Yingluck Shinawatra

Politics gets in the way of peace in Thai south

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 08 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 August, 2012, 11:11pm


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In the past few weeks, violence in Thailand's restive south has re-emerged. First, a roadside bomb killed five policemen. Then, four soldiers died when their patrol was ambushed by Islamic terrorists. Within hours of that attack, three civilians were shot dead in separate incidents.

Back in March, a group of terrorists staged the most deadly co-ordinated attacks in years, killing over a dozen people and injuring 340 others with car bombs that targeted shoppers and a high-rise hotel in the deep south.

This is a tragedy for the victims, and also a slap for Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, whose government had seemed on track to finally pacify the region. Clearly, its programme is failing.

Separatist conflict has festered in Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat for decades. Successive Thai governments have been preoccupied with politics in Bangkok, leaving the south virtually unattended.

Yingluck's Puea Thai government had seemed to offer the best chance in years of settling the conflict. First, she appointed Thawee Sodsong, a former policeman, as the secretary general of the Southern Border Provinces Administration Centre. Thawee immediately resurrected the idea of devolving a measure of self-rule to the southern provinces. The government also planned to abolish the emergency decree implemented in the area that permits the detention of suspects for up to 30 days without charge and also grants officials immunity from prosecution.

Second, Yingluck redoubled efforts to improve economic conditions and promote business opportunities by planning to set up a special economic zone.

Third, in the process of granting some autonomous power to Pattani, the government recognised the Malay Muslim identity and, more broadly, the ethnic diversity in the kingdom.

On the surface, these policies should have been effective. They demilitarised the conflict and, more importantly, offered a wider political space to Malay Muslims.

But here is the problem. Yingluck's government has never received full support from the key agencies managing the crisis. For example, she has struggled to build a working relationship with the military, which removed her brother, Thaksin, from power in 2006.

These awkward ties have delayed the government's peace efforts. They are also egging on the opposition Democrat Party, for whom the south has always been a stronghold. The Democrats are only too happy to undermine the Puea Thai party's peace overtures.

Until Yingluck can produce a unified policy, the south will unfortunately remain an intractable problem.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is associate professor at the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies, Kyoto University