The statement on Thursday by Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yabamrung that there is no terrorism in Thailand is nothing short of bizarre. Mr Chalerm was responding to a report released last week by the Australian Institute for Economics and Peace that ranked Thailand eighth in a global list of 158 countries where terrorism has had the most impact over the past decade. The index takes into account the number of terrorist incidents, fatalities, injuries and damage, and says an astounding 5% of global terrorist incidents from 2002 to 2009 occurred in Thailand. Pakistan, India and Afghanistan accounted for 12%, 11% and 10% respectively.
Whether Thailand deserves to be ranked so highly on the list is debatable, as is the question of whether terrorism played a role in the political disturbances on the streets of Bangkok in recent years, but it is hard to see how anyone can deny that many of the violent incidents in the South can only be classified as terrorism.
Former prime minister Anand Panyarachun was assigned by the UN to head a global committee to define terrorism. The definition the commission came up with, as stated in a 2004 UN report, is that terrorism is "any action ... that is intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or non-combatants, when the purpose of such act, by its nature or context, is to intimidate a population, or to compel a government or an international organisation to do or to abstain from doing any act". James Poland, author of Understanding terrorism: Groups, Strategies and Responses, put it slightly differently: "Terrorism is the premeditated, deliberate, systematic murder, mayhem and threatening of the innocent to create fear and intimidation in order to gain a political or tactical advantage, usually to influence an audience."
There are probably dozens of definitions, and the old saying "One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter" comes to mind, but most would agree that innocent civilians are out of bounds as targets, even for freedom fighters. Of all the senseless acts of violence in the South, the targetting of teachers may be the worst, and clearly the only motivation is to "create fear and intimidation in order to gain a political or tactical advantage".
The Australian report says 8% of attacks were directed at educational institutions. Late last month militants shot and killed Nanthana Kaewchan, 51, the director of Ban Tha Kam Sam School in Narathiwat's Nong Chik district, making her the 155th teacher killed since southern unrest erupted in 2004.
On Thursday and Friday, about 380 schools in Narathiwat were closed so that teachers could meet with Education Minister Pongthep Thepkanchana in Pattani on Thursday to discuss ways to improve security for educators. Mr Chalerm weighed in on the subject by saying budgets and equipment for state officials working in the deep South had to be sufficient and there must also be adequate welfare and measures to boost teachers' morale. While this is no doubt true, the most urgent issue is guaranteeing safety.
Mr Chalerm made other comments suggesting he is out of touch with the realities in the South, including "If the media stops presenting news about the southern unrest, the situation would improve", and "Thailand is not yet the land of terrorism because we're a Buddhist country." He admitted that even though Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra put him in charge of southern security and coordinating with the National Security Council, he hadn't yet made a trip to the region. Contrast this with Ms Yingluck herself, who despite her busy schedule has found the time to visit the South three times since taking office a year and a half ago.
But although it's easy to find fault with Mr Chalerm's statements last week, his remarks are in line with a longstanding policy of successive governments to downplay or deny the presence of terrorism in the South. This is no doubt partly because the government does not wish Thailand to be seen as a front in the misguided global "war on terror" launched after the Sept 11, 2001 attacks in New York City, and for good reason. The country has nothing to gain from such a designation.
But at the same time, there is no point in denying the obvious. Anyone who murders a teacher, torches a school or sets off a bomb at a marketplace to make a political point is a terrorist and should be labelled as such.