Southern Exposure

In the space of two weeks Surayud Chulanont, Thailand’s new prime minister, has visited the troubled south three times to attempt to make amends and test new policy ideas, publicly pondering the kind of autonomy that has brought peace, for now, to Indonesia’s war-torn Aceh province but which goes against a century of Thai state-building and could be the wrong remedy altogether.

Surayud, a former special-forces officer and retired general who was appointed after the September army coup, has made the smoldering southern insurgency a top priority. Resurrecting a civil-military administration to oversee Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala, the provinces along the Malaysian border with a majority ethnic Muslim Malay population, is one of the few achievements of a government already panned for dithering.

During a visit to Tak Bai in Pattani on 2 November he publicly apologized for the brutal tactics and deadly errors of the previous government of Thaksin Shinawatra, for whom atonement was weakness. A large crowd of Muslim s who came to see him burst into cheers. Some cried.

Surayud drew a warm welcome in Yala on 8 November during which the public prosecutor dropped charges against 58 people held since a demonstration at Tak Bai police station two years ago. That day 78 people suffocated and died when they were forced to lie atop one another in trucks by the security forces.

While visiting Narathiwat on 17 November he listened attentively to student concerns and promised to improve education and opportunities if they help the government tackle the violence. He also talked with a few hundred Buddhist Thais who have taken refuge from the violence at a temple in Yala. Thaksin, booted out by the army, was more likely to visit Burma or Singapore for business than the south where his rudeness and useless quick-fix solutions only made matters worse.

Hopes have risen a notch or two that there might be some justice for civilians killed by security forces in the south after Surayud oversaw the withdrawal of charges by the public prosecutor against protestors at Tak Bai police station two years ago. However, these hopes likely seem dashed. One reason for withdrawing those charges is to dampen calls for charging security forces for killing 84 protestors that day, as well as other with other incidents involving Thai troops. If troops or

police face charges, they may be less likely to cooperate or implement Surayud's policies.

Progress in the murder case of the Muslim human rights lawyer Somchai Neelapaichit is very slow. Nobody has been charged for killings during the protests of 1973, 1976 and 1992 nor for Thaksin’s war on drugs, which took the lives of hundreds of suspected dealers. A general amnesty was issued for both sides during the communist insurgency, despite some shocking actions by the state, such as the red drum killings in the south. Hardly any senior Thai officials or politicians have ever been jailed for


Certainly, militants in the south have not been moved by Surayud’s new tack and there has been no let-up in their murderous campaign since the coup.

Meanwhile the government claims to be talking informally with the insurgents. But with whom? The government acknowledges that it is far from sure who is behind the killings. Military fingers point at remnants and offshoots of previous rebel groups which had effectively given up by the late 1980s.

Their all-but-forgotten leaders are reveling in the limelight and enjoying the attention of military officers desperate for answers. Some may have been involved in hush-hush talks hosted last month by Mahathir Mohamad, the former Malaysian prime minister, but nobody is really saying, there is certainly little inkling of any progress.

Car showrooms were bombed around Yala town the day after Surayud left. Barely a day passes without a killing. This seems an odd way for the old rebel commanders to respond, especially as some praised Surayud’s offer to discuss everything but secession.

“There is no doubt to my mind that there are some communication links between the old leaders and some of those perpetuating the violence now. The question is whether they have the leverage and stature to influence those on the ground,” says Joseph Chinyong Liow who researches the insurgency at Singapore’s Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies.

That Mr Liow believes the old leaders are in touch with only some of those behind the violence hints at the complexity of the conflict, which almost certainly involves at least a few groups and dozens of autonomous cells. Curiously they have thus far eschewed assassinating senior civil and military commanders, or blowing up telephone exchanges, major bridges and other key infrastructure that are the classic targets of an insurgency.

More Malays have been killed than Thais. Even allowing for rogue security forces knocking off some Malays, it nonetheless strongly suggests the guerrillas are trying to intimidate Malays through a reign of terror while also going after political rivals.

Until it is clear who is really behind the violence in southern Thailand and why, firing off policies at random to draw them out of the shadows is likely to prove fruitless, while raising expectations that may not be met.

For some militants autonomy may well be meaningless. “Why should we think autonomy will bring about any reduction in the killings and bombings? You can’t fight religious extremists with a redesign of administration,” says Michael Nelson, who is researching the Thai media’s portrayal of the conflict.

However it certainly means a lot to the conservative royalist Thai elite, in a country where people are fed a steady diet of nationalism from their first days at school. “The psyche of the Thai public and leaders is that they had to fight for independence against the colonial powers and the Chinese. For them autonomy translates into independence,” says Panitan Wattanayagorn, a national security expert at Chulalongkorn University whom comes from Yala.

Autonomy in the south would go against a building a unitary state that was built to counter colonial powers brushing up against what was then called Siam by keeping the good bits and snipping off loosely loyal kingdoms and sultanates in lands now part of Laos, Cambodia and Malaysia.

Moreover autonomy for Aceh was a realistic option for Jakarta because of the substantial decentralization that began earlier this decade. Thailand’s decentralization has moved slowly, little real power or budget control has been given up by the powerful interior ministry.

A more workable alternative to autonomy is the Southern Border Provinces Administration Center, which Thaksin disbanded, handing control to the police not long after the trouble started. Surayud has sensibly brought this civil-military organization back to life. It brings together local community leaders, top bureaucrats and military commanders to discuss and tackle problems quickly. It is credited with bringing the insurgency to an end in the 1980s, in part using an extensive intelligence network, something today’s insurgents are doubtless trying to prevent.

Whether the center can tackle the current conflict remains to be seen. It needs to work fast and hard to win over Malay Muslims impatient for change, who have heard too much talk and seen too many committees sit down during the last few years. “The local people are quite worried about these bandits becoming their leaders, but if they have no other options then they may have to rely on these warlords. Therefore it is critical for the government to set up an administration that can provide justice with strong local participation,” says Panitan.

Sharia law, which already covers some disputes between Muslims, could be expanded. Using Yawi, their dialect of Malay, would be a good step, not least because many do not speak or read Thai well.

Anand Panyarachun, a respected former diplomat who led unusually competent governments during the 1990s, earlier this year suggested making Yawi an official language equal with Thai. However that was ruled out immediately by Prem Tinsalanond, the powerful Privy Council chief, because it might undermine national unity.

Most ethnic Malays are still not lost to the rebels, but the lure of the militants’ propaganda is a counterpoint to the abuse meted out by some officials and police, many of whom are sent south as punishment for screwing up elsewhere. What most Malays desire and deserve as citizens of Thailand is justice, equal opportunity and a state that does not use their provinces as a dumping ground for officials and police who probably should be sacked.

Surayud’s interim one-year government must get this right if it is to prevent wavering Muslim Malays from being lost forever. Then there could be real trouble. The government's latest policy for the south is an economic special development zone covering the five southern most provinces. However details are vague, but if it they are serious then it could help foster more jobs and raise incomes etc.

But it will have to be accompanied by a serious push to deliver justice and make officials act accordingly to the law and with respect for Muslim Malays to have a serious chance of winning people over.

“We need the legal process and justice system to be effective to charge government officials who break the law to try to stop them doing it again,” says Srisompob Jitpiromsri a political scientist at the Prince of Songkhla University in Pattani.