that great slab between the two coasts of America (and even within LA and NYC) see the world differently. They are a country at war and discussion inevitably turns back to 9/11. We forget that too often.

“You don’t **** with America,” as one guy in Arizona put it to me so eloquently.

In future when we are thinking of “America” we might like to step back from easy generalisations and consider the multiple Americas there are, and that in their own minds they are at war. And few electorates dump a wartime president who is talking tough on terrorism.

Speaking of that on-going war, a new frontline for Islamists might be opening, although you won’t have heard about it on New Zealand’s television news. Yet is right in our backyard. Or more correctly, our holiday playground.

The murder of 80 Muslim protesters in south Thailand a fortnight ago, by police who dumped them in trucks and let them suffocate, has gone woefully under-reported here. As has the whole volatile politics in these southern provinces of a county where Kiwis like to holiday.

When I was in Bangkok a few weeks ago I was astonished at the daily reports of trouble in the provinces of Pattani, Yala, Songhkla and Narathiwat. Thailand’s six million Muslim minority -- around 10 per cent of the population -- live there and they are pretty poor by comparison with the provinces which coin it in from foreign tourists.

These people feel financially and politically disenfranchised in this predominantly Buddhist country and have nothing in common with Bangkok Thais.

The news reports, which I had noticed on previous trips but this time felt quite overwhelming in their number, tend to be about shootings at roadblocks -- the area is under martial law and you can bet the Army enforces that ruthlessly -- or of police being murdered. Then there are the reprisals.

This year more than 400 people have been killed.

Many Thai Muslims in these provinces speak Yawi, a Malay dialect, and the region was once part of the old Kingdom of Pattani, a semi-autonomous Malay region which adopted Islam seven centuries ago. Thailand annexed the area a little over a century ago, but the people still have more in common with Malaysia than Bangkok.

Muslim separatists began their struggle for autonomy in the 70s and then central government started pumping money in so things settled down a bit. But this year the insurgency has come back with a new and more frightening subtext.

Three weeks ago Time magazine profiled the region and suggested what was once a localis independence struggle has become part of the international jihad as young Islamic teachers, trained in Pakistan and Afghanistan, have returned home fired by the radical ideas of Islamists.

We’ve heard this one before from Indonesia and the drive for autonomy in these Thai regions now appears to have links with Jeemaah Islamiah.

There have been hints that the nature of the struggle was changing. In January Islamic militants attacked an army camp and seized more than 400 weapons, many of them M-16 rifles. Then in April there were a series of attacks on security posts conducted by young men in what seemed to be suicide attacks. Many were carrying a booklet about the virtues of martrydom and a jihad.

The Thai government’s response was typically ruthless and ended in the massacre of more than 100 of the poorly armed militants.

But events of three weeks ago have a more ominous overtone. The violence, a “massacre” according to many Muslim spokesmen, began when some 1500 demonstrators gathered at a district police station in Narathiwat. They were protesting the detention of six men accused of providing weapons to militants. Police used water cannons and tear gas, shots were fired (some reports say some demonstrators were armed) and at least six demonstrators were killed.

Then the protesters were tied up, forced into the trucks and piled on top of each other. More than 80 died while being ferried in army trucks to the town of Pattani five hours away. They suffocated on the journey.

This has, understandably, added fuel to the anger of local Muslims and now attacks on police have increased, as have the reprisals. Some Buddhist schools in the area have closed.

Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra -- facing an election -- has a problem on his hands. But he won’t countenance any moves towards autonomy and has even been dismissive of the tragedy.

It doesn’t bode well.

That the mentality of a jihad may have infiltrated the region and hijacked the former secessionist struggle is a worry, and if it takes on the character of an Islamist struggle then you don’t need to be too smart to figure out what regions, a few kilometres drive away, could be hit if the extremists want to cripple Thailand’s economy and drive out tourist dollars.

The word “Bali” comes all too quickly to mind.

At this point however no one is saying foreigners will be targeted, but if you want to see how terrorism morphs into being from local disaffections this might be an object lesson. Just don’t expect to see it on the television news.

And finally apropos of nothing and to end on a more cheerful note, I currently have the album Soft Commands by Ken Stringfellow on repeat-play. A former member of the 90s power pop band the Posies, some will remember him for a brilliant vodka-fuelled night at the Kings Arms a few years back when he and fellow-Posie Jon Auer turned up, played up and got liquored up to everyone’s delight.

They were smart songwriters and intelligent guys -- and further evidence is on Soft Commands. Musically it is glistening pop of the McCartney/Brian Wilson kind but his lyrics take weird and deep twists. My favourite is When U Find Someone which sounds like it could have come from the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. But here’s a sampling of the lyrics: “On this side a man, his hand on the free world, an army at his command …”

And, “Sharing a dream as a prisoner screams, hands on the switch as we throw it together.”

It’s a politically-charged love song with the chorus, “When you find someone who loves you like that, you want them back in your life.“

As an assessment of infatuation with the powerful it’s very astute. And, as we now know, prescient.

Maybe we could give Ken the job Jane Young has?