Report / Asia 3 minutes

Southern Thailand: The Impact of the Coup

The September 2006 coup in Thailand, despite its damage to democratic development, opened the way for improved management of the conflict in the Muslim South.

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Executive Summary

The September 2006 coup in Thailand, despite its damage to democratic development, opened the way for improved management of the conflict in the Muslim South. Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont’s interim government has overhauled some of its predecessor’s worst policies and signalled willingness to address longstanding grievances. But verbal commitments in Bangkok have been difficult to translate into changes on the ground, and relations between security forces and local communities continue to be strained while violence mounts. Thais outside the South have exerted pressure for a return to heavy-handed crackdowns on suspected militants. The government must respond to the escalating attacks, but with care – widespread arbitrary arrests and civilian casualties would only increase support for insurgents.

Barely a month in office, Surayud made an historic apology to southern Muslims for past abuses, announced an end to blacklisting of suspected insurgents leading to a significant decrease in arbitrary arrests, and revived key conflict management institutions disbanded by Thaksin Shinawatra in May 2002.

These steps, together with the acquittal of 56 Muslims detained for over two years on trivial charges, and the granting of bail in several conflict-related cases, were welcomed in the South. However, some of the justice measures designed to assuage Muslim grievances have alienated the local Buddhist population, raising communal tensions and frustrating police. The restructuring of the security forces, designed to improve interagency cooperation, also appears in some cases to be exacerbating rather than easing tensions.

Efforts to accommodate Malay Muslim identity, particularly in the education system, may help undercut militant claims the government is trying to destroy or dilute Malay culture and Islam. However, attempts to introduce the Patani Malay dialect as an additional language in state primary schools and to promote its use in government offices have fallen flat in the absence of high-level political support.

Insurgent groups have responded to the government’s new approach by stepping up violence and propaganda aimed at undermining conciliation efforts. There are also strong indications they have contrived a rash of protests demanding the release of separatist suspects and the withdrawal of security forces from some areas. The insurgents’ village-level political organisation has improved significantly in the last eighteen months but it is not clear how much this reflects an increase in local support. Many villagers fear both the insurgents and the security forces and are caught between the two.

Daily killings of civilians and security forces by well-armed insurgents clearly necessitate a military response but the clandestine nature of the groups and their tendency to shelter among civilian populations mean a purely military strategy is bound to fail. The government needs to balance providing security with protecting human rights.

Martial law is still in force, alongside an unpopular Emergency Decree granting police and military officers immunity from prosecution. The interim government has made almost no progress on providing justice for past abuses, and credible reports of torture and extrajudicial killings persist. Arming civilians to defend themselves in village defence volunteer programs is no solution either, as the arms are as likely to fall into the hands of insurgents and increase the possibility of violence.

On the other hand, anything seen as appeasement would be politically suicidal for Thai leaders dependent for support on voters outside the South, most of whom had no problem with Thaksin’s get-tough approach.

Coup leader General Sonthi Boonyaratglin and Prime Minister Surayud have taken the critical step of backing negotiations as the ultimate solution to the conflict but acknowledge that meaningful talks with insurgent leaders are a long way off. Preliminary discussions with exiled separatists faltered in 2006 when it became clear they had little influence on the ground. Ultimately, some form of negotiated autonomy may be the only answer, but the conditions that would make dialogue possible are not in place:

  • The government has been unable to identify the leadership of the insurgency. Indeed, it is not clear that there even exists an overall leadership capable of controlling the various groups committing the violence.
     
  • The Thai public is largely hostile to the idea of negotiations, and the embattled interim government does not have a lot of political capital to spare.
     
  • Meaningful negotiations require a government with a democratic mandate.

The Surayud government’s ability to focus on the conflict has been limited by competing priorities in Bangkok, and pressure is mounting to deliver on the core issues used to justify the coup: restoring stability, getting the economy back on track and prosecuting former Prime Minister Thaksin for alleged corruption and lèse majesté. The combined impact of bombings in Bangkok on New Year’s Eve, a series of economic blunders and divisions within the government and the coup group has undermined public confidence and pushed the South further down the agenda.

With only six months remaining before democratic elections are scheduled to be held, there are obvious limits on what the interim government can achieve. But it can and should still initiate a number of measures to set the course for its successor.

Jakarta/Brussels, 15 March 2007

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