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Southern Thailand: Beheading citizens,
Killing Teachers as the Trap of Violence



Chaiwat Satha-Anand, TFF Associate


Bangkok, Thailand - July 17, 2005


Based on police record, there have already been 808 victims of violence in Southern Thailand during the first six months of 2005, with 607 people injured and 207 other killed mostly in Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat. Among those who lost their lives were 6 soldiers, 15 policemen, and 186 civilians. (Bangkok Post, July 2, 2005).

Judging by both the growing number of those fallen victims and the ways in which some of them were killed from January 1 to June 20, 2005 , including 8 cases of beheading, the killings of three religious teachers (ustazs) while praying in Pattani on June 21, and the first case of a deliberate killing of a woman who is also a teacher and a local school administrator on June 24, it could be said that the situation of violence in the South has worsened.

In light of the intensified violence, amidst rumors about more terror on the seventh of the seventh month, some military officers believe that the peace-oriented reconciliation methods will not work. Some maintain that only with "decisiveness" (kwam ded-khad), will violence in the South subside. It leaves little doubt what "decisiveness" means in this context.(Daily News, June 22, 2005)

This article is an attempt to suggest that to avoid the increasingly seductive force of the violence trap, its reality must first be understood through a critical appraisal of the act of beheadings in the context of other killings in the South, especially the recent taking of teachers' lives.


Beheading Citizens

On June 29, 2005 at 1.30 p.m. in Tambon Bongo, Rangae district, Narathiwat, Surin Somjit, a 57 year-old Buddhist, went to build a waterworks system. Two men came on a motorcycle, held Surin at gunpoint in front of 10 of his fellow workers , shot him in the head and then decapitated him with a machete. They put his head in a fertilizer bag and left it some 2 km. away. The murder of Surin is the eighth case of beheading since the beginning of this year.

The question is why must someone be beheaded? What is the difference between shooting a man to death and cutting his head off?

Since in most of these eight cases, the victims were shot first, in fact some might have already been dead, the act of beheading as a form of injury/killing could be seen as superfluous. True, the act of beheading could certainly generate fear through the bloody spectacle of severing a head from a body. But, in addition to its meaning as a fear-generating activity, it could also be seen as a form of punishment.

Beheading as a form of punishment was widely used in Europe and Asia until the last century. In Britain, it was first used during the reign of William the Conqueror for the execution of the Earl of Northumberland in 1076, and abolished in 1747. It was the standard method of punishment in Denmark and the Netherland until 1870, Norway until 1905 and Sweden until 1903. China replaced beheading with shooting only in 1950s. In Thailand, beheading as a form of punishment was replaced by shooting in 1934.

This method of killing was considered a less painful, and less dishonorable form of execution. The Roman Empire, for example, used beheadings only for its own citizens while others were crucified. In 16th century Germany, rather than hanging them, the executioner of Nuremburg sometimes allowed condemned women to be beheaded as a show of mercy. However, due to the skill required for the act, otherwise it would have to take more than one blows to remove a head as was the case in the execution of Mary, Queen of Scotland in 1587, and the extreme gory of the scene, this form of punishment has been by and large abandoned. Presently, decapitation is still used only in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Yemen and Iran. In 2004, for example, Saudi Arabia publicly beheaded 33 men and 1 woman for the crime of murder, rape, sodomy and drug offences.

Seen in this light, the act of beheading as a form of punishment means more than an instrument of fear, because it connotes a sense of directly challenging the sovereign power of the state to punish its citizens, at times with death. To understand the impact of such an act is to situate it in the context of continued violence, especially the recent killings of teachers in the South.


Killing Teachers

From the beginning of 2005, there have been 12 Thai school teachers killed in the three provinces, including 5 school principals: 3 in Pattani and 2 in Narathiwat. It goes without saying that apart from their vulnerability, teachers have become targets of violence because of they are seen as representing the state in one of its most significant function: education. On June 24, during lunch break, Kru Kobkul Runseva, 47, rode her motorbike back to her home to feed her paralyzed mother as she normally did everyday. Her life was taken away by killers on motorcycles who must have known her routine of returning home during lunchtime. Her death was obviously a great loss to her students, her school and the education community of the South. It also dealt a heavy blow to her ailing mother and family. The case received attentions from all sectors of Thai society.

