Thailand's Deepening Fractures
General Prayut Chan-o-cha pauses as he addresses reporters at the Royal Thai Army Headquarters in Bangkok (May 26, 2014).
Image Credit: REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

Thailand's Deepening Fractures


Thailand’s junta must have been pleased when the results of a referendum on its much criticized draft constitution were announced this August. The new charter — written by a handpicked committee and promoted by the military — passed the vote comfortably. The win has allowed the junta to claim a degree of legitimacy and push ahead with restructuring the political system to weaken elected politicians at the expense of the military and other unelected institutions. When he seized power more than two years ago, General Prayut Chan-o-cha could hardly have hoped for things to be going so smoothly.

However, the referendum celebrations were interrupted by a spate of deadly bombings and arson attacks, quickly souring the triumphant mood. The coordinated blasts hit Surat Thani, Phuket, Trang, and Hua Hin on August 11 and 12, killing four and injuring 36.

As has become customary, the muddled response from the junta failed to instill much confidence in its abilities. A series of confusing and contradictory statements suggested an investigation in disarray, hobbled by incompetence, wishful thinking, and political cynicism. Worryingly, there has been little evidence of heightened security on the streets of Bangkok since the attacks — a grave and ironic failure for a junta that cited “restoring and maintaining order” as a justification for its power grab.

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While expert consensus quickly pointed to Patani-Malay insurgents from the country’s three southernmost provinces as the likely perpetrators, the military government seemed desperate to pin the blame on the dissident Red Shirts — the anti-coup group mostly supporting former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whose political faction has been deposed by military coup twice in the past decade.

The haste with which the junta denied southern involvement and moved against the Red Shirts should in itself have raised eyebrows. The dust had barely settled on the attack sites when 17 suspects with connections to the movement were arrested. Army spokesman Col. Winthai Suvaree claimed there were “credible leads” linking them to the bombings, while other junta statements suggested political parties who had lost out in the August referendum were to blame. Deputy National Police Chief Pongsapat Pongcharoen flatly dismissed the idea that the bombings were related to the southern insurgency, claiming instead that one “individual mastermind” was behind the blasts. The statement seemed to be an attempt to implicate Thaksin.

All Signs Point South

However, long-time observers of the insurgency in the deep south have provided ample evidence to suggest a link to that conflict. The improvised explosive devices (IED) used were the same as those often seen in southern bombings and the style of attack — one blast followed by another to maximize casualties — is a trademark of the southern insurgents.

That the attacks occurred so soon after the junta’s referendum win suggests a connection, but it would be wrong to assume the southern insurgents have no stake or interest in politics at the national level. In the run up to the poll, graffiti denouncing the military-sponsored draft charter appeared in several locations in the deep south. On top of the draft’s many other flaws, a section bestowing special status on Buddhism would have drawn the ire of the Muslim Patani-Malays. Along with the Red Shirt heartlands in the north and northeast of the country, the three troubled provinces in the south voted overwhelmingly against it.

And while it is true that the southern insurgency is largely confined to the three provinces of Pattani, Narathiwat, and Yala, as well as the four Malay-speaking districts in the province of Songkhla, the insurgents do possess the will and the capacity to strike elsewhere. In recent years, authorities have claimed that bomb incidents in Phuket, Samui, and even Bangkok were unrelated to the southern problem, only for evidence to emerge later that forced an embarrassing volte face.

Now the junta is once again backtracking on its initial claims, as police turn their investigation to suspects from the deep south. A mobile phone from Malaysia was found at one blast site and is believed to have been used to detonate the bomb. Police also claim to have found DNA at the scene of the Phuket blast belonging to a suspected separatist from Tak Bai. The district in the southern province of Narathiwat is notorious for an incident in which 78 Patani-Malay men died after being bound, stacked, on top of each other like logs in the back of army trucks, then transported for five hours to an army base. The victims died en route, either from suffocation or collapsed organs.

The habit of denying southern involvement in bomb attacks suggests the authorities prefer to wish away the problem rather than face up to it as a policy issue of central importance. However, when it comes to former Prime Minister Thaksin and his supporters, the junta appears obsessive and paranoid, seeing conspiracies that do not exist and needlessly hounding its opponents into a corner. On both fronts, it is doing all the wrong things to foster peace and stability in the country.

Closed Eyes

The Sultanate of Patani — incorporating what is now Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat — had been a vassal state of the ancient Thai kingdoms and was formally recognized as part of modern Thailand by the British in 1909. Although the region had a history of rebellion, no resistance to Thai statehood occurred until the 1960s, when attempts at cultural assimilation of the local population were met with fierce opposition. Perceived attacks on cultural, religious, linguistic and historical identity continues to be a major factor driving the insurgency today.

