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Thailand Explores Greater Autonomy for Largely Muslim Provinces


A Thai government policy review of the largely Muslim southern provinces is considering granting greater local autonomy with reforms including introduction of Sharia Law through Islamic courts. The strategy is part of efforts to bring to an end a five-year insurgency that has cost more than 3,000 lives.

The policy review began soon after the government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva came to office in December. Speaking to foreign correspondents earlier this year, Mr. Abhsit set out the government's policy goals.

"The only long-term solution must be done through a comprehensive package that covers well beyond the security dimensions, but also addresses the issues such as economic development as well as addressing education and cultural diversity in the provinces," he said.

'Total development concept'

The government plan includes setting up a special office headed by a minister in charge of affairs in the Southern provinces. An interim committee of ministers has examined what the government calls a 'total development concept' directed to the three provinces of Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala.

The region is among the poorest in Thailand, heavily reliant on agriculture, especially rubber, as well as mining.

While Thailand's 63 million population is overwhelmingly Buddhist, there are more than six million Muslims, largely living in these provinces bordering Malaysia.

A Thai government review paper, an English translated copy of which was obtained by VOA, says people in the region consider themselves Pattani Malays rather than Thai.

The review paper calls on government to adopt a strategy that is largely peaceful and suggests a military solution will fail to win local community support, even if it succeeds in imposing control.

Insurgencies in the 1970s and 1980s came to an end through a process of military action, negotiation and amnesty.

The paper says policy changes in 2002 under the government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, with the disbanding of joint military, police and civilian commands, had led the way open for the insurgency to resurface. The first major attack occurred in January 2004 on an army depot. Since then the violence has escalated.

Thai government spokesman, Panitan Wattanyagorn, says the new proposals are part of a coordinated approach to the Southern border regions. A state economic think tank, the National Economic and Social Development Board - or NESDB - has completed a master plan for development.

"For the first time - integrating all aspects of economic and social development programs together; they work on the ground, with the military also - the ISOC - the Internal Security Operations Command Center - to get information from more than 200 villages," said Panitan. "And they are integrating that approach - of military, civilian and non-government organization, NGO - together with a single master plan."

'Southern cabinet' policy

Policy review options include a specially elected local chamber of government, the partial application of Islamic Sharia Law through Islamic Courts and local administrative organizations based on Muslim community leadership. It also calls for security forces and government officials to be selected from the local Southern community or have language, cultural and knowledge of local customs and traditions before being posted.

Panitan says the empowerment of local communities and application of Sharia law is an option under consideration.

"They are in consideration already in the proposals," he said. "There are at least two different proposals - legislative proposals - proposed by the members of parliament [MPs]. We do not know what will be adopted by the parliament yet but yes - these are the considerations."

A member of the governing Democrat Party, Kraisak Choonhavan, has been an outspoken critic over the militarization of the Southern Provinces where up to 40,000 troops have been stationed to curb the violence.

"The government has a plan - it calls itself the Southern Cabinet in which in theory the military will be part of a civilian rule in the South and that eventually the emergency law would be lifted," he said. "But considering the pace of this implementation is just frustrating for me to wait for them to come to the decision."

Escalating violence

Violence has escalated during the five years. More brutal attacks by the insurgents; drive by killings, beheadings of victims to spread fear through local communities, the torching of schools, killing of teachers, state officials and Buddhist monks, as well as Muslims.

The response by the military has often led to accusations of extrajudicial killings, disappearances, and heavy handed security crackdowns into villages. Kraisak says the government must take action to end state-backed violence.

"I have evidence, pictures, witnesses you name it of all the perpetrators - hundreds of perpetrators - and they all belong to the state security," he said. "How does one go about bringing justice as we understand it?"

Justice for all

Angkhana Neelapaichit, chairs a group that monitors human rights abuses in Southern Thailand. She says rather than autonomy as a priority the people of the southern provinces are seeking justice.

"First priority; they want justice," said Angkhana. "They want to live peacefully. If you saw the local people, I think they are very poor. They want to have a good job; they want to send their children to go to school, to have a good education, good job. But I think they could not."

The Thai Cabinet this week endorsed a plan to streamline the judicial processes in Southern Thailand concerning the legal treatment of suspected insurgents. The overnment says the changes are designed to ensure fairness and boost confidence in the justice system and a further step towards ending the five-year cycle of violence.

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