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November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

AsiaweekTimeAsia NowAsiaweek story

FEBRUARY 4, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 4

Shootout - and Fallout
In disposing of Myanmar rebels in a siege, the Thais faced up to some hard questions
By ROGER MITTON Bangkok

Call it an anniversary present. Shortly before dawn on Jan. 25 - Thailand's Armed Forces Day - elite commandos stormed a provincial hospital and coldly dispatched 10 Myanmar rebels who had held hundreds of inmates hostage in a harrowing siege. The assault lasted barely an hour. Soon after, in the early morning light, the impassive liquidators marched out in formation to the guarded cheers and clapping of local folk. This had been a risky maneuver given the high number of hostages and the weaponry their captors possessed. But this bold Thai action certainly won out. Rather easily, if eyewitness reports that some of the rebels did not fire back are true. Apparently, not a single hostage was harmed, and just eight officers injured. No prisoners were taken; indeed, the bloodied corpses of the young gunmen were bizarrely displayed as in a museum of horrors. No apologies were made either. Said Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai: "No one will blame Thailand for what we had to do, because these were clearly terrorists."

Chuan's decision to put the army in charge, under its commander-in-chief Gen. Surayud Chulanont, was the key to this lethal outcome. In a similar incident last October, when five gunmen seized the Myanmar embassy in Bangkok, the police acting under Interior Minister Sanan Kachornprasart were in charge. Then, the hostages were also released unharmed, but the gunmen were allowed to go free, much to the chagrin of diplomats and the military regime in Yangon. The junta was enraged and promptly closed its border with Thailand and shut out Thai fishing boats from its waters. It was two months before the border reopened and relations are still somewhat cool. But the brutal resolution of the hospital siege should help warm ties - and perhaps help reassure Thailand's own citizens against being caught up in future sieges. Says former diplomat Pracha Guna-Kasem, now with the opposition Thai Rak Thai party: "People were saying if we can allow this to happen, first an embassy, then a hospital, next time they will take over Government House. So we had to go for the jugular."

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The genesis of the incident lies in a dry-season push by the Myanmar military against Karen insurgents in the hills along the southeastern border with Thailand. Yangon has negotiated a truce with most of its ethnic minorities, but not the Karen, and it now seeks to neutralize this recalcitrant group. Among the insurgents under fire was a Karen fringe group known as "God's Army" (many Karen are Christian, unlike most Myanmar citizens who are Buddhist). Likely numbering barely 100 armed men, they were hunkered down at a border spot called Kamerplaw. They reputedly draw inspiration from a pair of 12-year-old twin boys, though this is likely a fanciful ruse to win attention. It is rumored that the hospital hijackers came from this God's Army group, but no one knows for sure and one of their number rebutted this (he's now dead). Either way, the main Karen National Union (KNU) denied any link with them.

What seems clear is that the five gunmen who took over the Myanmar embassy last October were later given sanctuary by the God's Army group. Since then, they - along with other Karen in the area - have been under sustained attack by the Myanmar military. As if that were not enough, the Thai army is also shelling them. Says Chayachoke Chulasiriwongs of Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University: "The Thais were shelling the Karen positions because after the embassy siege they needed to prove they are taking a stand against these people." And so perhaps repair relations with Yangon. The Thais say they only fired warning shots at Kamerplaw; the Myanmar military says they detected no shelling from the Thais; the Karen say they were being pounded to oblivion.

Believe who you like, the upshot was that many Karen fighters, women and children tried to flee into Thailand, only to be forced back to face the wrath of the Myanmar troops, and thus to turn back once again to try to seek refuge in hostile Thailand. As they watched their kinfolk being battered inhumanely from both sides, the patience of young Karen warriors broke. A dozen or so of them (again the exact number is a matter of speculation), commandeered a bus at 6 a.m. on Jan. 24 close to the frontier and forced the driver to go to Ratchaburi, capital of the Thai border province, 70 km away. The bus traveled unhindered through this sensitive area, even picking up additional passengers.

During the hour-long drive, the young rebels, who clearly had no set plan, made the provincial hospital their target. Says Maung Maung Aye of the exiled National Council of the Union of Burma: "The hospital was a bad decision; it is not a war zone and not in a military area. If they want to do this kind of thing they should do it against an embassy or hospital in Burma, not here." Whatever the reason, almost without exception, Thais were livid that a place used to treat the sick and suffering was occupied by foreign gunmen. Any sympathy Thais harbored for the rebels' cause - as was evident during the earlier embassy siege - evaporated.

