Op-Ed / Asia 6 minutes

Thaksin's timebomb

Since he first took office in 2001, Prime Minister Thaksin hasn’t put a foot right handling the violence in Thailand’s Muslim-majority south: the provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat. By failing to address the underlying political issues, he is in danger of turning a small splintered group of rebels into a mass-based insurgency. Thaksin’s inability to diagnose the problem has resulted in a series of inappropriate policy responses, which have served only to exacerbate the crisis.

Mistake No.1: Deny the Problem

In Thaksin’s view, the decades-old Malay separatist insurgency had long been resolved. The ongoing shootings and bombings, he argued, were the product of turf wars between criminal gangs. There is a long history of armed bandits operating in the southern border provinces, and an ongoing problem with organised crime – involving police and local officials in some instances. But a little more attention could have produced a more accurate diagnosis. The government was thus caught off guard when violence flared up again with a vengeance in January 2004.

Mistake No.2: Scrap the Conflict-Management Institutions.

A Southern Border Provinces Administration Centre (SBPAC) was set up in 1981, tasked with formulating political, social, economic and security policies to ameliorate the conflict. It was attached to the Interior Ministry, and served as an interface between the southern provinces and Bangkok. Along with its security arm, the 43rd joint civil-police-military task force (CPM 43), it had made considerable progress over the years in quelling the violence and earning the trust of local people. In May 2002, having determined that separatism was no longer a serious threat, Thaksin disbanded the two agencies.

There are three reasons why dismantling these agencies was such a disaster.

  • They were at the top of an important intelligence network, which fell apart when the SBPAC was closed – and its informers are now being picked off by snipers.
  • The SBPAC had engendered a sense of ownership among local elites: ownership of the problems but also of the solutions. Many of its staff were local ethnic Malays, and non-Malays were given language training. Community and religious leaders were affiliated to the Centre right down to the village level, providing a channel for people to express their grievances.
  • The closure of CPM 43 disrupted a delicate balance between the various security agencies in the southern provinces. The system was not perfect; there were still tensions but there was at least a clearer division of labour and a greater degree of coordination.

Mistake No. 3: Turn Security Over to the Police

Once CPM 43 was disbanded, Thaksin handed overall control for security to the police. Almost at once, latent tensions erupted into open disputes. When the National Intelligence Agency produced a report last year alleging police had carried out extra-judicial killings for example, a group of police officers responded by kicking down the door of the NIA’s Narathiwat office.

Furthermore, the police simply weren’t up to the job of handling such a volatile environment on their own. The government recognised this 18 months later when it redeployed the army. Since then, however, neither the army nor the police has managed to articulate a coherent strategy, and both forces are being targeted in shooting and bomb attacks daily. And despite claims the authorities are closing the net around key suspects, senior security officials privately admit they are at a loss as to precisely who is behind much of the violence.

Mistake No.4: Use Excessive Force

The first of three major outbreaks of violence in 2004 was a string of coordinated attacks on 4 January, in which well-trained groups raided an army arsenal, torched 20 schools and three police posts, and set off several bombs. Thaksin declared martial law the following day. He sent combat troops to conduct raids on mosques and schools and the police made dozens of arrests, often on weak evidence. According to local religious leaders, more than 100 residents of the southern provinces were abducted and killed in the four months after 4 January. It is difficult to verify these claims but there is certainly a widespread perception among southern Muslims that they are true.

The second major outbreak of violence was the 28 April series of dawn raids on police and army posts which ended in a bloody showdown at Pattani’s historic Krue Se mosque. When the militants holed up inside refused to surrender, Special Forces troops stormed the mosque and gunned down all 32. They also forcefully repulsed attacks on other rural outposts. By midday, 108 militants, many of them lightly armed teenagers, were dead, along with 5 members of the security forces. Although a government appointed commission ruled that the army used excessive force, not a single officer has been brought to account.

The incident that really inflamed tensions, however, was the demonstration at Tak Bai on 25 October last year in which 88 Muslim men and boys died at the hands of the security forces. Seven died when soldiers fired on the crowd, another three were found drowned in a nearby river, but perhaps most shockingly, 78 died of asphyxiation in the army’s custody. After ordering the protestors to lie face down for over an hour, tying their hands behind their backs, and in many cases kicking them and hitting them with rifle butts, soldiers stacked some 1,300 men and boys four and five deep in trucks which were then covered with tarpaulins for a five-hour drive to an army barracks in Pattani.

Mistake No.5: Show Appalling Insensitivity and Refuse Demands for Justice

Thaksin's first reaction was to suggest it was the Muslims' own fault for fasting during Ramadan, saying, "It's normal their bodies could not handle it. It's not about someone attacking them". The local military chief added, "If they were normal people - and not fasting or on drugs, as I suspect many of them were - they would probably not have died." Three days later, Thaksin was forced to acknowledge that the security forces had made mistakes, but stopped short of disciplining senior officers.

The continual failure to deliver justice to the victims and their families creates resentment that feeds into a deep reserve of historical grievance. It is precisely this antagonism that can be manipulated into sympathy and support for, and participation in armed movements. And yet the solutions coming out of Bangkok are still more money and more guns. A new infantry unit comprising 12,000 troops will be deployed over the next six months.

Mistake No.6: Fail to Acknowledge Failure

Thaksin’s apparent inability to look beyond policies that are clearly failing is symptomatic of the closed nature of policy-making in Bangkok. Decisions are made in very small circles, and local leaders are completely marginalised. Thaksin dispatched Deputy PM Chaturon Chaisang to the southern provinces in early 2004 to consult with community and religious leaders about how best to address the violence, but the dove-ish proposal Chaturon brought back, despite being endorsed by senior army figures, was quickly sidelined.

Mistake No.7: Propose Collective Punishment

Prime Minister Thaksin’s latest policy initiative, if implemented, will be the most ruinous yet. The first proposal he unveiled after February’s election, in which his Thai Rak Thai Party did spectacularly well everywhere but the southern provinces where it didn’t win a single seat, was a plan to cut development funds to villages suspected of harbouring militants. Not only is there no evidence to support his claim that these funds could support the activities of insurgents, but collective punishment is one of the best ways to deepen and broaden resentment against the government and support for rebels.

Under intense criticism from the opposition and rights advocates, this proposal was put on ice, and a parliamentary hearing is planned for the end of the month. Thaksin also appointed former PM Anand Panyarachun as head of a panel to advise him on the south. But he needs to listen to more than a high-level panel. He needs to listen to the voices of Muslims in the south and understand that their grievances can’t be addressed by force or an airdrop of origami birds (one of his policy initiatives last year). Providing justice for past abuses would help, and he could start by making public the full findings of the investigation into the Tak Bai deaths and prosecuting those responsible. As his recent landslide victory shows, however, most Thais don’t see his approach to the south as the recipe for disaster that it is. It may be time for the International Community to drive that message home.

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