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Southern Thailand: Moving Towards Political Solutions?
Southern Thailand: Moving Towards Political Solutions?
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Behind Bangkok’s Wave of Popular Dissent
Behind Bangkok’s Wave of Popular Dissent
Report 181 / Asia

Southern Thailand: Moving Towards Political Solutions?

On taking office, Thai Prime Min­­ister Abhisit Vejjajiva pledged to reclaim policy on the southern insurgency from the military.

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Executive Summary

On taking office, Thai Prime Min­­ister Abhisit Vejjajiva pledged to reclaim policy on the southern insurgency from the military. But a year of distracting fights between supporters of the establishment and an ousted populist leader has meant little progress in resolving violence in the South. Despite glimpses of new thinking in Bangkok, the weakness of the government and its reliance on the military for political support have meant the top brass still dominates policymaking in the predominantly Malay Muslim South. Harsh and counterproductive laws remain in force and there are no effective checks on abuses by the security forces. Alternative policies have not been seriously explored and, after a temporary reduction in violence in 2008, the attacks are rising again. It is time for the government to follow its words with actions if it wants to move forward with a political solution.

Military sweeps from July 2007 curtailed violence in the South, although abusive detention as part of these operations may have backfired and increased resentment among Malay Muslims. While the number of attacks so far in 2009 is still below the peak since the insurgency restarted in 2004, the trend is upward. Incidents have become more brutal and bomb-making techniques more advanced. The insurgency has proved resistant to military suppression. The slaughter of ten men praying in a mosque in June heightened concerns over deepening communal tension and the consequences of government projects to arm civilians. According to a police investigation, the mosque attack was allegedly committed by Buddhists in retaliation for previous killings by suspected insurgents. This slaughter has led to renewed international attention, especially among Thailand’s predominantly Muslim neighbours.

The government had made little progress in its attempts to reassert control over policymaking in the South. It pledged to empower the civilian-led Southern Border Provinces Administrative Centre by allowing it to operate independently from the military’s Internal Security Operations Command. The army has opposed this as well as a plan to lift the emergency decree, which must be renewed every three months. The Abhisit government has extended the decree four times so far under pressure from the military. The decree permits the detention of suspects without charge for up to 30 days and grants officials immunity from prosecution. It is in force alongside martial law in the three southernmost provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat. For nearly six years, no security officials involved in human rights abuses have faced criminal prosecution. Public disclosure of the death of an imam in custody in March 2008 seems to have reduced the occurrence of torture, although it has not stopped. Such impunity denies Malay Muslims justice and acts as a powerful recruiting tool for insurgents.

The huge development budget that the government has been disbursing as part of its political strategy to tackle southern violence has inadvertently created an industry of insecurity. The benefits that officials might have derived from the money are contributing to inertia and obstructing the search for solutions. The government should ensure that projects are implemented transparently and with grassroots participation. Corruption undermines the government’s credibility, while it is already facing an uphill struggle to gain the trust of Malay Muslims. It is also unlikely this economic stimulus would help quell the insurgency, which has been primarily driven by political grievances – such as the disregard for Malay ethnic identity and language – and a sense of injustice.

The Abhisit government has been constantly challenged by supporters of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. It needs the support of the military to suppress anti-government protesters and cement its power. The reliance on the military has undermined the government’s effort to make a shift in southern policies, such as lifting draconian laws and re-asserting civilian control. There is also little political will to carry out political initiatives such as exploring new administrative arrangements for the South. The Thai state’s public stance of rejecting negotiations with insurgents should be reviewed and new structures for the South explored. The foundations of peaceful engagement are already in place, should the government wish to pursue dialogue with insurgent representatives. Negotiations have proven an effective means to ending violence in many separatist conflicts and do not necessarily lead to secession, as the central government has long feared.

Bangkok/Brussels, 8 December 2009

Pro-democracy protesters show the three-finger salute as they gather demanding the government to resign and to release detained leaders in Bangkok, Thailand 15 October 2020. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
Q&A / Asia

Behind Bangkok’s Wave of Popular Dissent

Anti-government protests and popular demands for reform, including of the once-sacrosanct monarchy, have accelerated in Thailand. In this Q&A, Crisis Group’s senior analyst for South East Asia, Matt Wheeler, explains how this crisis over political legitimacy has now reached a dangerous impasse.

