An interview on the ongoing southern conflict with Abhisit & Thavorn
Overview: This article is based on the Deep South Watch’s interview with Thailand Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and Deputy Interior Minister Thavorn Senniam. A Deep South Watch team sat down with the two political leaders in early May in Bangkok to discuss the situation in the country’s southern border provinces. Part of this interview will appear in the new book Change the Southern Fire, published by the Deep South Watch. The book, which is in Thai, is scheduled to be released in late June.
Deep South Watch
It has been more than five months since the Democrat Party-led government of Abhisit Vejjajiva announced its policies to parliament. At the time, one of the most urgent issues confronting the newly established government was the situation of violence and unrest in the southern border provinces. In spite of Prime Minister Abhisit’s confidence that his government had the ability to effectively address this, there has been no indication that violence has been curtailed.
In fact, since the 44-year-old Oxford graduate entered office, violence has spiked upward, especially recently. On May 27, there were nine coordinated attacks in Yala. This was followed by a series of shootings, bombings, and arson attacks in Yala, Narathiwat, and Pattani. On June 8, there was one of the most disturbing incidents to rock the southern border provinces since 2004, the Al-Furquan mosque massacre, which left 10 dead and many others injured in Narathiwat’s Joi Ai Rong district, one of the most dangerous districts in the conflict-ridden region.
In light of this intensification of violence, questions have been raised concerning whether the Abhisit government is sincere about resolving the situation in the south. Abhisit’s Democrat Party has drawn heat for being preoccupied with its fight against supporters of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinwatra. The political conflict has deflected the government’s attention away from the pressing problems in the predominantly Muslim south -- much to the disappointment of people in the region.
In Prime Minister Abhisit’s conversation with the Deep South Watch press team, he discussed the government’s role in the three southern provinces. Abhisit has in the past emphasized that his government’s policies for remedying problems in the south center on issues of justice, security, education, and especially development. It was thus hardly surprising that he reiterated this message to the Deep South Watch team.
“Our primary focus for the three southern border provinces is development. When I took office in December I set up a special cabinet committee to make plans for the region. The plan is now complete and I am currently reviewing a budget that must be considered both carefully and thoroughly,” he said.
He added, “There are many different kinds of policies in our plans, and many of these focus on accepting various cultures in a multi-cultural society. In this regard, one of the key issues we are focusing on is language.”
In spite of criticisms leveled at Thai security agencies for not being sensitive to identity and language issues in the culturally distinct southernmost provinces, the Western-educated Abhisit expressed some confidence in security agencies’ ability to be receptive to such policies for the region.
“I think security agencies have a solid understanding of our policies, and I believe that the policies planned for the south are outstanding and can resolve some of the identity, language, and other issues that people in the region are concerned with.”
Although Thai security forces have also been heavily criticized for systematic human rights violations, Abhisit said that security agencies do listen when people lodge complaints about human rights abuses. He claimed that if there is an important and pressing case, security agencies are willing to coordinate and address the issue.
A lack of coordination among ministers and agencies responsible for the restive region has been another criticism directed at recent Thai governments. Abhisit admitted that this has been a problem but claimed that his government was trying to overcome such obstacles and create more unity.
However, some analysts believe that there is a lack of unity in government. Some have speculated that even though Abhisit may wish to adopt a conciliatory approach to the south, he owes his allegiance to the military figures that played a strong role in his acquisition of the country’s premiership in December of last year. As a result, the military still has strong hand in the policies for the south, these critics say.
Abhisit responded to a sensitive question asked by the Deep South Watch team that concerned the military’s role in political affairs by insisting that the military is not controlling the government – that his government is in fact guiding the military.
Ostensibly, this does appear to be the case. As head of the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC), the main military body responsible for security in the country, the prime minister has the power to limit the military’s authority.
However, the reality is that soldiers are still widespread in the far south, and in March Abhisit’s government deployed 4,000 more soldiers to the violence-struck region. Moreover, even though Abhisit said in January that the controversial Emergency Decree would eventually be canceled, the law was extended for the region again in April.
On ISOC and the Emergency Decree, Abhisit said, “There are still issues concerning ISOC and the Emergency Decree that we are trying to iron-out. However, there must be important reasons that support changes in policy. There should be some kind of systematic way to assess and review the effectiveness of ISOC, the Emergency Decree, and other institutions and laws that impact the south.”
For instance, he said “I would like to see a comparison of various data on the Emergency Decree, both during the period when it was in force and when the Suruyud government was considering abolishing it. By acquiring this kind of information I can have a better grasp of the impact of specific policies on the south. To make decisions on policies, it is important to have accurate information.”
When the 44-year-old prime minister was straightforwardly asked by the Deep South Watch if he would be so bold as to change the administrative structure of the southern border provinces and limit the military’s powerful role in the region, Abhisit was somewhat evasive. He said that his presence makes the management of the south more organized.
But to show that he was not a puppet of the military, he noted that he was critical of security forces’ mistreatment of Rohingya refugees, and that he received a positive response from the military for this criticism.
The leader of the Democrat Party since 2005 proceeded to talk about his relationship with the military, and the role of soldiers in the south.
