Southern insurgency remains locked in stalemate
Southern insurgency remains locked in stalemate
Op-Ed / Asia 3 minutes

Southern insurgency remains locked in stalemate

With the colour-coded crisis still distracting the nation, the southern insurgency remains on the periphery of Thailand's consciousness and locked in a stalemate. While the number of attacks has reduced in recent years, the army knows it cannot end this protracted conflict by military means alone. A paradigm shift is needed but it will be hard to take any new initiatives until political stability is restored in Bangkok.

This six-year-long conflict has to date claimed the lives of more than 4,400 people, and yet this terrible toll inspires mostly complacency. In the first 10 months of this year, 368 deaths were recorded. This acceptance of the status quo is disturbing, particularly that the government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has made little headway in pursuing political solutions. It promised soon after coming to power to consider lifting the emergency decree imposed in Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat. Instead, late last month, it renewed this draconian law for the 21st time.

Last week, Mr Abhisit, for the first time, announced a concrete plan to start identifying a few districts where the emergency decree could be lifted. But the military continues to be a major force opposing the move, which would undermine its power. It remains to be seen whether Mr Abhisit can fulfil his pledge when the law is up for a three-month renewal in January 2011.

Bangkok has placed too much focus on multi-million-baht development projects. Some even doubt if handing out "fingerlings and ducklings" to villagers would empower them or create a sustainable economy. Even if these giveaways improve the material well-being of some Malay Muslims, the root cause of the conflict is not poverty. The insurgency is primarily driven by political grievances. Addressing glaring past injustices and recognising the distinct ethno-religious identity of the people in this region are vital to resolving the conflict.

Despite the government's pledge to put a greater emphasis on justice, there has been no progress in the prosecution of alleged perpetrators of serious human rights violations. Coordinated attacks on Oct 25 _ mostly the detonation of home-made mines in Buddhist-owned plantations _ appear to have been a symbolic act to mark the Tak Bai incident in which 85 protesters died six years ago. Prosecutors dropped the case against the security forces after a post-mortem inquest conducted by a court ruled last year that the 78 victims who were stacked on top of each other in the military trucks died of suffocation and that the security forces had acted in the line of duty. Seven other demonstrators were shot dead during the crackdown at the protest site.

In August, police also dropped charges against a former paramilitary ranger alleged to have been involved in the brutal 2009 Al-Furqan mosque attack which killed 10 Muslims. The failure to prosecute security forces who commit serious abuses reinforces the perception of impunity and buttresses the insurgents' narrative of unjust rule, providing a fertile environment in which radical Malay Muslims take up arms against the Thai state.

The government has also proposed that the presence of some 30,000 troops should be scaled down, yet another unmet promise. To head in this direction, the number of police officers and civilian defence volunteers would need to be increased to boost their ability to provide security. Labour-intensive tasks shouldered by the army, such as the daily escort of government school teachers, could be transferred to them to reduce the military's large footprint in the South.

One accomplishment of this government was to pass legislation to empower the civilian-led Southern Border Provinces Administrative Centre last week. Once promulgated, this law will allow the SBPAC to operate independently of the military-controlled Internal Security Operations Command and report directly to the prime minister. It will also enhance the agency's power to transfer misbehaving civilian officials _ including police. It is important to ensure that this new arrangement is also used to bring about greater participation by local people in resolving the conflict and does not just become an exercise in bureaucratic restructuring.

The military also hopes that a quasi-amnesty process under the Internal Security Act's Section 21, expected to be implemented soon, can be an effective "political offensive" to entice militants to surrender and weaken the movement. Human rights advocates are sceptical, fearing suspects could be forced to confess to crimes that they did not commit in order to have trumped-up charges dropped. But once again, this measure alone _ even if implemented in an appropriate fashion _ is not a lasting solution as long as larger socio-political grievances remain unaddressed.

Essential components of a political solution need to include dialogue with insurgent groups and reform of governance structures.

The government missed an opportunity to move towards dialogue by giving a lukewarm reception to mid-year limited suspension of hostilities declared unilaterally by two rebel groups. Scepticism over these declarations is understandable but the disinterest in actively engaging in this effort is unfortunate.

Also, there needs to be a more serious attempt to explore new models of devolution within the principle of the unitary state so as to create channels for Malay Muslims to express their aspirations and voice their grievances peacefully.

To break the stalemate, the Thai state needs to start thinking the unthinkable. The mounting human cost of this conflict has become too high to be ignored.

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