Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

A Ministry for the South: New Governance Proposals for Thailand's Southern Region

Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

A Ministry for the South: New Governance Proposals for Thailand's Southern Region

Article excerpt

Following the turn of the millennium, Thailand's Southern border provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat have experienced serious political violence; more than three thousand people have died in the conflict since the beginning of 2004. As Marc Askew has recently argued, the violence has become increasingly intractable, and attempts by the authorities to develop security-based responses have substantially failed thus far. (1) This article argues that the Southern Thai conflict is at root a political problem, reflecting deep differences of identity. As such, options for developing a political solution to the conflict ought to be urgently explored. One such option is outlined in detail here: the creation of a distinct new ministry for the Deep South, along with new consultative bodies designed to address the special needs of the area.

The southern border region is markedly different in terms of ethnicity and religion from the rest of Thailand: roughly 80 per cent of the population in the border area are Muslims, (2) most of whom identify themselves as Malay, (3) and speak a local Malay dialect (known as Pattani Malay) as their first language. The current conflict is rooted in history. (4) The old Malay sultanate of Patani, a major centre of Islamic education and scholarship, was only formally incorporated into the Thai state in 1909. (5) Since then, resistance to Thai rule has emerged regularly, most notably from the 1960s to the early 1980s, when a "separatist" insurgency flourished, led by a range of militant groups such as the Patani United Liberation Organization (PULO) and Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN). During the Prem Tinsulanond government of the early 1980s, following an amnesty policy underpinning a deal with militant groups, a social compact was agreed with the local elites. (6) Former insurgents surrendered to the authorities; large numbers of pondok (traditional Islamic schools) began offering the Thai curriculum in parallel with Islamic education; and a new class of Malay-Muslim politicians emerged. The Thai language was now much more widely spoken in the region, and it seemed that a substantive form of political accommodation had been successfully achieved. It gradually became clear, however, that this accommodation was less deep-rooted than it appeared. The elites who were now working closely with the Thai authorities, both civilian and military, through new agencies such as the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Centre (SBPAC), were losing grassroots support. The old militant groups appeared moribund, but those who opposed Thai rule were quietly regrouping and developing new strategies.

By late 2001, a new wave of violent attacks had begun, initially directed primarily at the security forces. (7) The re-emergence of a major conflict in the South was confirmed on 4 January 2004, when a large number of militants--at least 50, perhaps more than 100--staged a bold raid on an army camp in Narathiwat, killing four soldiers and seizing a large number of weapons. Two other major incidents occurred in 2004. (8) On 28 April, small groups of young militants attacked eleven security positions across Yala, Pattani and also in neighbouring Songkhla province. Following these attacks, a group of militants took refuge in the historic Krue-Ze mosque. The army responded by storming the mosque and killing everyone inside--altogether, 106 militants and a few security personnel lost their lives. On 25 October, the army forcibly arrested more than a thousand Malay-Muslim men who were holding a demonstration in Tak Bai, Narathiwat; 78 men died in army trucks on the way to a camp, mainly from suffocation. Subsequent to Tak Bai, there had been no comparable loss of life on a single day. The conflict has since been characterised by daily killings: constant small incidents in which one, two or three people have lost their lives. By no means all of the victims have been combatants: by 2007 the majority of those killed were Muslims, (9) many of them singled out by the militant movement as munafik, or traitors to their religion, because of their alleged collaboration with the Thai authorities. …

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