No progress in checking unrest
Published on Dec 29, 2007
- Preoccupation with Bangkok politics has stood in the way of any solution
Thailand's restive South witnessed another year of blunder and misguided policy under the direction of an army chief/coup leader who was so tied up with national politics that the insurgency had to be put on the back burner.
The year started off with 10 companies of paramilitary rangers being dispatched to the region in January, followed by another 20 in April. In all, about 3,000 men were dispatched.
Strange as it may seem, these rangers have since been dubbed the "ambassadors" of the Thai State to the Malay-speaking region. In practice, this machine gun-toting bunch, half of them Muslim Malays, half Thai Buddhists, were positioned deep in the pockets of various hot spots, including remote public schools, in the deep South, where more than 2,700 have been killed since January 2007.
By the third quarter, following a number of questionable incidents, the army had decided to retrain these trigger-happy men, but with the emphasis on cultural orientation. While some think it was a move in the right direction, few think it will achieve any meaningful outcome as the problem is deeply rooted in the historical mistrust between the Malays and the Thai state.
The middle of the year saw the army going on the offensive, carrying out blind, sweeping raids on various communities.
Scores of people, at times over 100 at a time, were rounded up during each of the raids. The military came up with a system to measure their vulnerability. If they were deemed to be in the "high-risk" category, they would be sent to a job-training programme in army camps in the upper South.
The military said the move was part of a strategy to weed out the insurgents from the rest of the villagers. They call it "separating the fish from the water", a tactic employed during the height of the communist insurgency.
Besides the job-training scheme, which functioned more like a re-education camp, the army banned nearly 400 local Malay Muslims for six months from residing in the southernmost provinces. They did not have enough evidence to charge them, and denying them entry to their homes was a way of keeping the suspected militants at bay.
These two initiatives were billed as a show of force by the army, but in the third quarter Thai courts ordered the ban lifted and said the army should release the young men from military camps.
For the battered military and its army-installed government, the ongoing raids and the mass arrests, not to mention the "indoctrination" process in the form of job training, were meant to rattle the cages of the insurgents as much as for domestic consumption.
The raids halted roadside bombings in the areas that were being raided, but the end result was a balloon affect: violence and simultaneous attacks on government troops occurred elsewhere in the restive region.
There was some hope during Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont's visit to Yala in May when he claimed to have received "positive feedback" from separatist groups over possible "dialogue".
Pattani United Liberation Organisation (Pulo) foreign-affairs chief Kasturi Mahkota said the group welcomed Surayud's statement, calling it a "positive gesture", but like the government's special economic-development zone, which has yet to be drafted by the National Economic and Social Development Board for the Malay-speaking region, nothing seems to have moved forward.
May also witnessed a spate of bombs that rocked Hat Yai, the commercial centre of the South. Unlike the previous attack, these blasts had police pointing their fingers at Malay Muslim insurgents, suggesting a new threshold had been crossed, but as in other high-profile incidents, no decisive conclusion could be reached.
There were high hopes that Surayud would come up with a meaningful platform for the South during his June visit to the region, but unlike on his November 2006 visit, during which he brought tears to the eyes of locals when he made a public apology for the heavy-handed policies of the past, particularly for the deaths of 85 demonstrators at Tak Bai two years before that, it was an opportunity missed. Surayud did not push through a new platform that could have paved the way for the next administration.
Surayud's refusal to push his administration in a more substantial and meaningful direction will take its toll on the upcoming government, which looks likely to be not only weaker but faced with bigger obstacles in pushing through a more meaningful agenda.
Strangely, the Army has billed the past year as one of advance in the right direction. The death count suggests otherwise.