Thailand: Army having failed, give political solutions a chance
Thailand: Army having failed, give political solutions a chance
Op-Ed / Asia 3 minutes

Thailand: Army having failed, give political solutions a chance

Thailand needs to shed its taboos and think the unthinkable if it wants to find political solutions to end the six-year-long southern insurgency that has claimed more than 3,900 lives.

The military wants to retain control over policies in the deep South, but the army's strategies have failed to bring about peace; instead, the violence has increased. Picture shows an armed soldier standing guard on his vehicle in front of a mosque in Pattani.

Military suppression has proved ineffective in stemming violence.

The distinct ethnic and religious character of the predominantly Malay-Muslim South needs to be acknowledged and new ways explored to enhance dialogue and better address their grievances.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva pledged upon taking office to shift southern policies away from the heavy hand of the security forces and provide a lighter civilian touch.

Nearly a year later, little has changed in the government's approach.

The incidence of violence dropped last year, but is now intensifying. The military's cordon-and-search operations begun in July 2007 were only a temporary fix. Recent attacks are more brutal, with some victims shot, beheaded and burned. Insurgents' bombs have increased in size and their techniques more advanced. Insurgents are using radio transceivers to trigger bombs to avoid electronic jammers, making it more difficult to prevent bombings.

The government's reliance on the military to cement its own power has hindered its political will to make policy shifts in the South. It fears antagonising the top brass, whose support it needs to suppress the "red-shirt" followers of ousted leader Thaksin Shinawatra.

The army has opposed the lifting of the emergency decree and martial law concurrently in place in Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat provinces, arguing that both laws are necessary for its counter-insurgency operations.

There have been some compromises, with martial law lifted in the four districts of Songkhla, where violence is low, and the Internal Security Act in force in its place. While apparently more lenient, implementation of the ISA has created new concerns. Human rights advocates fear that its Section 21, which allows legal charges to be dropped in return for "training", would amount to "administrative detention" with insufficient procedural safeguards that could lead to forced confessions.

It is also questionable whether indoctrination in Thai nationalism would change the minds of militants driven by ethno-nationalist ideology.

The military also opposes the government's plan to enact a law to allow the civilian-led Southern Border Provinces Administrative Centre - in charge of the "hearts and minds" operation - to be independent of the military-controlled Internal Security Operations Command (Isoc).

A watered down version is currently before Parliament, but ongoing political turmoil in Bangkok might mean the House could be dissolved before this bill can be passed.

Despite the government's pledges, justice still eludes the residents of the conflict-wracked southernmost provinces. No security forces involved in past abuses, including the notorious atrocities committed in Krue Se and Tak Bai, have faced criminal prosecution. There have been no arrests of the perpetrators from the June 8 Al-Furqan mosque attack that killed 10 Muslims and injured 12 others. Police investigations suggest that Buddhists, possibly including some state-sponsored militias, carried out the attack in retaliation for previous killings of their fellow Buddhists. The slaughter raises a concern that arming civilians has deepened communal tensions and exacerbated the conflict.

Throwing more money at the problem will not work, either. Without effective oversight the huge budgets could create "an industry of insecurity" and contribute to the inertia because some officials profit from projects. Increased corruption only erodes the government's legitimacy and would be exploited by the militants.

Poverty is not driving this conflict, so using economic stimulus to address the political grievances of insurgents does not tackle its root cause.

Policy for the South should be driven by hope rather than fear and the publicly declared stance of "no negotiations" should be reversed. Peace talks have proven effective in ending violence in many separatist conflicts without leading to secession. In recent years, "secret dialogues" between Thai governments and those claiming to represent insurgents have taken place without result. The lack of sustained and serious commitment to a peace process has stalled these confidential processes.

Reform of governance structures is often part of proposals in a negotiation process. Various alternatives should be explored and special administrative arrangements should not be perceived as a threat to the unitary state. When the government shows its serious commitment to talk, the militant representatives would then need to demonstrate their control of fighters on the ground.

After six years of military strategy that has not stemmed the violence, it is time to give political solutions a chance.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.