Struggling to end 10 months of unrest and bloodshed in Thailand’s Muslim south, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has turned to origami to shore up support for his security policies ahead of a 2005 general election.
The unconventional peace initiative, in which 63 million Thais are being urged to make paper birds to stop the violence which has claimed nearly 500 lives, has become an overnight national sensation with everyone from children to soldiers.
Around 10,000 troops in the south and hundreds of thousands of health ministry volunteers are busily folding paper birds.
Electronic road signs in Bangkok are urging Thais to get folding, so the Air Force can “bomb” the south with a hoped for 63 million symbols of goodwill on Dec. 5 to mark the birthday of King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
“I agree with the prime minister that these paper birds will help relieve some tension down there,” factory worker Mana Seekasin, 47, told Reuters as he put a paper dove in a huge box outside Government House in the capital.
Gimmick or solution?
But analysts and Islamic leaders say goodwill gimmicks will not ease the unrest if the mainly Buddhist government continues to ignore entrenched state prejudice and religious discrimination in the Muslim-majority south bordering Malaysia.
“The key obstacle to solving problems in the south is that the majority of Thais look at Muslims as second-class citizens,” National Islamic spiritual leader Sawas Sumalyasak said on Friday.
“Using religion to treat people differently is against the constitution,” said Sawas, who is also president of Thailand’s Central Islamic Committee.
Thailand’s three southernmost Malay-speaking provinces, where 80 percent of the population is Muslim, has always had an uneasy relationship with Bangkok.
The region was home to a low-key Muslim separatist insurgency in the 1970s and 1980s, but fresh violence exploded in January this year when gunmen raided an army camp, killing four soldiers and making off with more than 300 assault rifles.
Since then, symbols of the Thai state, from schools to monks to Buddhist and Muslim policemen or civil servants have come under almost daily attack from gunmen or arsonists.
Violent opening for al-Qaida
Thaksin, who won a landslide election victory in 2001 and who looks set to repeat that success in February, has employed a variety of strategies to ease the unrest, but everything from martial law to lavish cash handouts has failed.
Analysts fear the longer the violence drags on, the higher the chances international militant groups such as al-Qaida, or its Southeast Asian affiliate Jemaah Islamiah, might get involved, possibly taking the fight to Bangkok.
The violence took a new twist on Oct. 25 when soldiers clashed with thousands of protesters in front of Tak Bai police station in Narathiwat province.
Seven Muslims were killed in the clashes, but another 78 died of suffocation while being transported to an army camp.
Since then at least 30 people, almost all of them Buddhists, have been killed in apparent revenge attacks.
Not everyone in the fold
Thaksin’s origami scheme is not favored by all.
“I disagree with the idea of making birds from banknotes and sending them to Muslims because Muslims never help non-Muslims,” wrote one person identified only as “Army” on a Thai Web site.
“Therefore we should put spells on pieces of paper we use to make birds for those vicious Muslims.”
Recipients of the gesture in the deep south, whose problems Thaksin has variously blamed on drug dealers, gun-runners, local politicians, Muslim teachers and separatists, also want something more concrete.
“Paper birds mean nothing here,” said Narathiwat Islamic Council President Abdulrahman Abdulsahad, adding that his office was still getting reports about protesters missing since the Tak Bai incident, and of survivors suffering kidney failure.
“The government should make it clear who is responsible for missing people and help those who need urgent kidney treatment,” he said.