Thailand Tries to Project Normality

But unresolved grievances likely to impede efforts to end civil conflict.

Ryan Pierse / Getty Images (left); Vivek Prakash / Reuters-Landov

Former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra (left) and current Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.

Following a year of violent antigovernment protest and military backlash in Bangkok, and with elections likely soon, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva appears eager to show that Thailand is on the mend. In late December, the government lifted the state of emergency that had been in place in the capital for more than eight months, and Abhisit then gave an optimistic end-of-year speech promising stability. As one indication, the cabinet also lifted a much older state of emergency in three districts of Thailand’s troubled Deep South—where successive administrations have been unable to quell an insurgency that since 2004 has claimed more than 4,400 lives. “It shows that the government is making progress,” Abhisit said of the move.

Yet analysts familiar with the region, where parts of the Muslim and ethnic-Malay majority have long clamored for a political voice, say the conflict is far from easing. In fact, while violence in the three districts in question has traditionally been low, it has risen overall during Abhisit’s two-year tenure, according to analysts. “The violence isn’t down,” says Zachary Abuza, a professor at the National War College who has done extensive fieldwork in the area. “People just accept that violence as the new normal.”

The conflict has been simmering since 1902, when Thailand annexed what had historically been parts of the Kingdom of Pattani, but flared up in 2004 following the heavy-handed approach to the region by the then-prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra. Insurgent demands now range from more political say to a fully independent state and implementation of Sharia.

Abuza says there’s no end to the conflict in sight: Thai authorities have yet to get a handle on what is a hard-to-pinpoint, low-grade insurgency that has no clear-cut message, central command, or even identifiable leaders. Harsh military and police tactics, meanwhile, such as detaining suspected insurgents without charge and allegedly using torture, seem only to make things worse. And even lifting the state of emergency represents no significant policy shift—many of the measure’s stipulations remain in effect through the Internal Security Act. Conventional wisdom holds that the government must settle its problems in Bangkok before it can properly address the trouble in the South.

The core issue is legitimacy, says Duncan McCargo, a professor of Southeast Asian politics at the University of Leeds. Thailand’s government is extremely centralized, with even regional governors appointed by Bangkok, where the military and monarchy sit. In the South, many residents feel estranged from the power structure, and the notion has been exacerbated by the military presence and decades of neglect. The red-shirt protesters who occupied part of central Bangkok for two months last year were supporters of Shinawatra, a populist billionaire who went into exile after being deposed in a 2006 military coup—and was the first prime minister to begin shifting some power from Bangkok to the country’s North, which is his base. “What you see in the Deep South is just an extreme version of the national problem in Thailand, which is that power is overly concentrated in Bangkok,” McCargo says. The red shirts took to the streets again in the capital this month following the lifting of the emergency decree.

Devolution of power is the only long-term answer, both in the Deep South and countrywide, according to Michael Montesano of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. Yet the controversial subject is unlikely to be broached any time soon: the Bangkok elite are reluctant to cede real power, while Abhisit’s government is backed by Thailand’s most centralized powers—the military and the crown. “It would be hard to do this even if there weren’t a political crisis,” says Montesano. Until the country’s leaders are willing to address the longstanding grievances held by Thais outside the traditional power structure, unrest, both in the South and in Bangkok, will likely continue to be the norm.


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