“We [the military and I] have to join together to work on various projects,” he commented.
He added, “I admit that while some locals in the area feel safer when soldiers are present, other do not. However, we have to find a middle ground so that soldiers have a role in not just security matters but also development issues. I was informed that for some development projects that are run by soldiers, there have been cases when soldiers were not able to enter specific areas. However, we should not be so focused on who does the work; instead the focus should be on getting work done.”
He elaborated on his belief that soldiers can work on development projects.
“For example, if some road construction has not been completed in the area, it does not mean that the project and its budget should be abandoned. Soldiers can be brought in to finish the work that others are not willing to do because of the threat of violence. We should not think of soldiers merely as soldiers. They can perform other work besides their security duties.”
As for ISOC, Abhisit also reminded the Deep South Watch team that this powerful agency includes not only soldiers but also many other officials from outside the military.
When asked about talks between the government and insurgent groups, he remained resolute on his position concerning dialogue.
“Talks can be held. However, this does mean there will be a negotiation. If we negotiate it will complicate matters, particularly if it means including other countries in negotiations. I insist that the issue is a domestic one,” he commented.
Abhisit did not offer a detailed comment when questioned on whether insurgent leaders have made efforts to contact the government.
“I have heard that there have been some talks, but I cannot be involved with these kinds of procedures,” he quickly said.
The prime minister confirmed that once the next parliamentary session is complete, he will visit the southern border provinces again. He said that though he is regularly informed on issues, he likes to show his support for the far south by visiting the region and by listening to locals voice their concerns.
Since entering office, Abhisit and the government have promised to resolve the on-going situation of conflict and violence in the southern border provinces. However, the problem persists. As a result, Abhisit has taken some criticism for this, but so have others in his administration, including Deputy Interior Minister Thavorn Senniam, who the Deep South Watch team also interviewed.
Mr. Thavorn, whose current responsibilities include overseeing the work of the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Center (SBPAC), said that he would like to see the creation of a permanent organization responsible for overseeing SBPAC, which was re-established by the Suruyud government in 2006 after being abolished by the Thaksin government in 2002.
The minister has previously said that he would like SBPAC to receive more power to control the unrest, and that it should be run by civilians. He said an act concerning this was recently written and is now being discussed by government legal advisors. However, Thavorn said that he has not received a clear answer yet from these advisors. As a result, he still oversees this administrative center for the far south through his position in the Ministry of the Interior.
Many have been speculated that SBPAC’s capacity is limited because it is under the control of ISOC. Thavorn briefly touched on SBPAC’s limited power.
“Currently, SBPAC is an organization that does not have its own authority. It has to coordinate with other government ministries and departments,” he observed.
Thavorn complained that he does not have significant authority in the running of SBPAC because it is under the authority of ISOC. In spite of this top-level structural problem, Thavorn said that he has established good ties with local government officials in the south.
“We have had successful meetings with subdistrict leaders, village headmen, and medical workers in the five provinces to better understand the problems in the region.”
He added, “We have also worked to address problems in the south by working with Malaysian leaders. I invited 62 representatives from various government departments in the south to visit leaders from Kelantan, Malaysia. All the representatives from Thailand received a warm welcome from these leaders in Malaysia.”
Thavorn noted that another sign that indicates the government has developed stronger ties with Malaysia was seen when Malaysian authorities closed down a camp that held 131 Thai migrants; Malaysian authorities later closed two other camps.
On the government’s success in stemming violent events, Thavorn claimed that from January through April of this year, the number of violent incidents decreased in the region.
Like Abhisit, Thavorn suggested that there is more unity in government now.
“We now have more unity in resolving the unrest in the southern border provinces,” he stated.
Thavorn said that though there are various departments and ministries involved with the south, and there are various opinions expressed by the people from these institutions, officials and politicians have not been particularly unyielding in their views.
Thavorn felt that his visits to the south are important to improving relations between the people and the central government.
He stated, “When I have suggested that politics is leading and overseeing the military through understanding and development, one example I am referring to is my frequent visits to the region. When I am in Pattani, Yala, or Narathiwat, I visit and talk with locals, even at night. It is important to have communication and understanding between the government and local people.”
The Deep South Watch team asked Thavorn why the special southern cabinet designed by the Abhisit government to help solve the problems in the south has had only one meeting in the region. The deputy interior minister replied by saying that he has told the cabinet that it should meet at least once month in order to have a clearer understanding of its public duties.
Mr. Thavorn was also asked to describe his own responsibilities as deputy interior minister.
He stated, “I am responsible for the SBPAC, which is under the command of ISOC. The SPBAC is actually a small administrative structure. I try to use my ability to see that its operations are successful, and I also try to cultivate personal relationships with the people I work with.”
He went on to say, “In fact, I do not have the authority to give orders to any provincial governor or district chief because I am not a director of ISOC. This is why I cannot give orders to ISOC’s subordinate departments.”
When asked why the new law is being processed slowly, Tavorn said “There might be political complications and contrasting opinions.”
Deep South Watch team asked him how he could explain this to people in the area.