In mid-June, incoming Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra was stumping in the country's southern provinces in an effort to secure crucial electoral votes for her Pheu Thai party in July’s elections. What was remarkable was that in the province of Yala – a Muslim majority region, and traditional Democrat Party stronghold – Yingluck was warmly received by the crowds. Wearing a red hijab and espousing greater autonomy for the region, Yingluck seemed like a seasoned political professional , as women came out in large numbers to greet Thaksin Shinawatra’s sister, serenading her with chants of ‘yamilah,’ or ‘beautiful girl.’
Yingluck’s reception was in stark contrast with the south’s relations with Thaksin himself. Thaksin preferred to crack down on Muslim dissidents, and his penchant for abandoning dialogue and consultation with leaders of the Muslim community in favour of more draconian approaches to curtailing the insurgency didn’t endear himself to leaders of the Pattani United Liberation Organization (PULO), one of the more notable Islamic separatist groups operating in the area.
Southern Thailand’s insurgency has been somewhat underreported in the mainstream media. One reason may be because the United States doesn’t engage in active military operations there. Military aid is provided by Washington to Thailand’s armed forces, but the situation is easily overshadowed by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, while even the US military presence in the Philippines seems to get more play in the international press.
But this could change soon. As argued by Patrick Winn at Global Post, Thailand’s Islamic insurgency now threatens to become Asia’s biggest and bloodiest:
‘Troops already occupy the streets in force. Skinny conscripts with assault rifles patrol through the fog. German Shepherds sniff for bombs in the brush.
‘This is the hour of paranoia. Come mornings, gunmen slip through curtains of jungle foliage lining the roadside. They kill cops. Army officers. Teachers traveling to class. Kids sometimes. To stoke maximum horror, they decapitate Buddhist monks with machetes.
‘As oblivious backpackers party up the coast, an Islamic rebellion roars on with no end in sight…In lieu of familiar screeds against Jews, Christians and the “Great Satan” America, these mujahideen call for the heads of Thai Buddhists.’
The roots of the conflict can be traced back centuries. The current Thai province of Pattani was at one point an Islamic sultanate, and the cultural, ethnic, and religious values that the territory shared with their Malay “brothers” served as a casus belli for Muslims when the Buddhist oriented Kingdom of Siam emerged after the defeat and eviction of Burmese troops from the area at the end of the 18th century. Pattani’s annexation by Thailand is referred to as the “Siamese occupation” in the south, according to Winn. Additionally, other commentators have noted that the socioeconomic conditions for Muslims living in southern Thailand, compared with Buddhists in the same area, are significantly worse in terms of access to education, employment levels, and quality of living.
In 2002, Thaksin disrupted a relatively successful ceasefire between the Muslim insurgents and the Thai government when he ordered police in the south to issue curfews and declared martial law in an effort to break the insurgency once and for all. That decision triggered a series of terrorist acts by the PULO, including attacking police barracks, coordinated bomb attacks in tourist areas, and the targeting of Buddhist monks collecting alms. Thaksin subsequently directed police and military personnel to crack down even further. Human Rights Watch cited both sides for egregious human rights abuses.
During the 2005 election, Thaksin received the largest percentage of the popular vote in the country’s democratic history when his now defunct Thai Rak Thai party captured 375 out of a possible 500 seats in the House of Representatives. But the southern provinces were the only ones in which the Thai Rak Thai actually lost seats in 2005, despite gaining everywhere else. That’s a trend that actually wasn’t bucked during the elections last month, despite the veneration that Yingluck received while campaigning there.
Concessions are now being made by Yingluck to try to address the situation. While campaigning in the south, Yingluck articulated her desire to turn the three southern provinces of Yala, Pattani, and Narathiwat into ‘special administration zones,’ similar to the status enjoyed by Bangkok. In addition, Thaksin has recently apologized for his violent policies in the south in an interview given with the Thai PBS TV network. While Thai media outlets have been quick to doubt the sincerity of the ex-prime minister’s overtures, Thaksin’s remarks may go some way toward appeasing the hostility felt by various PULO elements.
Separatist leaders have previously called for nothing less than independence. But they are also pragmatic, as judged by their past attempts at extending the proverbial olive branch to the government in the form of negotiations with Bangkok. Scoring cheap political points by waxing lyrical on peace discussions is something that isn’t new within Thailand’s political establishment either, so it’s essential that any serious attempts to resolve the conflict move beyond rhetoric.
Tim LaRocco is a graduate student of international relations at The City College of New York. He has travelled throughout the developing world, including stints as a volunteer worker in the Public Parks Department in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and as a researcher for the South African Human Rights Commission in Cape Town. He currently lives in Long Island, New York.