Why are this week’s protests significant?

On the evening of 16 October, riot police used water cannons in central Bangkok to break up a crowd of several thousand mostly young protesters who were assembling for the second day in defiance of a ban on public gatherings. The episode marked a violent escalation in a series of pro-democracy protests that has been gaining momentum over the past three months and intensifying further over the past three days.

A day earlier, more than 10,000 demonstrators had gathered a few blocks away, defying measures announced the same morning under a “serious state of emergency”, which prohibits gatherings of over four people in the capital. The government put the extraordinary measures in place to “maintain peace and order” after marchers reached the prime minister’s office and held a large rally the day before. Despite threats that anyone attending or even promoting the protest online would be arrested, thousands flooded the Rachaprasong intersection, in the heart of the city’s shopping centre district, soon overwhelming the sizeable police deployment. The protesters occupied the area all evening, cheering a succession of speakers before dispersing peacefully. Rachaprasong is a place redolent with symbolism: it was the locus of 2010 protests demanding a new election, which were suppressed in a deadly crackdown by Thai army troops that May. 

Protesters called for the release of more than twenty activist leaders who had been arrested earlier in the day. Soon after authorities announced the new emergency decree, in the pre-dawn hours, the police had also chased hundreds of protesters away from the streets around Government House, where they had set up camp following a day-long march on 14 October. Much better attended than the government had expected, that march was also of symbolic significance as it coincided with the anniversary of the 1973 student-led uprising that toppled a military dictatorship.

The enhanced state of emergency failed to quash the popular movement.

The large turnout at Rachaprasong – on short notice and in defiance of authorities’ threats to arrest anyone joining – signalled that the enhanced state of emergency had failed to quash the popular movement. While most recent protests appeared to include a representative sample of the young, middle-aged and old, the crowd on 15 and 16 October was decidedly youthful, with most demonstrators appearing to be in their early twenties. Some in the crowd were high school students and first-time protesters, driven to join by what they saw as an unjust emergency decree clamping down on any expression of dissent.

Who are the protesters and what do they want? 

Street protests are a regular feature of Thai politics, but the 2020 gatherings are different from earlier rounds of collective action in two ways. First, students and young people, who were largely absent from the Red Shirt and Yellow Shirt movements that shook the country between 2006 and 2014, are the driving force of the present mobilisation. The youth accuse the current government of being a reincarnation of the junta that ruled between 2014 and 2019, laundered by the 2017 constitution and a slanted general election in March 2019. They insist that the government – particularly the (unelected) prime minister and ex-junta leader, Prayuth Chan-ocha – resign. Other demands include dissolution of parliament and a new constitution drafted with public consultation. 

Secondly, and more strikingly, activists are calling for reform of the monarchy – namely, that it be brought under the constitution. Anon Nampa, a human rights lawyer, thrust the country into a new era on 3 August when he called for palace reform at a small demonstration in Bangkok. On 10 August, at a rally at a university campus north of the capital, a young student activist, Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul, read a ten-point manifesto on reforming the monarchy, including an end to royal endorsement of coups d’état. Both of them were arrested on 15 October, along with other prominent and vocal students.

Activists are calling for reform of the monarchy – namely, that it be brought under the constitution.

Since these controversial speeches, protesters have criticised King Maha Vajiralongkorn, or Rama X, with unprecedented candour – for residing in Germany while the country faces the COVID-19 pandemic and for squandering the people’s taxes, among other issues. Until recently, such open criticism of the monarchy was unheard of in Thailand. It is punishable by up to fifteen years of prison. But while the harsh lèse-majesté law remains on the books, in practice, the longstanding taboo on public discussion of the monarchy has eroded surprisingly quickly over the last two months. Some protesters now openly lampoon the king, who acceded to the throne three years ago after his father, who had reigned for 70 years, died.

Despite this unprecedented criticism, which distresses many Thais, the government had refrained until 15 October from using the lèse-majesté law to curtail the protests. Police had arrested some student leaders for violating an earlier emergency decree imposed to support public health measures amid the pandemic and other laws, but then released them on bail. The students immediately returned to giving fiery speeches, and protests proliferated across the country, including a series of rallies by high school students demanding reform of the country’s stodgy and outmoded educational system. 