Three days before Kru Kobkul's murder, three religious teachers were killed in Pattani. On June 21, 2005 , a group of killers entered the home of three young Islamic teachers (ustazs), shot them in their heads, killing them instantly. In the South, some religious teachers believed to be involved with violence, have become suspects in the eyes of the state security community. What is important in this case is the news report that they were killed while performing their nightly prayers (Isha).(Bangkok Post, June 21, 2005)

In my view, the deaths of these teachers are important for three reasons. First, Kru Kobkul was killed while trying to perform an act of a daughter's filial duty to her mother. The moral outrage which was triggered by her murder was therefore comprehensible. Second, her targeted killing was unique in the history of violence in Southern Thailand when a woman teacher was deliberately chosen for a kill. Third, the killings of the three young ustazs could be seen differently by the killers and families of those killed as well as ordinary Muslims.

For the killers, killing a Muslim while he/she is performing his/her prayers could be seen as a determined sacrilegious act that God is unable to protect them even while they were praying. But for a Muslim, since death is predetermined by God , to die while praying could be seen as a good death. Al-Qur'an says: "those whose lives the angels take in a state of goodness, saying to them, 'Peace be upon you. Enter the Garden as a reward for what you have done."(16(Al-Nahl):32)

These recent violence could be seen as violations of religious injunctions considered sacred by both Buddhists and Muslims. From an Islamic perspective, a mother's importance to her children is second only to God. Al-Qur'an says: "We have commanded people to be good to their parents. Their mothers carried them, with strain upon strain, and it takes two years to wean them. Give thanks to Me and to your parents &endash; all will return to Me." (31(Luqman): 14)

In this sense, the killer(s) of Kru Kobkul had violated one of God's sacred commands. From a Buddhist perspective, Buddhaghosa pointed out that while the taking of lives of living/breathing being is clearly an unwholesome act, the killing of those with "many good qualities" is particularly perverse and of greater fault. (Majjhima Nikaya 1.198). By extension, this would mean that killing someone while he/she is performing his/her religious duty is "particularly perverse and of greater fault."



The Violence Trap?

When citizens have been beheaded by an unknown force, and beheading is seen as a form of punishment for unspecified crimes, the state power has been directly challenged. When people were killed while performing good deeds and taboos which set a limit to violence, which used to protect them, have been violated, moral outrage could be expected. If the authority to punish with violence and the ability to control violence in a given territory mark the functioning of a modern state, then those representing state power must try their utmost to put a stop to these violent incidents because to allow them to continue is to corrode the state power further. With a structural fear of losing control over parts of its sovereign territory, armed with the public moral outrage, it is not difficult to see how a society could fall into the violence trap.

The violence trap is set up from an intricate link of various acts of violence to lure a society at stake into using a violent approach to solve a problem of violence instead of using a problem solving approach. There is one basic problem with the use of the violence approach. It does not solve the problem.

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For example, some believed that the conflict in Angola ended on February 22, 2002 when UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi was killed and the Angolan government presented a peace proposal. The rebels, however, dismissed the proposal and accused the government of double dealing. In Chad, when the leader of MDJT (Mouvement pour la democratie et la justice au Tchad), Youssouf Toigoimi was killed in September 2002, the movement broke up and some decided to sign a ceasefire agreement with the government. But the accord was rejected by the mainstream MDJT. In both cases, though the level of armed conflicts have reduced, they continue.

More importantly, the use of violence approach does not solve the problem because as a trap it lures those who walk into it to sink deeper into its own logic, practices and consequences. Its logic is retributive, and therefore the use of violence becomes the primary means of handling deadly conflicts. Its practices tolerate "collateral damage", and therefore innocent victims take the fall. Its consequences lock the whole society in a mental prison that fiercely refuses to acknowledge the possibilities of political alternatives necessary for a problem solving approach. It is therefore important to understand that the best companions of the violence trap, and the worst foes of careful strategic thinking for sustained peace, are fear and anger. Perhaps, by overcoming both fear and anger with a critical understanding of the workings of the violence trap can the road to peace and reconciliation in Southern Thailand be cautiously charted.


This piece was published in the Bangkok Post, July 5, 2005 at the Op-Ed page.

Other articles about nonviolence and the situation in Southern Thailand by Satha-Anand here.


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