The gangs of the deep South have revived an old and intimidating tactic in recent weeks. Their propagandists and front men have told businesses in the region that Islam forbids work on the Friday day of prayer. Anyone performing commerce on Friday risks violence, the gangs have threatened. Two Fridays ago, a bomb at a Yala gold shop apparently backed up the threats with force.
This is a sad state of affairs, that rapidly became worse. Authorities confirmed from the country's top Islamic authority that there is no such injunction in Islam. The nation's top Muslim went even further, saying, "Threatening people to stop working on a Friday is a violation of their rights." But the threats and intimidation have succeeded in closing markets and shops across the three-province area of the deep South. Even those who defied last Friday found they had almost no customers.
It is actually encouraging that authorities went to the top for advice. There is now no room for dispute about this issue. The Chula Ratchamontri Aziz Pitakkumpol, himself a southerner, said authoritatively and publicly that the Koran has no prohibition on doing business on Friday. That caps all possible disputes on the subject.
It is an advance of sorts for security forces to actually consult and respect the authority of the nation's Islamic spiritual leader, also known as the Shaykh al-Islam. While the thrust of the violence in the South is not religious, authorities must take the makeup of the region into account. The opinions of Mr Aziz, the first southern Muslim to be selected as Chula Ratchamontri, are discarded or ignored too often.
The merchants, shopkeepers and market sellers of Yala, Narathiwat and Pattani, however, aren't interested in having a religious debate. They already know it is legal to operate honest businesses every day of the week. Their concern is the safety of their businesses and the security of themselves and their customers. And this poses a serious problem for security forces, and in fact for the government.
With nothing but leaflets and sly word-of-mouth warnings, the southern militants have effectively won a round in their anti-government fight. Soldiers, police and paramilitary forces can do their best to protect commerce, but they cannot be everywhere. It is certain that small businesses and market sellers want to remain open, and customers need food and supplies on Friday, just as they do on other days.
The people of the South, however, appear for now to be fully intimidated by the small, violent groups conducting the region's attacks. The fearful Friday has quickly become the norm. It is understandable that ordinary citizens do not want to risk being killed or burnt out.
This disturbing state of affairs again highlights the failure of the army and police to take effective action. The campaign of Friday intimidations came without warning. Authorities are uncertain whether the extremists are actually serious about backing up their violent threats with murderous action.
Once again, the failure to infiltrate and gather intelligence from the southern gangs is clear. The government's lack of success in protecting its citizens is on display in the South.