Predominantly Buddhist Thailand and its government have always struggled with conservative Muslims. Islamic cultural mores offer a stark contrast to the bustle of Sukhumvit in the heart of Bangkok or the bikini-saturated beaches of Phuket.
Over the past week, old divisions resurfaced as Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra attempted to handle outstanding political disputes with the Muslim community on two fronts, without much success.
After years of offering little more than band-aid solutions to the bloody insurgency in Thailand’s deep south, Yingluck got serious and opted to bring in the Malaysians hoping their Islamic credentials would reinvigorate peace talks and entice separatists to the bargaining table. It failed.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
One newspaper called it an attempt at a forced marriage with Yingluck and Malaysia acting as marriage brokers, adding neither side was ready for what was effectively a publicity stunt. The shadowy Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) shattered a ceasefire, went back to their haunts and the violence continues.
Their push for an independent homeland resulted almost immediately in another bombing which killed one and injured nine earlier in the week. At least 21 died in attacks in July as the ceasefire was taking shape, adding to a death toll of more than 5,000 people who have died since the insurgency erupted more than nine years ago.
Yingluck has not fared any better in attempting to resolve the spillover from Burma’s atrocious treatment of its Muslim Rohingya population. There are about 1,700 Rohingyas in detention, and riots and prison outbreaks are as common as the protests over their poor treatment here and at home.
Yingluck has imposed a six-month deadline on resolving the problem, but given the inability of governments elsewhere – like Australia – to calmly and effectively deal with the issue of people smuggling her prospects seem dim.
Thai Foreign Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul held talks with his Burmese counterpart Wunna Maung Lwin on the issue but little headway was made.
“We have already taken care of [the refugees] for six months and are seeking new ways to handle them [and protect their] humanitarian and human rights,” Surapong was quoted as saying by local media.
The ministers also discussed moving the refugees out of their current detention facilities and into less crowded facilities in Thailand. That in itself might be seen as something of a minor victory, given Burmese past reluctance to even acknowledge the Rohingyas as their own.
Apart from Malaysia and Burma, Thailand also has major issues along its borders with Cambodia, where a decision by the international courts is expected shortly over sovereign control of the land surrounding the Preah Vihear temples in Cambodia.
Yingluck has made several brave attempts at resolving these disputes but the skills of her negotiators have not achieved much. Indeed, given the death toll in the south, they may have even made the situation worse.
Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter at @lukeanthonyhunt.