Guest Column

Thai Deep South Conflict to Worsen

By Kavi Chongkittavorn 14 August 2012

It was the most revealing public statement by any military top brass on the nature and consequences of the Thai Deep South conflict since violence resumed in January 2004. Thai Army Chief Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha knows all too well who the traditional key players are who keep fueling clashes in the three troublesome provinces of Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala.

He has been trying to fix it under his tenure, which has another two years before his retirement, but his hands are tied and the troublemakers are getting more daring and sophisticated.

For Prayuth, the stakes are extremely high because the outcome will directly impact his career sustainability, institutional stabilities and national political profile which is currently under the control of the Pheu Thai Party with Yingluck Shinawatra as prime minister.

Obviously, the general rapport between the army and Yingluck government would be a major determinant of how these situations play themselves out during Prayuth’s remaining two years.

At the press conference, he plainly laid out all the frustration and structural problems that the Thai Army has been facing in keeping peace in the region. He lamented the sense of apathy among the public, dearth of coordination among government agencies and lack of legislative support essential to efficient counter-insurgency strategies.

Interesting, he had not made such complaints under the previous government due to his excellent relationship with former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva on both a personal and policy level. The southerners are known for their unwavering support of the Democrat Party—in particular the Chinese and Thai Buddhists.

After the Tak Bai massacre in October 2004, the Thai-Malay voters dumped the Wadah group—a prominent Thai-Muslim political entity set up in 1988—which was closely associated with Thaksin Shinawatra. Since then, none have won a seat in the Deep South. Apparently the ruling Pheu Thai Party intends to turn around this unfavorable situation.

That helps to explain why the containment of conflicts during 2009-11 allowed the government to claim some success. Trust increased between the Malays and Thai state at the time, however, it has not impacted on the insurgency and the state of violence there. More attacks targeted urban areas with car combs even though they were less frequent in general.

The revival of the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Center was also put into place once again under the Abhisit administration as well as the new structure of the Internal Security Operations Command. This allows both development and security work—essential to the strategy of winning hearts and minds—to go hand-in-hand.

Indeed, through this strategy, political means have taken precedent. However, with more senior non-military officials manning the SPBAC, inevitably it has caused coordination problems with the security-oriented ISOC headed by the Fourth Region’s Army commander-in-chief and other security agencies.

In order to circumvent this problem, the Yingluck government decided to establish the Operation Center for Solving Problems in the Southern Provinces under the care of three deputy prime ministers to cover five major tasks on security affairs, developments, administration of justice, human rights and government-civilian relations.

At first glance, the decision to set up this new body makes sense for two reasons. First of all, it will throw everything back to the purviews of a security-first approach to counter the increasing attacks. Secondly, it ensures there are sufficient levels of coordinating policies and cooperation among various agencies in security and civilian sectors.

It was clear that former premier Thaksin is behind this idea as he said over the weekend that he was looking into the issue. However, upon close scrutiny, the new guidelines may backfire in the long-run because it would increase the bureaucratic red tape and lethargy in government responses to the conflicts and threats of violence. Prior to this, the Deep South was under the Special Provinces Administrative Center Act (2010) which gives civilians the authority to run day-to-day affairs. The ISOC has also its own guidelines.

At the moment, a total of 17 ministries with 66 government agencies are involved in restoring peace in southern Thailand. As the nerve center some 1,000 km away, it would not be able to respond as quickly and could result in creating a sense of disconnectedness among operatives on the ground.

This could encourage further violence in urban areas rather than conflict zones, where police and civilian works are involved. As in the previous six months, there has been a heavy toll on civilians—around 420 deaths. If the past is any judge, when the military was on good terms with the government in power, soldiers are able to prevent attacks because of better coordination on the ground among various agencies with shared intelligence.

Prayuth also stated unequivocally at the press conference that violence today was committed by fellow Thais only, regardless of their religion. The most problematic assailants are those with dual nationalities who seek sanctuary across the border.

They are just a small group of people, he pointed out, with their own motivations stemming from criminal activities, drug trafficking, illegal migrant workers, politics, personal conflicts as well as disputed land ownerships.

At the moment, the Thai Army has deployed 60,000 troops including police, border patrol, rangers and defense volunteers to oversee security in the south. In fact, Prayuth reiterated that only three thousands specially trained soldiers would be sufficient to keep troublemakers in check. However, the reality in the region dictates otherwise.

Albeit with increased numbers, unlike the army of yesteryear, Thai soldiers today, he reiterated, still have to observe strict rules of engagement and operate with many restrictions. In acknowledgement of international norms, Prayuth has previously mentioned the international humanitarian law and the principle of the responsibility to protect, much to chagrin of his contemporaries. He is also acutely aware that the international community, especially human rights organizations, is watching the Thai Army, which has a notorious history of staging coups.

According to Deep South Watch’s statistics, from January 2004 to July 2012 there were 11,754 attacks, killing 5,206 and wounding 9,137. Since violence broke out, the government spent a total of 160 billion baht (US $5.3 billion) to quell down the southern conflict. It must also be pointed out that the budget under the Abhisit government was slashed for two consecutive years.

This year’s budget for the restive south under the Yingluck government increased 25 per cent from 16.2 billion baht ($533 million) last year to the 20.7 billion baht ($630 million). Some of this increased budget has been used by the SBPAC Secretary-General Pol Col Thavee Sodsong to prevent further new recruitments among youth into insurgency groups and provide financial assistance to thousands of local small entrepreneurs who used to depend on their underground networks in Malaysia and cash payments to victims.

It is unfortunate that the future of conflict looks grim as interested parties at all levels still cannot find common ground. Changing the mindset of concerned officials is imperative and administration of justice must prevail—nearly 80 per cent of the cases brought to court were eventually acquitted.

At this juncture, disagreement among stakeholders could derail efforts to build lasting peace and implement useful local development projects. Most importantly, the Yingluck government has yet to assure people that the situation in southern Thailand would not be used to shore up its own political support and undermine its opponents at the expense of the national interest. While political parties have shown some restraint for the time being, the southern crisis could quickly be politicized when opportunities arise.

This article first appeared in the Bangkok-based The Nation newspaper. Kavi Chongkittavorn is assistant group editor of Nation Media Group and his views do not necessarily reflect those of The Irrawaddy.