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Southeast Asia is often viewed as a dynamic region, home to several of Asia’s tiger economies. But look a bit closer, and the region is replete with internal tensions—some between countries, but most within countries. April’s events in the region are illustrative of so many of these tensions. In every case, they reflect deep fault lines that have existed for many years. Resolving them will take time and require extraordinary and sustained leadership.
Thailand has witnessed an upsurge in violence in its unsettled south. More repression will not work. The government and the military need to adopt a different strategy.
On March 31, two separate and apparently coordinated bomb explosions killed fourteen people and wounded hundreds more in Yala Province in southern Thailand, making March the region’s most violent month in recent years 73 violent incidents led to 56 deaths and injured 547 others1. These incidents mark a worrying deterioration in the long-simmering conflict in the troubled, Malay-dominated southern provinces of Narathiwat, Yala, and Pattani. Since the insurgency flared in January 2004, it has claimed the lives of some 5,000 people and injured over 8,000
In last year’s election campaign, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra opened the possibility of some form of autonomy for the three southern provinces as well as including them in a special economic zone.
Police Colonel Tawee Sodsong, the prime minister’s recently appointed secretary general of the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Centre, also raised the possibility of some form of self-rule and lifting the emergency decree that allows detaining suspects for more than thirty days and gives government official immunity from prosecution. These tentative signals, however, were dismissed by Army Commander General Prayuth as contrary to the army’s position of an “indivisible” Thailand.
The media also reported that ex-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the current prime minister’s brother, was in Malaysia recently for talks with Prime Minister Najib Razak, where he also met with exiled Malay leaders for so-called peace negotiations. If true, it is difficult to imagine a less likely approach to peace, since it was Thaksin Shinawatra’s heavy-handed actions as the country’s leader in 2004 that fanned the flames of insurgency in the first place.
Thailand’s southern insurgency has never been jihadist or religious in nature.
It has always been about alienation—economic and cultural—as well as perceived social and economic injustice.
The Thai government and the army must recognize this. It will be almost impossible to turn the clock back to the days when southern Thailand was peaceful without a formal political agreement. A military solution has been tried for many years and failed. Indeed, all it seems to have done is further alienate the local people.
More repression will not work.
Prime Minister Yingluck’s desire to bring about an end to the insurgency in southern Thailand should be taken at face value. But her room for maneuvering is limited by the army on one side and the shadow of her brother on the other. Both should back off and give her space to bring about a lasting peace. She has been right in seeking the support of Prime Minister Najib to achieve this. It is in the interest of both countries to bring this long-simmering conflict to an end.
There is little alternative left apart from direct or indirect negotiations with the insurgents for example, by bringing in an international mediator, such as the United Nations and the final agreement will very likely have to include a certain degree of autonomy, a recognition of Thailand’s diversity, and measures that support the economic development of the affected provinces.