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Thai Government Shelves Autonomy for Deep South as Violence Continues

Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra pictured on September 15, 2011.
Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra pictured on September 15, 2011.

The Thai government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has back-tracked on a campaign pledge to establish a special administration zone in its troubled southern provinces.

Political analysts say a simmering insurgency in the majority-Muslim Malay region can only be resolved by allowing some form of self-rule. But, the government has little incentive to challenge the status quo.

When Thailand’s Pheu Thai party was campaigning for votes earlier this year, they tried to gain support in Thailand’s deep south among people who have not traditionally supported them.

The party offered to make the three southern border provinces a special administrative zone. Thailand’s Narathiwat, Pattani, and Yala provinces were part of a Muslim sultanate that was annexed by Thailand, more than a century ago.

Since 2004, insurgents have waged a violent campaign against a dominant Thai Buddhist culture in the majority ethnic Malay Muslim region.

Earlier this month, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra said the government has no plan to grant special status to the provinces.

"This is partly because that the government did not, Pheu Thai party, did not get a single seat in the Deep South," said Rungrawee Chalermsripinyorat, the Thailand analyst for the International Crisis Group. "And, they probably don't see any political points they would gain by pushing forward this policy."

Yingluck Shinawatra’s party was unpopular in the south before the election, partly because of violent crackdowns that occurred during her brother’s rule several years ago.

But, although it may not be politically advantageous for Pheu Thai, analysts say allowing the south more say in running its own affairs would help quell the seven-year insurgency that has cost nearly 5,000 lives.

Tens of thousands of soldiers in the south maintain security through emergency laws that give them immunity from prosecution.

Rights groups say this allows for official abuses that stoke the insurgency.

Donna Guest is Amnesty International’s deputy Asia program director. She told the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand Tuesday that security forces still commit torture and other human rights violations.

“Amnesty’s 2009 report noted that not a single individual has been held accountable for torturing suspects," she said. "And, more than two-and-a-half years on, this remains the case.”

This week, Amnesty said two-thirds of victims in the southern violence are civilians, the majority of them Muslims viewed as cooperating with the government or not supporting the insurgency.

Guest says, in the last five years, insurgent attacks have concentrated on soft targets such as farmers, schools, merchants, monks and civil servants.

“As the insurgents have never clearly articulated their grievances, aims or demands, these targeted attacks seem aimed primarily at spreading terror among the civilian population. These attacks constitute war crimes,” said Guest.

Analysts say that part of the problem with the government’s response to the southern violence is a lack of coherent and coordinated efforts.

Earlier this month, police blamed bomb attacks that killed seven people, including five Malaysians, on a government campaign against drug dealers. However the Interior Ministry rejects that connection and says the violence was related to feelings of injustice, inequality and economic difficulties.

In what may be an attempt to address these differences, the government is planning a new center for coordinating and integrating policies and operations in the south.

Government spokeswoman Thitima Chaisang says the two main agencies responsible for security and development, the Internal Security Operations Command and the Southern Border Provinces Administration Center, never talk to each other. She says the center will promote better cooperation.

“The government [is] concerned about security and also the development and to make the fairness to the people in the Deep South," she said. "This is the way that the government wants to do.”

Thai authorities are quick to point out that annual deaths are going down, indicating that, despite the ongoing violence, the situation is at least better than before.

But analyst Rungrawee says the efforts at improving coordination among various agencies will do little to end the violence because the government’s overall policy remains the same.

"If the government continues to use the same approach, it doesn't matter how they restructure the bureaucratic system, if they don't initiate new policy there's no way that we're going to see a permanent end to the conflict in the deep south," said Rungrawee.

Rungrawee says any hopes for peace rest on some form of decentralized power and holding formal dialogue with the insurgents.