The government’s tolerance now appears exhausted.

The government’s tolerance now appears exhausted. The immediate pretext for the imposition of the “serious state of emergency” was alleged threats to Queen Suthida, whose motorcade passed anti-government protesters on 14 October, after apparently diverging from a planned route earlier cleared by police. Protesters raised three-finger salutes inspired by the popular Hunger Games film series – in which oppressed masses adopt the gesture as a symbol of defiance of tyranny – and jeered as the royal convoy passed, but there was no violence or obvious threat thereof. Two activists have since been arrested and charged with endangering the queen, which carries a potential sentence of life in prison. 

Why now?

Rallies calling for far-reaching political change started to escalate earlier this year, particularly on university campuses, after the Constitutional Court dissolved the upstart Future Forward Party in February. Established in 2018, the party had surprisingly come in third in last year’s general election, proving to be extremely popular with young voters. The COVID-19 pandemic stifled burgeoning demonstrations, but rallies resumed as the lockdown eased. The abduction of exiled activist Wanchalerm Satsakit in Cambodia in June – following the unexplained disappearance of at least eight others since 2016 – also sparked public outrage and galvanised a new generation of activists.

Faced with growing protests, the government seemed to relent on amending the 2017 constitution, a document drafted by junta appointees primarily to facilitate continued junta rule with a sheen of electoral legitimacy. But on 24 September, a two-day parliamentary debate on six amendment bills proposed by various parties ended without a vote, as the legislature went into recess until November. Any move to amend the constitution requires support from two thirds of the 250 appointed senators, which did not materialise. Instead, the governing Phalang Pracharat Party proposed a committee to study the bills for 30 days. Opposition parties walked out, denouncing what they viewed as a delaying tactic. Government officials have since hinted that charter amendment could take years, leading many to believe nothing will happen until the next general election in 2023. Protesters have little confidence in the government’s willingness to revise its bespoke political order.

What are the risks of a government crackdown? 

Thailand holds the world record for number of military coups, and its history is checkered with political violence. Many observers thus fear that the government – run largely by ex-generals – could opt for repression to quell the rising protests. The 15 October state of emergency, arrests of activists, and deployment of riot police against peaceful protesters mark a clear shift in the government’s response. With protesters emboldened by the 15 October rally’s success, they are likely to stage further demonstrations in Bangkok, in spite of warnings from senior government officials that all who participate face arrest and charges of violating the emergency decree. In view of the scale of recent rallies, more stringent government actions present a risk of violence greater than at any point since the April-May 2010 army crackdown that killed more than 90 people. 

The stakes of the conflict, including the monarchy’s role in Thai society, and the terms in which both sides are speaking about it, are elemental and fraught. For many Thais, the current moment evokes memories of 6 October 1976, when police and right-wing paramilitaries – set off by an alleged insult to Vajiralongkorn, who was then crown prince –massacred dozens of pro-democracy students at Thammasat University. 

What can be done to reduce tensions?

The conflict between proponents of popular sovereignty, on one hand, and a hierarchical order underpinned by the monarchy, on the other, is swiftly coming into sharp relief. There is no evident mechanism in Thai society for addressing this conflict, but there are actions that each side can take now to reduce tensions and move toward consensus. First, the protesters should continue to adhere to their pledge of non-violence. Secondly, the government should refrain from using force to disperse peaceful crowds, lift the state of emergency, and protect rights of assembly and free speech. Thirdly, the government should publicly commit to a brisk timetable for amending the constitution and paving the way for a constitutional drafting assembly. 

More daunting is the need for a fresh concord on the monarchy’s changing role. Government officials and royalists insist that public discussion of this role is off limits, but their position is, in light of recent events, anachronistic. The degree of repression necessary to effectively reinstate the prohibition, including online, would tarnish both the government and the monarchy. Given the propensity of the army to abrogate charters, a new constitution alone will not resolve Thailand’s crisis of political legitimacy, but it could be a starting point in the search for a new consensus on how political power should be acquired, exercised and held to account.