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Rethinking Thailand's Southern Violence

Reviewed by Bertil Lintner

Rethinking Thailand's Southern Violence, edited by Duncan McCargo. National University of Singapore Press. 225 pages. $22.00.

Hardly a day goes by without a shootout or a bomb attack in Thailand’s volatile south, where a long-simmering Malay-Muslim insurgency flared anew in January 2004. And that happened, Duncan McCargo, a senior lecturer in politics at the University of Leeds argues, in response to new, harsh policies implemented by the now ousted Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

The problem of the restive south is hardly new, but during the premiership of Prem Tinsulanonda from 1980-88, a kind of "social contract" was brokered in the area, and "the security forces were not too abusive, local Muslim leaders could report to a central agency and in exchange violence was kept to manageable levels," Mr. McCargo argues. Then came the meteoric rise of Mr. Thaksin, who set about changing established security structures in the south. By 2003, the number of extrajudicial disappearances had increased dramatically, provoking a strong and hostile reaction from the local, Malay-Muslim population. According to Mr. McCargo, the Thaksin government’s "persistent mishandling of the southern violence was a key factor behind the September 2006 military coup d’etat" in Bangkok.

The current military-installed government, headed by former army commander General Surayud Chulanont, pledged on taking power to adopt a new, more peaceful approach to the southern insurgency. Even so, the violence is continuing, perhaps because the situation already is beyond redemption, but maybe also because the central authorities have not yet started to effectively implement the softer policy.

Whatever the case, this book is a valuable contribution to a better understanding of the problems in the three southern provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat—which once formed an independent sultanate called Patani. It had, and still has, a separate identity, of which religion is only one of many aspects.

Significantly, there is no insurgency in the fourth southern Muslim-majority Thai province, Satun. Before coming under Thai sovereignty via the Anglo-Siamese Treaty of 1909, Satun was part of the Malay sultanate of Kedah, which remained under British rule and now is part of independent Malaysia. Although currently 80% Muslim, Satun never had the same national identity and, therefore, has become more successfully integrated into Thailand. Today, Thai is spoken in Satun, not the Malay dialects prominent in the other three southern provinces.

Rethinking Thailand’s Southern Violence analyzes the origin of the conflict between the Thai center and the Malay-Muslim south in its historical as well as contemporary context, dismissing the notion that it is a product of international Islamic terrorism, or part of some global network of Islamic groups, as some other analysts have claimed. Consisting of seven essays by as many different authors, with an introduction and a postscript by the editor, Mr. McCargo, this material was first published in the March 2006 issue of Critical Asian Studies, and have been only slightly updated.

Chaiwat Satha-Anand, an associate professor of political science at Bangkok’s Thammasat University, deals with the origins of the insurgency, and the degree of collective amnesia about what really happened when, in the late 1940s, communal violence claimed several hundred lives in the south. Mr. McCargo describes the resurgence of violence under Mr. Thaksin and his hawkish polices, and so does Ukrist Pathmanand, a senior researcher at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.

According to Mr. McCargo, Mr. Thaksin chose the region as the battleground for his fight to wrest control of Thailand from the palace, the Privy Council, and what the authors call "network monarchy"—a set of local power structures linked to the palace. Mr. Thaksin’s aggressive policies upset those "networks," and that contributed substantially to the post-2004 upsurge in violence.

During Mr. Thaksin’s last year in power, the conflict with Privy Council President, and former Prime Minister Prem Tinsulanonda deepened. Today, Mr. Thaksin blames Mr. Prem for his ouster, which he may or may not have been involved in. But it is evident that the two men have fundamentally different approaches to Thailand’s social and political problems, among them the southern insurgency.

The next two chapters, written by Thai academics Srisompob Jitpiromsri and Wattana Sugunnasil, and Bangkok-based official Panyasak Sobhonvasu, examine the nature of the escalation of violence since January 2004. May Tan-Mullins, a British academic, takes a more human approach to the problem of "fears, suspicion, and confusion" among ordinary people in the south, while Michael Connors, a lecturer at La Trobe University, Australia, severely criticizes "terrorism analysts" for getting it wrong by blaming the violence on international terrorist networks, and that counter-insurgency in southern Thailand should be seen as part of the U.S.-driven "war on terror." That was also Mr. Thaksin’s approach; he sent a token contingent of Thai troops to assist the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq—which, according to Mr. McCargo, "infuriated Thailand’s Muslim population, especially in the south."

Mr. Thaksin is now gone from the scene, so why has the violence not subsided? The authors don’t really address that issue, naturally, because they were writing before the coup. Mr. McCargo, however, touches on the continuation of the violence in the postscript, but with a somewhat limp conclusion: "The end of the Thaksin regime signaled a new opportunity to address the worsening violent conflict."

The analyses presented by the various authors are brilliant and should help remove many of the misunderstandings surrounding the Malay-Muslim insurgency in Thailand’s deep south. But the postscript should have presented a more comprehensive overview and analysis of events after the coup—for instance, that the three most serious recent events relating to the insurgency have been left unaddressed: the military’s storming of the historic Kru Sae mosque in Pattani in April 2004, which claimed dozens of Muslim lives; the death by suffocation of 78 protesters in overcrowded army trucks at Tak Bai in Narathiwat in October of the same year; and the unresolved disappearance of human-rights lawyer Somchai Neelapaichit, a Muslim but not a southerner, who was representing a group of accused insurgents who claimed they had been tortured while in police detention. Mr. Somchai was last seen in public on March 12, 2004.

It is left to the new Thai government, which takes over after the next general election, tentatively scheduled for December this year, to tackle those issues. Hopefully they will read this book before making any drastic decisions, which, as Mr. Thaksin’s policies showed, have a tendency to backfire badly.

This review first appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, November, 2007

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