Dangers of Ruling with an Iron Fist
Dangers of Ruling with an Iron Fist
Op-Ed / Asia 2 minutes

Dangers of Ruling with an Iron Fist

The rebellion in Thailand’s Muslim south could take a sharp turn for the worse with the state of emergency introduced recently. Restrictions on basic freedoms will probably not curb the violence. The question is rather who will curb the excesses of the Thai security forces that in turn feed the insurgency.

Since violence erupted 18 months ago, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s government has relied almost exclusively on the use of force. The iron fist, combined with a failure to address demands for justice, has created alienation and resentment – which militants are manipulating into sympathy, and even active support, with alarming ease.

History has shown that the only period in which southern violence subsided was when the government pursued a policy of inclusion and dialogue. The emergency decree has derailed the one government-linked body committed to that approach. The state of emergency marks the end of Mr Thaksin’s short-lived attempt to explore political solutions. Most members of the National Reconciliation Commission he set up in March learned of the decree only when it was announced publicly.

The commission, charged with devising a plan to solve the conflict, will still present its recommendations to the government at the end of this month, but a number of commissioners plan to resign immediately afterwards.

The brutality of the insurgents’ tactics seems to be having the desired effect of terrorising the civilian population. Militants were also presumably eager to provoke a government crackdown, in the hope that it would help attract recruits. A poll, conducted days after the emergency measures were announced, showed an overwhelming majority in the southern provinces support the decree. Unfortunately, the insurgents are just as likely to see the second part of their strategy play out. Mr Thaksin’s tendency to resort to repressive measures without holding officers accountable for excesses has already had disastrous consequences. When he gave police a free hand to hunt down suspects in his 2003 “war on drugs”, they shot dead more than 2,000 suspected offenders in six months.

Although allegations of extra-judicial killings were rife, none were investigated. And last year saw the bloody suppression of attacks on rural checkpoints, and the deaths in military custody of over 70 unarmed men and boys after a protest in Tak Bai. Not a single official has been punished. Now the emergency decree makes immunity from prosecution official, which will almost certainly create a new pool of recruits.

The decree will likely destroy any incentive to provide information to authorities. Intelligence collection is already the weakest link in security management in the southern provinces. Pursuing consultations with community leaders would probably do more to reduce the violence than widening official powers of arrest.

But Mr Thaksin appears determined to go back to a security-first strategy that has already failed. Under intense criticism from rights groups, he has shelved plans for press censorship and bans on public assembly, but it is not clear that he gets the message that restrictions on rights do not help.

Last week’s meetings of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Vientiane provided an ideal opportunity for regional leaders to express their concern to the Thai government about how the misuse of emergency powers is deepening popular support for the insurgency. But they passed it up. Thai journalists and rights campaigners, and the head of the National Reconciliation Commission, have all expressed their misgivings about the new decree. If Thailand’s neighbours reinforced this message, it just might get through.

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