Muddy waters in Thailand’s deep south – ISN

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More shootings in Thailand’s troubled south show that no end is in sight for an often brutal insurgency, despite the army’s ‘hearts and minds’ efforts.

-By Simon Roughneen in Bangkok for ISN Security Watch

Lieutenant-General Pichet Wisaijorn, regional commander of the Thai 4th army, told reporters in Thailand’s capital on

hai army soldiers in Bangkok (cc) Ross Websdale/flickr

Thai army soldiers in Bangkok (cc) Ross Websdale/flickr

18 November that “things are getting better, the number of violent incidents are down, and the traditional life of villagers in the south is returning.”

He was discussing conditions in the country’s ‘Deep South,’ the four southernmost provinces bordering Malaysia, where 90 percent of the two million-strong population are Malay Muslims. Overall, 94 percent of Thailand’s 66 million people are Buddhist.

An oft-described “murky, shadowy” insurgency and terror campaign has rolled on since 2004, with over 3,700 killings. Intermittently heavy Thai army crackdowns impinge on civil liberties, but now the military is attempting hearts and minds development projects to win over ordinary Malay-Muslim Thais.

Coming from the section head of the Thai army responsible for military operations in a region beset by five years of bombings, beheadings and gun battles, such words might be of consolation – if they rang true. Violence dipped in 2008, but has climbed back up in recent months – though how many incidents can be attributed to insurgents on the one hand, or criminals on the other, is not clear. Small arms and drug trafficking are rife in the region, and violence is not always political, according to Marc Askew, a University of Melbourne researcher based in the southern city of Pattani.

Conflict fatigue

Some southern Muslims just may be tired of the violence, prompting some information sharing with the Thai army. Last week, six insurgents were killed in a shootout with Thai security forces, likely the result of a tip-off, Askew told ISN Security Watch.

Pichet told journalists in Bangkok that the army’s ‘red radio’ project is “taking off in more and more areas,” with southern Muslim civilians more amenable to talking to the army. “There are no more effective weapons against the terrorists than the eyes and ears of the people,” he said.

Southerners are apparently less wary of the Thai army now than in the past, with conflict fatigue perhaps a contributory factor to a willingness to share information with the troops. But the impact of the hearts and minds strategy is limited, and the Thai army presence is far from universally liked or accepted, perhaps even by those who inform on suspected terrorists or insurgents.

Writing in the 23 November edition of the Bangkok Post, Sariutdet Marukat outlined the government’s take: that the income disparity between the south and elsewhere in Thailand and other parts of the country is “a reason cited by separatists to lure the locals to their side in the fight against the state.”

This analysis, and by extension, a hearts and minds solution, might only go so far.

Duncan McCargo, author of Tearing apart the Land – Islam and Legitimacy in Southern Thailand, told ISN Security Watch that “violence did dip in late 07 and in 08, but since then has been worsening, and the hearts and minds line is untrue. Ordinary Malay Muslims are deeply unhappy and the security forces are just trying to hold the line.”

Shades of grey

It is difficult to apply black-and-white definitions of allegiances and motives in the south. Jason Johnson is a PhD student in the political science department at Northern Illinois University, but has lived in southern Thailand for the past two years. He told ISN Security Watch that “Many people who detest the violence still have nationalist leanings. Then again, many people are not at all preoccupied with the political and identity issues we always read so much about.”

Johnson outlined that there is “a diversity to what Muslims want,” with elites in the region claiming to speak for ordinary people, leaving foreign observers with a flawed understanding of the fighting.

To Marc Askew, southern Thailand is home to “an insurgency in search of a political wing.” Nobody seems to know the identity of the insurgency leaders, and there is no manifesto or statement outlining what political goals, if any, motivate the gruelling violence.

Pichet puts the conflict down to “a basic lack of trust” between Malay-Muslim Thais and the Thai state – which is most visibly represented in the south by over 60,000 military and security personnel. The army seems to want to get the local population onside with development projects, hoping that this will “drain the swamp” in which the terrorists/insurgents operate. But this may not be enough to sway a majority of the population in the Deep South.

McCargo, professor of Southeast Asian Studies at Leeds University, told ISN Security Watch that “the key issue is denial in Bangkok that this is a political conflict arising from a legitimacy deficit for Thai rule in the region.”

Links to transnational jihadism appear limited – though there is circumstantial evidence of shared learning on bomb-making techniques. Pichet believes that there is some foreign fighter involvement, though the General thinks this is “quite limited.”

While the Thai constitution does not designate Buddhism as the official religion, some analysts see Thai identity as constructed around a trifecta of nation, Buddhism and monarchy, which is contested by elite political leaders from the Malay south, who feel it underpins what they perceive as marginalisation and oppression.

The rebellion seems to be “a mutation of Malay nationalism with Islamic solidarity as a motivator,” according to Askew. Unlike other countries with Islamist insurgencies or terror groups, attacks on westerners or tourist attractions have not happened, despite proximity to beaches and resorts.

Elusive solution

Giving the region greater self government has been touted as a solution to the legitimacy gap. Autonomy has more or less been a non-starter to some of the Bangkok political establishment, but some closed-door discussions may be taking place. The Malaysian government has shown a recent willingness to try to mediate, which is significant given ethnic and religious ties across the border with the southern provinces of Thailand.

However, according to Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute for Security and International Studies at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, the problem is that any autonomy proposal will now be politicized because of the domestic Thai crisis.

The country remains polarized between Redshirt supporters of ousted former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and Yellowshirts who see Thaksin as a threat to Thailand’s constitutional monarchy. With stakes raised by Thaksin’s recent appearance in neighboring Cambodia, addressing the south might not be a priority for the current Democrat-led government, even though the party would depend on southern votes in any election.

Thus there seems to be a confluence of factors undermining chances of a negotiated end to the fighting. As Pichet put it, “we would like to invite the terrorists for tea, but we don’t know who they are.”

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