Thailand: Political Turmoil and the Southern Insurgency
Asia Briefing N°80
28 Aug 2008
The government of Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej is struggling for political survival and has handed the military full responsibility for tackling the violent insurgency in the Muslim-dominated Deep South, which has claimed more than 3,000 lives in the past four years. The military has restructured its operations and has made headway in reducing the number of militant attacks, but temporary military advances, though welcome, do nothing to defuse the underlying grievances of the Malay Muslim minority. For that to happen, the otherwise preoccupied government needs to find the will and energy to undertake a serious policy initiative.
The political turmoil in Bangkok continues to distract attention from the violence in the South. Samak’s government is threatened on several fronts. Three parties in the coalition, including his own People Power Party (PPP), face dissolution on charges of electoral fraud. The government’s efforts to amend the constitution to avoid this threat led to mass demonstrations organised by the People’s Alliance for Democracy, whose campaigns in 2006 led to the coup that ousted Samak’s patron, Thaksin Shinawatra. Three of Samak’s ministers were forced to resign between May and July 2008, including Foreign Minister Noppadon Patama, who left office in the face of nationalist anger whipped up by anti-government forces over a border dispute with Cambodia.
Against this backdrop, the military has been left to lead operations in the Deep South and has made some progress in reducing violent attacks in the first half of the year. But the insurgents, well-established and hardened, are far from being defeated, and the advances come at a price. The “sweeping operations” since June 2007 have involved the indiscriminate detention of thousands of suspected insurgents and sympathisers, and there are credible reports of torture of detainees. The case of an imam beaten to death in military custody in March 2008 attracted severe condemnation from human rights advocates. There has been little progress on holding security personnel accountable for notorious past abuses.
Ending the violence in the Deep South requires more than a military response. Now, with the insurgents on the defensive, is a good time to take decisive steps to address the root causes of the conflict. The political deadlock in Bangkok, however, makes it unlikely that the government will be able to turn its attention to the Deep South any time soon. The longer this is put off, the harder it will become to contain, let alone resolve the conflict.
The insurgency’s lack of a declared political leadership or platform is a major obstacle in the search for a negotiated settlement. Nonetheless, there is much that the government could do unilaterally to address Malay grievances in the realms of education, justice, language, history and economy. But this requires a rethinking on the part of the predominantly Buddhist state, which needs to recognise the distinct ethnic identity of Malay Muslims and find ways of allowing them to be Thai citizens without having to compromise their cultural differences.
In particular, the government should:
appoint a deputy prime minister to take charge of the effort to cope with southern violence, instead of allowing the military to lead on the issue;
empower the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Centre (SBPAC) by expediting the enactment of a law to govern its operations and to make it independent from the military-controlled Internal Security Operations Command;
revoke martial law, amend the emergency decree and the internal security act to increase accountability of the security forces, and allow detainees prompt access to lawyers and family;
ensure accountability for past human rights abuses, such as the deaths of nearly 200 Muslims in the 2004 Tak Bai and Krue Se incidents – the single most effective way to rebuild trust with Malay Muslims;
make clear it is ready to negotiate seriously with genuine leaders of the insurgency, but make it a condition of the negotiations that their interlocutors demonstrate they genuinely control insurgents on the ground; and
give serious consideration to ways of granting some degree of self-rule, or decentralisation of power, to help end the conflict.
Bangkok/Brussels, 28 August 2008