Briefing / Asia 3 minutes

Stalemate in Southern Thailand

The Thai government needs to break the stalemate in the southern insurgency by seriously pursuing political solutions, including addressing past injustices, engaging in dialogue with Malay Muslim militants, and exploring new governance arrangements.

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The deadly conflict in Thailand’s predominantly Malay Muslim South is at a stalemate. Although military operations might have contributed to the reduction in violence, the government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has made little effort to tackle the political grievances that drive the insurgency. A limited unilateral suspension of hostilities offered by rebels has met no significant response. Draconian laws that grant security forces sweeping powers remain imposed while justice for serious cases of past abuse remains unaddressed and torture of suspects continues. As bloody anti-government protests in Bangkok distracted the nation in early 2010, the death toll in the six-year-long insurgency steadily climbed. The conflict in the Deep South remains on the margins of Thai politics and unresolved. A paradigm shift is needed to acknowledge that assimilation of Malay Muslims has failed and that recognition of their distinct ethno-religious identity is essential. Dialogue with insurgents and reform of governance structures remain two missing components of a comprehensive political solution.

The level of violence in the Deep South has largely been steady for the past three years. Some 30,000 troops are deployed in the insurgency-hit region where Malay Muslim insurgents have continued to attack security forces, government teachers, Buddhists and Muslims perceived to side with the government. Since a significant drop in 2008, the tempo of violence has been around 1,000 attacks per year with 368 deaths recorded in the first ten months of 2010. Military operations alone are unable to end the violence.

While the Abhisit government has recognised that political solutions are necessary to end the conflict, words have not been matched by actions. It has failed to lift the state of emergency in the three southernmost provinces imposed since 2005. Worse still, the draconian law has been extended to control anti-government protestors in other provinces. The government has dismissed a chance to move towards peace dialogues by giving a lukewarm reception to a mid-year limited suspension of hostilities declared unilaterally by two insurgent groups. Although there has been greater space for public discussion on administrative reform than under previous governments, no serious attempt has been made to explore possible models within the principle of a unitary Thai state.

The government is planning to launch a new “political offensive” by implementing a quasi-amnesty policy under the Internal Security Act, hoping it will entice militants to surrender and weaken the movement. The provision allows the authorities, with the consent of a court, to drop criminal charges against suspected militants who, in turn, will be required to undergo up to six months of “training”, a euphemism for reverse indoctrination. It remains to be seen whether the policy will succeed. Human rights advocates are sceptical, fearing suspects could be forced to confess to crimes that they did not commit and calling the training “administrative detention”. Nevertheless, the quasi-amnesty measure alone is unlikely to be a lasting solution as long as larger socio-political grievances remain unaddressed.

Physical abuse and torture of detainees continue, while demands for justice for past abuses remain unanswered. Police dropped charges against a former ranger alleged to be involved in the 2009 Al-Furqan mosque attack. This reinforces perceptions of impunity and the insurgency’s narrative of the unjust rule, while aiding recruitment of those willing to take up arms against the Buddhist Thai state.

Until political stability in Bangkok is restored, the insurgency will remain at the periphery of the government agenda. But the government needs to be better prepared to respond to future gestures by the insurgents and lay the political groundwork for a negotiated settlement. In other separatist conflicts, negotiations have proven an effective means to end violence and do not necessarily lead to secession, as Bangkok has long feared. As part of an effort to scale down the presence of troops, the government should plan to increase the numbers of police officers and civilian defence volunteers as well as enhance their capacity to provide security.

With no military victory in sight for either side, the rebels must also consider new political strategies. Their representatives must propose comprehensive political solutions. Beyond protesting through violence, they should get ready to make concrete demands at a time when an opportunity for talks arises.

Based on research carried out between February and October 2010, including interviews in the Deep South, this briefing provides an update of analysis of the southern insurgency in the second year of the Abhisit administration.

Bangkok/Brussels, 3 November 2010

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