Yingluck’s Southern Failure

Yingluck Shinawatra came to office promising much over Thailand’s southern unrest. She hasn’t delivered.

In the latest twist in the increasingly violent saga of Thailand’s southern problem, last month’s triple bomb blast in the province of Yala highlighted another failure of Yingluck Shinawatra’s 8-month-old government: to meet a campaign pledge to grant the three southern provinces of Yala, Pattani, and Narathiwat “special administration zone” status.

In what has been a feature of her time in office, there’s been plenty of rhetoric, but little action.

In August, when Yingluck was being inaugurated as the first female prime minister in Thailand’s history, I wrote that her stump speeches in the heart of Thailand’s largely Muslim south were cause for much optimism. This was especially so considering that her brother and former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra had left a legacy of hostility with respect to his southern policy.

The Muslim south has spawned several insurgent groups over the years, the most notable being the Pattani United Liberation Organization (PULO). No group has claimed responsibility for the latest attack, on March 31, which ultimately killed 14 and wounded hundreds more. But it fits the pattern of acts of terror that have become the hallmark of some of the armed groups in the region, formerly an Islamic sultanate until annexed by the Kingdom of Siam in the early 1900s.

Yet it would be simplistic to label this as just another religious conflict, Muslim extremists waging war against a primarily Buddhist country. This is more of an economic struggle – this conflict is about land, and who has control of it. Groups like the PULO have called for total independence from Thailand, but they have also showed a willingness to negotiate.

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It was the hope of many observers that Yingluck would be the one to deliver to the southern provinces the title of “special economic zone” that would signify autonomy more than independence (it’s the same status endowed to the capital city of Bangkok). Indeed, as Yingluck campaigned in the south of the country last year, Muslim women serenaded her with chants of “yamila,” or beautiful girl.

Yet while last month’s bombing was certainly an act of terror, it also showed the extent to which Yingluck has failed to follow through on some of her campaign rhetoric. And it has prompted some important questions.

For a start, it’s unclear how the military will respond. Thaksin was overthrown in 2006 by the army, and Yingluck’s relations with the military are uneasy. The military might want to respond more forcefully in the south than Yingluck and her advisors want to.

Also, will the bombing hurt the country’s tourism industry? Tourism is a huge source of income, representing roughly 6 percent of GDP. But between the massive flooding that inundated large swaths of the country last autumn, large scale street protests between a segregated electorate based on class, and now more violence and uncertainty in the south, many tourists may decide to steer clear. And, while the south has had problems for decades, there was also a botched bombing in Bangkok back in February, blamed on three Iranians. It’s a troubling trend for a country known by both locals and tourists as the “Land of Smiles.”

Yingluck has been weak on tackling some of these issues. If she doesn’t begin to take a clearer stand, her administration’s problems are only going to get worse.