However, the highly centralized Thai state keeps a tight control on these national narratives and has been unable or unwilling to notice the Patani-Malay struggle for recognition and cultural space. Instead, it prefers to treat the issue as either a security threat to be crushed or as a problem of underdevelopment that can be solved if enough money and resources are thrown at it. Neither approach has had any success.

Fatigue led to a break in the fighting during the 1990s, lulling the Thai state into a false sense of security. However, the underlying grievances still burned and by the turn of the millennium a new generation of insurgents — or juwae, meaning “fighter” — resumed their attacks.

Again, the Thai state refused to admit the rebellion had returned, dismissing early incidents as mere banditry. In 2004, separatists embarrassed the military by making off with a huge stockpile of weapons during a raid on an army base in Narathiwat. Since then, more than 6,500 people have been killed in a cycle of bloodshed that quickly spiraled out of control. The attacks that shook Thailand in August only captured attention because they occurred outside the usual theater in the south, where violence has become part of everyday life, largely unnoticed by the world outside.

Successive governments have attempted a negotiated settlement but failed to make any headway. One problem is a reluctance on the part of the Thai state to allow international mediation. Another is uncertainty over the extent to which the parties representing the Patani-Malay side are actually able to control their young fighters on the ground.

Also, since 2006, the national-level crisis has been a constant and all-consuming mess, leaving little time for southern considerations. What token policy efforts have been made in this time lack continuity, as the vicious cycle of election, crisis, and coup brings a never-ending succession of governments to power in Bangkok.

The peace initiative started by the Yingluck Shinawatra government has, surprisingly, been continued by the junta that toppled her. However, it is doubtful how committed the army are to a process that side-stepped them at its inception. Now in charge, the military is unlikely to have much patience for negotiations that question their legitimacy in the region, recount their past misdeeds and threaten Thailand’s territorial integrity.

The obstinate military mindset was evident in April this year, when junta leader Prayut refused to endorse the previously agreed upon “terms of reference” of the initiative, effectively ending proceedings before they even began. One of the snags seems to have been an unwillingness to officially recognize the group representing the insurgents, MARA Patani. To avoid giving them legitimacy, the junta instead refer to them as simply “Party B.”

Refusing even to call the group by name hardly creates an atmosphere conducive to dialogue and leaves little hope that the junta is willing to make much harder concessions that might end the conflict, such as granting a degree of autonomy to the region and allowing the cultural space the Patani-Malay people crave. When the negotiations stalled, the junta once again busied itself with the national-level crisis, pushing through its draft constitution in the lopsided referendum and rigging the political system in its favor. It seems to have paid little attention to the southern insurgency in the interim — until August’s bombs sent them a terrible reminder.

Fanning the Flames

The decade-long crisis at the national level is the latest chapter in a long historical struggle to define Thailand’s political system. As the country developed, civilian politicians were empowered by increasing demands from a broadening electorate below. However, the rise of the politicians — especially the brash but popular Thaksin Shinawatra — encroached on traditional power centers in the monarchy, military and bureaucracy, who fought back ferociously to maintain the status quo.

To do this, they have at times mobilized supporters from the middle classes in Bangkok, as well as the relatively wealthy upper south of the country. When street protests failed to topple elected governments, the military resorted to coup d’états, once in 2006 and again in 2014. To retaliate, the political machinery of Thaksin Shinawatra mobilized its electoral base, most dramatically in 2010 when mass Red Shirts protests in downtown Bangkok were suppressed by the army, leaving more than 90 dead. The country’s crisis at the elite level has thus been nationalized to include all sections of a deeply divided society.

There are obvious patterns to Thailand’s fractures, which occur along longstanding regional cleavages. Thaksin’s political party receives most support from the provinces to the north and northeast of the country — Red Shirt heartlands that correspond with the ancient northern kingdom of Lanna and the vast area in the northeast known as Isan. Both regions have distinct histories, cultures, and identities that have come under threat of assimilation. They also have a history of resisting interior authority.

Towards the end of the 19th century, as Siam was reforming into a modern, bounded state, attempts at centralization triggered revolts in cities across the north and northeast, with locals resisting new forms of taxation and the arrival of administrators from the center. By the mid-20th century, the two disadvantaged regions proved fertile recruitment ground for the Communist Party of Thailand, which fought a long guerrilla war against the Thai government. In the 1990s, people in these peripheral areas pressed demands on the central government and expressed grievances through NGOs like The Assembly of the Poor.

In 2001, it was votes from the north and northeast that helped bring Thaksin  — born in the northern capital of Chiang Mai — to power. Policies like his universal health care scheme were well received, especially in the less-developed northeast, which happens to hold around one-third of the entire country’s population. The perception that Thaksin had delivered on his election promises helped re-elect him for a second term in 2005, cementing his popularity in regions that felt they were now getting the attention and respect that had long been lacking.

