BANGKOK — Thailand's military junta is putting new security measures in place in a bid to calm the country's restive southern region, where fighting with Muslim separatists has claimed more than 5,000 lives in the past decade. The military leaders are also hoping to restart peace talks with insurgents.
A new command structure for Thailand's southern border provinces will have junta leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha replace civilian authorities as the army takes a lead role in efforts to halt rising violence in the south.
Civilian organizations will come under the military command.
The junta, which is known as the National Council for Peace and Order, took power a month ago and says it hopes to restart stalled peace talks. Reports say the military is looking to the Malaysian Government to act as a facilitator to restart the talks.
Chulalongkorn University political scientist Panitan Wattanayagorn was an advisor to past Thai Governments on security issues in the southern provinces. He says the military has unified control to overcome policy shortcomings under past civilian governments.
"That is my observation - a more unified structure you also shorten command, control. That suggests [they] may want to do something more in the south soon. But success could depend firstly at the strategic level or policy level. I think with that you need unity at the top. We are hoping that a new initiative, particularly in terms of governance, in terms of politics will come out and that will be positive on the ground," he said.
Panitan said policy had been weakened under past civilian governments due to conflict between the civilian and military operations.
The decade long insurgency has claimed the lives of more than 5,800 people and wounded more than 10,000. The most frequent targets of insurgent attacks are ethnic Thai Buddhists and ethnic Malay Muslims in the provinces of Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala.
Failed attempts to quell the insurgency have included crackdowns, efforts to win over local communities and heavy spending by the central government to spur local development. Brutal attacks on teachers and state officials by insurgents have led to accusations of extra judicial killings by authorities, perpetuating a cycle of violence.
Panitan says the new structure may be more administratively efficient, but local residents may fear the diminished role of civilian authorities in policy making.
"The military's heavy influence may have raised some concerns on the ground, particularly in terms of a new round of negotiation or a new negotiation on the master plan for the governance or even on the day-to-day operations," he said.
Human rights concerns
Rights advocates have also raised concerns over the military seeking to restart direct negotiations with the insurgents. Peace talks under the former civilian government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, collapsed last year and there was no fresh date set for them to recommence.
Rights advocate Angkhana Neelapaijit, the wife of missing Muslim lawyer, Somchai Neelapaijit, says a neutral body is needed to lead talks, rather than the military.
"If the military want to earn the peace process, how can they be trusted by another group or armed groups? Because I think we need neutral people to talk to both sides, not to use violence and go to the [negotiating] table and then discuss what is wrong and what happened," she said.
Analysts expect the military will work quickly on new initiatives aimed at producing results, including legal moves to encourage insurgents to give up arms, while ruling out insurgent calls for greater regional autonomy.