In late March, a series of orchestrated bomb blasts shook southern Thailand, killing 14 people and drawing the world’s attention to one of Southeast Asia’s longest-running conflicts. The deadly attacks targeted civilians and tourists in the region’s bustling commercial corridors, an ominous sign, say security analysts, that the “low-intensity” insurgency led by Thailand’s ethnic Malay Muslims against the Buddhist-majority state is taking a more audacious turn. For over eight years, Thailand’s three southernmost provinces have been in the grip of spiraling violence that has kept a low profile but taken a high toll. Drive-by shootings, attacks by improvised explosive devices, vicious assaults on teachers and targeting of monks and moderate Muslims are regular occurrences. Five thousand people have been killed since 2004, and once harmonious relations between the region’s Buddhists and Muslims have degenerated into hostile mistrust. But the issue — which has little national resonance or political urgency — has remained on the fringes of Thai politics. While campaigning in last year’s general elections, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra boldly promised change. But now that she’s in power, she may struggle to keep her pledge.
The southern conflict is fueled not by blind religious rage but by political and cultural alienation. Unlike the rest of Thailand, which is predominantly Buddhist and Thai-speaking, 80% of the 1.7 million who live in the southern provinces of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat are Malay-speaking Muslims. Like the rest of the country, however, these far-flung provinces are governed by unelected life bureaucrats dispatched by the government in Bangkok. Many in the country’s deep south feel particularly estranged from the highly centralized political system, and their insurgency – fragmented, ill defined and shadowy – harbors wide and varied goals, from the largely improbable separatist call for an independent state to the more popularly espoused demand for greater autonomy in political and administrative affairs. Charting their discontent in his 2008 book, Tearing Apart the Land, Duncan McCargo, a professor of Southeast Asian politics at the University of Leeds, wrote, “Bangkok has largely pursued a policy of assimilation and standardization, making few concessions to the distinct history and character of the region.”
The Prime Minister’s campaign pledge raised hope for a new approach, specifically the granting of special administrative status for the three southern provinces. But in the nine months since her landslide victory, her government has opted for staid rhetoric over substantive political action. At the core of Shinawatra’s trepidation, experts say, lies the Thai military, an influential actor in the country’s politics and an especially potent player in the insurgency. The restive south has for years been heavily militarized, pumped with 60,000 security forces that derive power not only from their numbers but also from the emergency law that has been in place since 2005 to facilitate counterinsurgency operations. While politicians have gradually softened toward the once taboo question of autonomy, the proposal remains a nonstarter for the army that has vocally — and unequivocally — opposed all calls for decentralization. “Any action that may serve to undermine our strength or weaken state authority should be of concern,” army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha was quoted as saying in response to Shinawatra’s campaign promise.
Military stonewalling aside, the government’s hands remain tied by the ever present fear of a coup. As recently as 2006, the Royal Thai Army ousted populist and polarizing leader Thaksin Shinawatra, the current Prime Minister’s brother, from power. And relations between the military and the freshly elected civilian leadership remain tense, threatened by a host of prickly national issues, says Bangkok-based independent analyst Rungrawee Chalermsripinyorat. Chief among them is the government’s quest to rewrite the military-backed constitution it describes as an “undemocratic” document that “weakens political parties, weakens politicians and limits the freedom of people.” This reform agenda – coupled with mutual distrust – has fueled alarm in the military establishment over what it sees as “moves by the government to reduce its role, trim its influence and seed the senior command structure with Thaksin loyalists,” risk consultancy PSA Asia said in a client note accessed by the Wall Street Journal. Add to that the looming suspicion among opposition leaders and army men that charter change is a thinly veiled ruse to facilitate the return of Thaksin Shinawatra himself — who is currently living in exile — a highly contentious matter with the potential to destabilize the country’s fragile peace.
Given its tough balancing act and host of high-stakes priorities, the government is unlikely to risk antagonizing the military over the southern issue that promises little or no political mileage. (The ruling Pheu Thai party won no seats from the deep south in last year’s elections.) And while the conflict remains on the margins, low-level violence is bound to continue and the military’s culture of impunity will persist, said a 2011 report by the Washington-based Institute for National Strategic Studies. Security forces are already a grossly unpopular presence in the south. Antimilitary sentiment has been building up since the Tak Bai incident in 2004, when 78 men, arrested by the army, suffocated to death while being transported in trucks. In January, the surfacing of a video clip in which a soldier was filmed having sex with a Muslim teenager angered local Muslims.
In the past few years, governments have tried to diminish the army’s hold, adopting a “politics leading the military” approach. A civilian body called the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Center, formerly under the thumb of the military, is now an independent entity in charge of the south’s developmental affairs. In a conciliatory gesture, its secretary general recently announced the reopening of the Islam Burapha School in Narathiwat, shuttered four years ago after the army accused it of being a sanctuary for insurgents. Perhaps the most crucial change is that the once unthinkable proposition of decentralization is now championed by pressure groups and legislative committees alike. Analysts warn, however, that the new government’s mixed signals and lukewarm approach could prove counterproductive. “They appear to be taking one step forward,” says McCargo, “and two steps back.”