Southern Thailand: Moving Towards Political Solutions?
Southern Thailand: Moving Towards Political Solutions?
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Report 181 / Asia 3 minutes

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

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