October 15, 2009

If you want to escape terrorism don’t ask Rohan Gunaratna what train to catch

If you want to escape terrorism don’t ask Rohan Gunaratna what train to catch.

With his new co-authored book The Terrorist Threat in Southern Thailand (deliberately unread by this author, as I’ve had my fill of fiction reading for the year) Rohan Gunaratna is perhaps hoping for the most improved award and a plaque on the wall of the Pentagon.

Gunaratna’s last foray into the southern insurgency produced a book (Conflict and Terrorism in Southern Thailand, 2005) of such breathtaking incompetence that I find myself almost admiring his tenacity to tackle the Southern insurgency once more in 2009. Or perhaps the first book was a draft and this is the real thing? In which case, let’s hope he thanks his many reviewers.

The blurb for the new book promises astute analysis and recommendations for policy regarding the insurgency in Thailand:

“the authors find that there is the possibility that this predominantly localized conflict could escalate into an international Islamic jihad. In addition to analyzing the insurgents' capabilities and opportunities, the authors provide a critique of government policies and make astute suggestions for resolving the conflict.”

The use of the word “astute” implies shrewd judgment and perceptive treatment. I can only hope that Gunaratna has removed the many errors that appeared in the first draft. In my extended review of that book (“War on Error and the Southern Fire” Critical Asian Studies, 2006) I noted just several of the errors thus:

"Most books have some errors, but few books that aspire to such authority contain as many as this one. The mistakes are both historical and contemporary. The authors’ positioning within terrorism studies (knowing a little about lots of conflicts) might explain the flippant attitude to historical context and facts: the authors have nothing more than a casual acquaintance with the history and modern-day politics of Thailand and presumably assume that their readers are not well informed either. Below, some errors are presented.

One example demonstrates the authors’ ignorance of one of the most important events in southern history: they mistakenly describe Haji Sulong, an important southern Muslim leader of the twentieth century, as the leader of the 'Dusun Nyiur incident' in April 1948. He was, in fact, in jail at the time. (The authors return to this event and attribute the leadership to another person, without realizing they are writing about the same event using a different transliteration, naming it the 'Duson Nyor Revolt' For the same event the authors have created two different leaders, two different names, and a different estimation of the numbers killed.)

At times inaccuracy slides into prejudice: the authors speak of the threat potential of Islam, writing, 'The presence of a significant Muslim community in the rest of the kingdom, including Bangkok…has the potential to disperse the threat beyond its current epicenter in the south'. This failure to differentiate between militant violent politics and the Islamic faith in Thailand reveals nothing but prejudicial ignorance.

Topping the list of errors is the claim that Thai Rak Thai MP Wan Muhammad Nor Matha lost his seat in the 2005 elections, which saw TRT lose all of its seats in the border provinces (88). He did not; in fact he retained his seat as a party list MP (based on total national vote of the party). That the authors are mistaken about the status of Wan Nor, one of Thailand’s leading Muslim politicians and a key, though controversial, member of the Wadah group, illustrates their failure to do the basic background work. Negligence becomes absurdity when the authors claim that the 1993 bombing at the Hat Yai railway station was directed at non-Muslim citizens since, they claimed, 'few Muslims use this train station'(36). Hat Yai railway station is a gateway into the border provinces; it is the last major stop before Malaysia and many of its passengers are Muslims."

I am happy to provide Mr Gunaratna with a more extensive list should he wish, but I didn’t hear from him after the review.

Inventing Terror Groups.

When thinking of Rohan Gunaratna’s science fiction expedition into the Southern Insurgency I am always reminded of Graham Brown’s debunking of the kind of ill-informed terror analysis that confidently assumes its facticity, and in particular the contribution of Zachary Abuza, a fellow traveler in the style of Gunaratna (see Brown, G. K., 2006. “The perils of terrorism: Chinese whispers, Kevin Bacon, and Al Qaeda in Southeast Asia - A review essay.” Intelligence and National Security, 21 (1), pp. 150-162.)

Brown reveals disregard for evidence and context, and somewhat revealing errors, the kind that exemplifies Gunaratna’s first book on Thailand. Brown writes

"Much of Abuza's analysis of Malaysia is devoted to the 'Kampulan Mujahidin Malaysia' (KMM), although this is [citing Abuza] 'only one of many radical organizations, [including] the Al-Ma'unah, Kampung Medan, and older groups such as the Islamic Revolution Cooperative Brigade' (p.24). Kampung Medan, however, is not any kind of organization, but rather a place where an incident of ethnic rioting took place. Abuza appears to have misunderstood the newspaper article which he cites as his only source here, containing the following sentence: 'On whether a Government white paper to address the Al-Maunah, Kampung Medan and KMM groups would be tabled in Parliament, [Home Minister] Abdullah [Ahmad Badawi] said it would be done after the cases in court were completed'. Casual reading of this sentence by an uninformed observer might well lead to the erroneous conclusion that Kampung Medan is the name of an organization and thus, if his role is indeed that of an uninformed observer, Abuza might be forgiven this error."

If you buy Gunaratna’s latest book on Thailand, do so with a generous spirit and forgiving mind: keeping up with Al-Qaeda and its affiliates is a difficult task and casualness is part of the terrain. Apparently policy makers who seek expert terror advice don’t seem to care, so why should we?

What is troubling about such mistakes - and they are legion - is the way they enter broader commentary, as people continue to cite the work. Casual mistakes and over-calls by Gunaratna get picked up by others and circulated - reinforcing the distance between policy discourse and reality.

Why, if people know the fundamentally flawed record of such authors, does such work keep getting cited (positively and as authoritative). It can only be that bullshit trumps a concern with accurate representation and truth (as much as we can honestly struggle to establish what is true).

In his short work on On BullShit philosopher Harry Frankfurt was pained by our generalised indifference to bullshit, our willingness to just brush it aside rather than face up to the way it structures and perpetuates purposes that are less than benign. Frankfurt writes of bullshitters : “the truth-values of [his/her] statements are of no central interest to him [her]; what we are not to understand is that his [her] intention is neither to report the truth nor to conceal it”. The intention rather is to "suit his purpose". Bullshit steers us away from the way things are - and in this instance serve alarmist ends by feeding generalised prejudices and ignorance about complex questions of power and inequality. Prejudice or a willingness to serve never had much need for facts.