Giving people in the north and northeast a real stake in the political system should have integrated them more fully with the nation-state, bringing an end to their history of restiveness. Instead, the removal of Thaksin, rejection of their votes, and rolling back of democracy has aggravated old grievances. There is a feeling that, having only just found their voice, they are now being gagged by those in other parts of the country who look down on them as second-class Thais.

The junta is not completely blind to the danger this poses. Since grabbing power in 2014, it has ruled with a curious balance of repression and toleration — keen to suppress the allies and supporters of the ousted government but concerned that squeezing too tightly will provoke a backlash that may be hard to contain. To this end, ousted premier Yingluck has faced various legal charges but so far remains untouched; her Pheu Thai Party has been curtailed but not disbanded, and the Red Shirt movement is closely watched but has a degree of space to remain active, provided it does not go too far.

However, the junta at times fails to get the balance right, needlessly harassing the opposition over trivial matters, such as the distribution of calendars with Thaksin and sister Yingluck’s images on them. Another case involved threatening a 57-year-old Chiang Mai woman with sedition charges after she shared a photo of herself on Facebook holding a red-colored bowl. The plastic bowl was a promotional item distributed to Thaksin supporters by the Red Shirts and Pheu Thai Party. Both of these incidents not only added to the opposition’s sense of persecution, but also opened the junta up to ridicule in the media, both at home and abroad.

The attempt to connect the August bomb blasts to a group of Red Shirts is equally ridiculous. Nine of the 17 suspects arrested after the bomb blasts are in their 60s and 70s. Only three are under 50 years old and the average age of the group is 58. The “credible leads” the junta claimed pointed to their involvement in the bombings were never made public and the investigation has now switched its focus to suspects from the deep south instead. Nonetheless, the Red Shirt group remain under investigation for insurrection, conspiracy, and gathering in a group of more than five people for political purposes.

The advanced age of the group is not unusual; most Red Shirts are in their 50s or older. Across the country — but especially in the north and northeast — small groups of middle-aged and older Thais now come together, united by grievance and a newfound interest in politics. They meet to talk about current events, criticize the junta, and — in hushed voices — discuss the monarchy. By contemporary Thai standards, these are radical acts but hardly a tangible threat to national security. In fact, the groups also double as social clubs, often spending as much time organizing excursions and religious events as they do discussing politics.

However, several actors working independently of the movement have shown a willingness to resort to violence in times of crisis. In 2010, a grenade killed five soldiers during clashes in which around 19 Red Shirt protesters also died. In 2013 and 2014, several grenade and drive-by shooting attacks killed protesters from the People’s Democratic Reform Council (PDRC) group that was trying to oust the Yingluck government. This was part of tit-for-tat violence that claimed around 28 lives on both sides of the political divide during that time.

The Troubled Road Ahead

The junta can’t afford to be too smug after its referendum win. If it thinks all is going smoothly then it should look again at the data showing the votes cast by region. The three provinces in the deep south and large areas of the north and northeast stand out as having voted overwhelmingly to reject their draft constitution. This is a serious challenge to the junta’s legitimacy and highlights the level of discontent currently felt in these regions.

In the deep south and the large, populous areas in the north and northeast, long-held dissatisfactions are intensifying once again. These two crises at either end of the country may seem unrelated but have more in common than is often realized. Power is too highly centralized in the capital, which treats its peripheries like vassal states or colonies. Official definitions of “Thainess” are too narrow, showing no respect for local identities and cultures. And the massive amounts of wealth generated in Bangkok is not redistributed to the rest of the country, leading to unequal development. Unfortunately, elites in the capital seem unable to understand these root causes of resentment and are merely making things worse.

By closing their eyes to the spread of violence from its usual theater in the deep south to the rest of the country, the authorities seem to hope the problem will simply disappear — it won’t. If an effort is not made to reach a negotiated solution, the southern insurgency will rumble on and more attacks similar to those seen in August are likely. And by simultaneously closing off the Red Shirts’ democratic means of expression, persecuting them, and aggravating their grievances, the junta seems to be creating a perfect storm. Elections are slated for 2017 and if a civilian government relaxes the ban on political gatherings then this could mean further street protests. However, if the political atmosphere remains repressive enough to preclude this, there is a risk that frustration will boil over and segments of the movement could become radicalized. Unless more is done to heal Thailand’s fractures, further conflict seems inevitable.

James Buchanan is a Senior Research Assistant and PhD candidate at the Department of Asian and International Studies, City University of Hong Kong

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