At the hospital's main gate, a security guard who tried to stop the bus backed off when he saw the rebels in their combat fatigues waving automatic rifles and holding grenades. The gunmen stormed the main entrance with guns blazing, and took several hundred shocked staff, visitors and patients hostage. Policemen and army reinforcements arrived soon after, surrounding the hospital complex and evacuating nearby buildings. Inside, the rebels cut phone lines and laid explosives to deter a police raid. Given the size of the hospital complex, it was impossible for the gunmen to secure it all, and there was a steady leakage of hostages from outlying buildings and side doorways. There was also, it seems, an ingress of disguised Thai security men - in effect, the advance guard of the assault. Meantime, the terrorists issued several demands: shelling of their Kamerplaw base by the Thai miliary should stop and that the general who ordered it should be prosecuted; medical aid be sent to their injured people; cooperation between the Thai and Myanmar armies against the Karen should cease; and that the border should be opened to allow their harried folk to seek refuge in Thailand, without the usual "fines" being levied by the notorious Thai 9th Division soldiers who patrol that region.

As talks dragged on through the day, Thai special forces continued preparing for an onslaught. A decision had been taken by Chuan, Surayud and Sanan that there was to be no repeat of the embassy denouement when the gunmen were allowed to go free. In this case, they had committed a violent terrorist act on Thai soil and that was not going to be tolerated. The mood was superficially amicable, with the gunmen chatting to police negotiators right up to shortly before the storming. They were lulled into thinking this would be resolved like the embassy incident and that they would be flown by helicopter back to the border area.

Almost exactly 24 hours after they had hijacked the bus, the rebels were suddenly and massively attacked from within and without. From outside, Thai special forces stormed the hospital firing profusely; inside, special agents who had entered the complex disguised as staff or patients, took decisive action. Within minutes, the young terrorists all met a violent death - and one that was graphically displayed as a deterrent to others when the bloody trussed cadavers were later put on macabre display. A hospital official told the Bangkok Post she saw the commandos hold the rebels at gunpoint. "They were shot in the head after they had been told to undress and kneel down," the newspaper quoted her saying. Of the dead Karen gunmen, Sanan said: "They all deserved it since they've brought much trauma and suffering to Thai people." Killing the rebels meant the Thais did not have to deal with the difficult questions of trying them, freeing them or packing them off either to Karen country or to Yangon. Myanmar exiles, for their part, quickly issued statements distancing themselves from the terrorists. The KNU said it "condemns their deplorable act" and made it clear God's Army "is not under the control of the KNU."

The regime in Yangon is obviously happy. Says spokesman Col. Hla Min: "We're pleased to see terrorists treated as terrorists." The lenient treatment of the embassy hijackers had enraged Myanmar and led to the border closure. This time, bouquets rather than brickbats may fly from Yangon. Within Thailand, reactions are more equivocal, especially over the manner in which the hijackers were killed and also over the seemingly lax security. Says oppositionist Pracha: "We must strengthen vigilance along the border."

As well as upgrading security, there may be a further crackdown on Myanmar exiles in Thailand. Already many thousands of illegal workers have been forced back, while students and other activists have come under increased pressure. Many Thais, who dislike the Burmese and yet back the pro-democracy movement and its leader Aung San Suu Kyi, are already talking about how their hospitality has been abused. The fact that the embassy and hospital hijackers were from rogue groups tends to be lost in the general mood of anger. The climate may also prove unfavorable for the Burmese refugees. The message to the resistance movement appears to be: It is your struggle, do it on your own soil. If you venture over here, expect to be whacked hard. Remember, too, that this is an election year in Thailand and appearing decisive, especially against terrorists, is sure to win extra support for PM Chuan.

Exiled pro-democracy advocates and NGO groups argue that the root cause of both sieges is the despotic regime in Yangon. They blame the incidents on the violence they say the Myanmar military inflicts on innocent civilians. A statement from the NGO groups concludes: "The possibility of spill-over problems will continue to threaten Thailand until there is a long-term, peaceful political solution to Burma's problems. We need to break the cycle of violence." The fearsome resolution of the hospital siege is unlikely to do that. Nor will it occur if another school of thought proves to be correct. First mooted after the embassy siege, it suggests that these events mark the turning to arms by some elements of the Myanmar resistance movement. After a decade of non-violence led by Suu Kyi, the cause is foundering and many young activists are getting frustrated. But the lethal signal sent by the Thai commandos will make those contemplating armed struggle pause. For if they try it, they will be inviting a bullet in the head.

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