Thailand Air Drops100 Million Birds Of Peace

Published: Mon 6 Dec 2004 12:36 AM
Thailand Air Drops100 Million Birds Of Peace
by Richard S. Ehrlich
BANGKOK, Thailand -- Thailand will air drop more than 100 million paper "birds of peace" onto the Muslim-majority south on Sunday (Dec. 5) despite complaints it will create tons of garbage and not lessen anger against the army which suffocated 78 Muslim men to death.
The air drop evolved from an earlier military slaughter of innocent civilians when Sadako Sasaki, a Japanese girl, died from radiation poisoning 10 years after America exploded an atomic bomb above Hiroshima in 1945.
In 1955, Sadako was diagnosed with leukemia, but she believed a Japanese legend which promised anyone who folds 1,000 paper cranes would be granted a wish.
The little girl died in 1955, aged 12, despite folding more than 1,000 traditional origami birds.
Young Japanese, inspired by her perseverance, arranged a cash collection and built a statue in 1958 of Sadako holding a golden crane in Hiroshima Peace Park.
In recent days, Thai media has portrayed Thais, from all walks of life, folding paper rectangles in an intricate way to produce various sized, three-dimensional birds which resemble a crane.
Officials said more than 120 million origami birds were collected by Saturday (Dec. 4) and would be dropped on the three southernmost provinces of Narathiwat, Yala and Pattani.
About 50 military planes and helicopters were scheduled to lift off from three air bases in the south at about 9 a.m. on Sunday (Dec. 5) and release the paper birds at low altitudes as part of Massachusetts-born King Bhumibol Adulyadej's birthday celebrations.
The air drop was to be completed by sunset after more than 150 flights, using giant C-130s, medium-sized BT-67s, small Nomads, helicopters and other aircraft from the army, navy, police, and agriculture ministry.
Thai critics, including political columnists and Muslim officials, described scheme as an insult because residents would have to pick up tons of garbage after the air drops.
The estimated 120 million paper birds could result in more than 400 tons of paper being dumped on the three provinces, according to some calculations.
Officials responded with schemes to prevent massive litter, including the Narathiwat governor's offer to exchange 10 collected paper birds for one egg, and 30 collected birds for a kilogram of rice.
"Whoever picks up the bird I have folded will be given a job if they need it, and will be helped to go to school if they have not been able to do so," said Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
The paper birds "show that the entire nation is united, regardless of religious beliefs," the prime minister said on Thursday (Dec. 2).
"It is a signal that we love our land and nobody can divide it."
Officials insisted the air drop was popular among southern Muslims, and displayed villagers tying plastic rope into makeshift "nests" to catch the falling paper.
The original plan was to create 62 million birds to represent Thailand's total population, but many people did not contribute at all -- while countless others sat and folded numerous birds in assembly line fashion -- resulting in an estimated 120 million origami cranes.
"I didn't make any paper birds because I have no time, I have to take care of my baby, and I think it is a bad idea because it is like dropping garbage on them and will make their towns dirty," said a thirtysomething Buddhist female from northeast Thailand when asked if she participated.
Not all birds were made to be dropped.
One blue origami crane decorously dangled from a "free admission" sign at the door of a popular, prostitute-packed bar offering "live shows" in Bangkok's red light Patpong Road during the weekend.
The origami public relations move came after the Thai army arrested 1,300 demonstrators on Oct. 25 at Tak Bai, tied their hands behind their backs, and forced them to lay face down in army trucks, piled one on top of the other, four or five layers high.
When the army trucks transported the demonstrators from Narathiwat province to an army camp in nearby Pattani province, forensic teams discovered 78 men died of suffocation while in the trucks.
Another six people were shot dead during the Tak Bai demonstration which was called to demand the release of six innocent Muslims wrongly detained for allegedly giving weapons to separatists.
The millions of paper birds collected made it impossible to check if any had offensive messages written on them which would "add more fuel to the fire" if read by Muslims on the ground, warned Niran Pithakwatchara, chairman of the Senate's Committee on Social Development and Human Security.
Senator Jon Ungpakorn, from the same committee, said the suffocation deaths made the situation much worse.
"Now we are looking at something which could turn out to be another Bosnia," Senator Jon said at a news conference on Nov. 17 at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand.
"People, like myself, who are particularly concerned about human rights aspects are being denounced as being 'traitors' now, though we are not. My group is questioned: why are we so concerned about the abuses of human rights in the Tak Bai incident?" Senator Jon said.
"'Some of them died, so what? More should have died.' This is the general attitude that we are facing now," the opposition party senator added.
The Pattani United Liberation Organization, part of a loose alliance of small Muslim separatist groups, responded to the suffocation deaths by offering rewards of up to 2,250 U.S. dollars on their website for the assassination of Thai politicians in the south.
Army officers meanwhile want to increase the estimated 15,000 soldiers and marines currently deployed in the south and buy more M-16 assault rifles, plus a dozen second-hand Cobra helicopters, from the United States to crush the Muslim separatists.
In November, the U.S. Defense Department trained and equipped police on the tourist playground island of Phuket to prevent "international terrorists" staging a copycat of the Bali island bombing.
In June, Washington delivered 30 "refurbished" UH-1 helicopters to Bangkok to fight Muslim militants in the south.
Violence between southern Muslim separatists and the Buddhist-majority government has resulted in more than 500 people killed on all sides during the past year, with almost daily bombings, assassinations and other assaults.
The targets are mostly Buddhist security forces, politicians, teachers, monks, plantation workers, shopkeepers and others, while Muslims who have perished include suspected separatists, sympathizers and civilians.
Richard S. Ehrlich, a freelance journalist who has reported news from Asia for the past 26 years, is co-author of the non-fiction book, "HELLO MY BIG BIG HONEY!" -- Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews. His web page is

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