Thailand’s Lethal Muslim Conflict
For four months, Thailand’s pro-royalist People’s Democratic Reform Committee has led anti-government protesters in Bangkok to work toward toppling the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, the youngest sister of 2006 coup-ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra.
But while all eyes are on the conflict in Bangkok, where bombings and shootings have left at least 20 dead since November and hundreds injured, a dramatically more lethal conflict is taking place in the country’s predominantly Malay-Muslim far south. In this region, which borders Malaysia, some 6,000 people have been killed since a relatively dormant secessionist insurgent movement resurfaced in early 2004.
Though personal feuds and local conflicts often serve as proximate factors behind violent incidents, the region’s unprecedented levels of violence have been heavily influenced by the conflict between the divisive Thaksin and anti-Thaksin camps in Bangkok. Both groups have had conflicts over the far south, impacting not only the onset of violence over a decade ago but also the possibilities for future resolutions.
When Thaksin came to power in 2001, the region’s bureaucracy and security apparatus was completely controlled by Democrat Party networks aligned with the arch-royalist Prem Tinsulanonda, head of the monarchy’s privy council since 1998. In 2002, Thaksin took aim at that old power base by dissolving the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Center and reducing the army’s security role. Thaksin’s police allies were given greater authority vis-à-vis the army, and were given carte blanche to carry out extrajudicial killings of alleged and former insurgents.
In 2004, one of the most appalling instances of state human rights violations in Thailand’s history took place. In Tak Bai district of Narathiwat province, Malay-Muslim protestors were piled on top of one another in army trucks. Some 78 suffocated and died, decimating the reputation of Thaksin and his local Malay Muslim parliamentarians in his then-Thai Rak Thai party.
To this day, figures from the Democrat Party, Thailand’s oldest party, use the Tak Bai incident as political capital against the polarizing Thaksin, who continues to exert power from his exile perch in Dubai. In contrast, Malay Muslim rebels and nationalist activists use it as a source of motivation against a much larger entity, the Thai state.
While the brash Thaksin’s moves to undermine regional establishment power were criticized by his opponents and analysts alike, that same willingness to rock the foundations of monarchial-bureaucratic power is critical to the region’s future stability. The simmering conflict is locked in a protracted military stalemate, and any potential solutions depend on the Thai state doling out substantial concessions to the country’s only ethno-religious minority region.
That includes some form of regional autonomy and engaging in formal dialogue, both of which have long been adamantly opposed by the establishment.
Thaksin and Yingluck boldly broke away from establishment conservatism early last year when the Pheu Thai government announced a formal dialogue agreement with Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), the factionalized liberation group allegedly behind the vast majority of insurgent-instigated violence.
Thaksin’s loyal team of officials brought in Malaysia, long used as a source of sanctuary for insurgents, to facilitate Thailand’s first ever formal dialogue process with a rebel group.
But just as Thaksin and his allies have found their rise to power through electoral politics challenged by the royalist establishment, so too has the Thaksin-hatched dialogue process. The opposition Democrat Party and the army’s top brass blasted the highly publicized dialogue from the get-go, claiming it could lead to foreign intervention and possibly even independence.
Later, when te Barisan revealed five core demands to the public last year on Youtube, the fragile and timid Pheu Thai government side-stepped the liberation movement’s calls due to that staunch opposition in establishment quarters.
To show that the dialogue process was actually credible, Thaksin’s dialogue team persuaded the Barisan delegation to direct insurgent fighters to carry out a ceasefire from mid-July to mid-August. Skeptics had questioned the dialogue team’s command over on-the-ground fighters, while the clandestine leadership’s support was uncertain in part because Malaysian authorities strong-armed Barisan figures to the dialogue table.
Although the first few days of the cessation of hostilities was seemingly successful, it quickly got derailed. In a video posted on Youtube, Bariksan fighters claimed that they had withdrawn from it because the Thai side violated the agreement. They added that they had suspended the dialogue process all together because the Thai government refused to respond to those initial set of demands, which include immunity protection for insurgents and recognizing BRN as a liberation group instead of a separatist group.
Further fueling criticism of the process, violence has continued unabated since the dialogue agreement was first inked last February. Although insurgents have largely complied with the Thai delegation’s initial core demand to significantly curtail attacks on civilians, the decentralized fighters who largely operate in small groups have intensified attacks on security forces. That uptick on the army’s personnel has generated some resentment by army figures towards Pheu Thai
Moreover, the reduction in civilian attacks has been undermined over the past month. On February 3, three Muslim children in the region’s Narathiwat province were shot dead by army rangers allegedly seeking revenge for the murder of a relative. Insurgent reprisal attacks soon followed, including a shooting that left a monk, a young boy and his mother dead. Then, last week, four civilians were gunned down in Pattani province.
Despite the glaring urgency to work towards eradicating the ceaseless violence, Yingluck’s government has temporarily halted dialogue due to Bangkok’s political turmoil. That is allegedly one reason why Hassan Taib, BRN’s lead representative at the dialogue table, backed out of the process late last year.
In an apparent effort to show that the process had not been abandoned, late last month the Malaysian facilitator, Ahmad Zamzamin Hashim, came to Thailand and assured the media and others that it would continue.
Yet, in recent months there have been rumblings that the Thai army may take over responsibility for the dialogue. Rather than continuing on with the Malaysia-brokered process, the army would likely shelve it and instead hold informal talks with secessionist figures within Thailand.
That prospect seems increasingly likely since the 46-year-old Yingluck may soon be removed from office by Thailand’s constitutional court. Her government is facing corruption charges for a highly unpopular and disastrous rice-pledging scheme.
Though never publically acknowledged within Thailand because of a draconian lese majeste law, both of Thailand’s conflicts are taking place on the eve of a royal succession. The world’s longest-reigning and wealthiest monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, is 86 years old and in frail health. Many supporters of the PDRC fear Thailand’s future without Bhumibol and are believed to be bent on preventing Thaksin from having any kind of role in overseeing the ultra-sensitive royal succession.
The Thai monarchy has long wielded enormous informal power over the country’s politics, but its future role may be substantially constrained given the rise in power of representative politics.
While the historic political crisis in Bangkok highlights that cleavage between monarchial authority and power derived from the ballot box, the secessionist conflict in the peripheral Muslim far south is also tied to Thailand’s ever-evolving national divide between these two forms of authority.
A resolution to what is Southeast Asia’s deadliest insurgency would almost certainly require a democratically-elected government that can exercise some authority over the military-monarchy alliance. But current events in Bangkok indicate that will not happen any time soon.