Some observations on the intensification of violence in the far south

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Zakee Pitakkumpol
Deep South Watch
Peace Study Institue, PSU.

 

          In part due to the political disorder at the national level, the situation in the southern border provinces of Thailand had been fading from public interest for quite some time.  However, the far south has once again captured the attention of the rest of the country with recent unsettling events.  In early June, many incidents occurred that demonstrated that the southern violence shows no signs of abating.  There were several bombings, shootings, and arson attacks in the region.  With the recent start of the new school year, government teachers once again became targets in the violence.  Also, a car bomb in the center Yi Ngor town of Narathiwat led to one death and many injuries.

          But unquestionably the most disturbing incident took place in Narathiwat province's Joh Ai Rong district, where some 6 assailants opened fire inside the Al-Furquan mosque during evening prayers, killing 10 people on the spot and injuring many others.  The attack was one of the deadliest incidents since the current wave of violence began to dramatically escalate in early 2004, and its scale and severity is similar to attacks that take place in high-conflict countries such as Palestine.

          There will be a variety of answers to help explain the increase in violence in June, but it is highly questionable whether there will be any convincing answers to the tragedy at the Al-Furquan mosque.  So far the public has been provided with two general sets of answers. The first set has been given by government officials who are responsible for tackling the problem in the southern border provinces.  Immediately following the incident, officials publicly denied that there was any possibility that state forces could have been responsible for the attack. In contrast, villagers in the region provided an alternative set of explanations, expressing skepticism over official claims while doubting that Muslims would shoot inside a mosque. Given these divergent sets of explanations, it may be very difficult to find a clear explanation behind this tragic event.

          Although government authorities, locals, and even the media may be focused on finding out who conducted the heinous acts at the Al-Furquan mosque, it is perhaps even more important to better gauge locals’ sentiments at this time.  If one considers locals in the region, there are two large groups: business groups and the general public.  For business groups, they cannot deny that the violence is severely undermining their business and testing their patience.  If the situation persists in the region, business groups may act collectively to pressure the government to use decisive measures.  Alternatively, business entrepreneurs may also consider relocating to other areas that offer more security and stability.

          However, the second group, the general public, may not have as many options as business groups.  For most people in the region, they have no alternative but to manage their lives and to deal with the violence that exists in their communities.  In some cases, this may mean avoiding contact with local government officials and security forces. 

          Besides the problems that business groups and the broader public face, the continuation of violence will result in an even larger wedge between the government and the general public, and it will further exacerbate cultural and religious relations in the region.

          Perhaps most disturbingly, the events in early June may contribute to an acceleration of violence in the region, leading to even more political and social instability.
   
          In considering the events that took place in early June, there are some key questions to be asked.  First, was every group in society (e.g., Buddhists, Muslims, businessmen, teachers, security forces, and officials) targeted in the violence?  Second, for those individuals responsible for the violence, what were they trying to convey to society or to the government agencies that are responsible for solving the conflict?
 
          It is possible that the violence in early June was a reaction to the government’s current measures used to resolve the issue in the southern border provinces.  Since violence began to escalate in 2004, successive governments and security agencies have used the wrong methods to improve the situation.  Increased development budgets and enhanced military operations have not resolved the conflict.  Martial law and the Emergency Decree may help security forces to work more efficiently, and may also have contributed to fewer incidents, but significant violent events continue.

          Indeed, the level of violence that occurred recently demonstrates that the government and its security agencies’ methods used to resolve the conflict have by and large not been successful.  Violence continues unabated, and people continue to live in a culture of fear in virtually all areas of the far south.

          However, the Democrat Party-led government has recently appointed the Prince of Songkla University to assess the effectiveness of the Emergency Decree in the region.  This controversial law that has been blamed by many analysts for fanning the violence might be replaced with a new Royal Decree for security or a new Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC) law.  This may be a positive sign.

          It is also possible that a new special administrative apparatus is introduced for the region.  Many government officials working in the far south would probably even welcome this because it could alleviate the mounting pressures that government agencies confront in addressing the conflict. This is especially true at the current time of heightened violence. 

          Many people in the region continue to call on the government to negotiate with the group or groups involved with unrest, but the government has so far insisted that it will not enter into negotiations.

          Additionally, some people are also suggesting that there should be an academic dialogue that focuses on how to create an appropriate form of regional administration that runs consistent with the traditions and cultures of the people in the far south.
 
          Even if the government and its agencies responsible for the south closely examine the violence in early June -- most especially the tragic events at the Al-Furquan mosque – and make sincere efforts to quell the violence and reduce animosity towards the state, the recent upsurge of violent events may still alert other Muslim nations about the Thai government’s inability to stem the conflict.  Some Muslim groups in other countries may take notice of the recent incidents in southern Thailand and attempt to apply strong pressure on the Thai government to resolve the conflict.

          To avoid closer scrutiny from Muslim groups from outside of Thailand and, more importantly, to eradicate this long-standing conflict as soon as possible, the government and its relative agencies responsible for the south must begin to actively find a way to resolve the situation and bring peace to the region. This will require creative ingenuity on the part of government leaders who are willing to adopt less rigid nationalist ideas toward minority groups.