Thursday, January 19, 2012
No resolution to conflict in southern Thailand
On the evening of 25 October 2011 the southern Thai town of Yala was shaken by a string of 30 explosions that caused great terror and loss of life. The following day the neighbouring province of Narathiwat saw a similar wave of attacks.
This latest bombing campaign was a stark reminder from southern Thailand’s insurgency movement of the seventh anniversary of the Tak Bai massacre.
The violent conflict still ravaging southern Thailand has claimed more than 5000 lives since the eruption of violence in 2004, and is concentrated in the three Malay-Muslim majority provinces, Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat, as well as four districts of neighbouring Songkhla.
This historically rebellious region has seen waves of uprisings against the Thai state since it became part of Thailand through the 1909 Anglo-Siamese treaty. Many of the armed movements that have fought for independence over the years have emerged as reactions against recurring efforts by Bangkok to exert increased authority over the region. The 1970s and 1980s saw an extended separatist campaign by the Pattani United Liberation Organisation (PULO), which relied on traditional guerrilla warfare conducted from jungle bases. This was effectively suppressed by a combination of conventional military campaigns and amnesty programs. Following the decline of PULO, BRN-Coordinate (BRN-C) emerged as the main insurgent group, and the movement made a number of strategic shifts away from its predecessors’ failures. BRN-C also focused on initially conducting a systematic mass-indoctrination of the local southern population in order to build a solid political base before eventually launching its violent struggle.
Maintaining separate political and militant cells in villages throughout the Malay-Muslim south, BRN-C has built a strong base and effectively undermined state control in the region. Rather than relying on a regular guerrilla force, the movement relies on part-time fighters organised in autonomous cells acting in their own communities. This mode of operation provides a challenge for state security agencies employing traditional counter-insurgency tactics. The largely Thai-Buddhist police and military is simply incapable of separating friend from foe when operating in the ‘Deep South’.
The current wave of violence began in 2004 with a bold raid on the Chulaporn military camp, where the separatists made away with a large weapons cache. The security agencies initially tried to counter the insurgency using cruel repression: the infamous massacres at the Kru Se mosque and later at the police station in the small town of Tak Bai are two clear examples. While outside attention has largely focused on these symbolic events, the bulk of casualties have been caused by a drawn-out campaign of daily acts of violence using small arms, explosives and arson attacks. The security agencies’ mismanagement of the initial round of violence has also contributed to its steady escalation.
The spread of violence has pushed state power back from the south, leading to increased lawlessness and secondary violence in the form of revenge killings, settling of scores among criminals and extra-judicial executions at the hands of rogue elements within Thailand’s security agencies.
Instances of violence tend to follow linguistic and religious patterns, reinforcing the view that southern insurgents rely on ethnic and religious identities for mobilisation. While the Thai state has maintained an inclusive policy toward religious minorities, language policies are extremely conservative. Standard Thai is the sole medium of communication with government officials, for example, leaving the south’s Malay-speaking population feeling largely alienated. Economic disadvantage also adds to the sense of exclusion, as the region is among the poorest in the country, and significantly less developed than Thai-Buddhist provinces to the immediate north.
The central Thai government has been largely ineffective at handling the violence in the south. Efforts to mediate in the conflict are hampered by the hyper secrecy maintained by BRN-C leaders and the state’s unwillingness to make any concessions. Consequently, serious proposals for handling the conflict have principally been found outside this bloc, and include academic blueprints for increased self-determination. Researchers at the Prince of Songkla University in Pattani have suggested that autonomy through the creation of a Pattani Metropolitan Administration could allow space to pursue local identity within the bounds of the Thai state — and undermine local support for the armed uprising.
In the July 2011 election, several parties floated policies for autonomy or decentralisation, with the pro-Thaksin Pheu Thai Party adopting the Pattani Metropolitan Administration proposal as party policy. In the end, the pro-establishment Democrat Party triumphed in the Deep South, taking nine of 11 parliamentary seats. The party benefited from a spilt of the Malay-Muslim vote between large numbers of candidates contesting the elections after the break-up of the Wadah faction, which had dominated Malay-Muslim politics for decades.
The failure of Pheu Thai to gain any seats in the south leaves them without clear electoral support to pursue autonomy. Back-tracking on their election promises, the party has recently floated alternative ideas for preserving strong central government control over the south, even while increasing the army’s role in handling the situation. The lack of meaningful effort at decentralisation can only prolong the conflict.
By Anders Engvall recent PhD graduate in Economics from the Stockholm School of Economics, where he is now an assistant professor.
This article appeared in the most recent edition of the East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘Where is Thailand Headed?‘