Peace remains elusive in troubled south – Eurasia Review
By James Lovelock
(UCA News) – Away from international headlines, Thailand’s long-standing but sparsely covered Islamist insurgency continues at a steady pace, a nowhere resolution to a conflict that has claimed more than 7,000 lives since 2004.
Recent attacks on civilians by suspected insurgents in the southernmost region of predominantly Muslim Thailand have strained nerves and made the chances for peace more remote than ever.
In one of the latest incidents on December 13, a bomb planted by suspected Muslim separatists in Pattani, one of three troubled provinces in Thailand’s so-called Deep South, was detonated by a passing train, injuring a passenger and two railway employees on board. .
The train was on its way to a northern province when the bomb exploded, blowing windows and alarming the 300 passengers on board.
The alleged terror attack has been condemned by Thai security officials who publicly rebuked insurgents for targeting civilians, but such reprimands are unlikely to have any effect on the methods of militant Islamists, who are said to be from the ranks of disgruntled young Muslims.
Two days earlier, a bomb had exploded in Narathiwat, another of the three predominantly Muslim provinces bordering Malaysia, injuring two monks during their morning alms. Two army rangers escorting Buddhist clergy to ensure their safety were also injured in the blast.
No culprit has been identified in either case, but Thai security forces have blamed dark Islamist separatist groups for seeking independence from the three southernmost provinces of the predominantly Buddhist nation, which are mostly populated by Malaysian Muslims.
Over the past few weeks and months, suspected insurgents have continued a series of bombings and other attacks in an attempt to oust Buddhists and those they see as pro-Thai collaborators of the region, which fell under Buddhist rule from Bangkok in the 19th century.
The attacks were relatively limited in scope, possibly due to the limited capabilities of the insurgents as well as the heightened security measures by the Thai forces stationed in the area. However, they have had their effects, if only as a reminder that the efforts underway to bring the insurgents to the negotiating table have not yet borne fruit.
Such efforts are doomed to failure, at least for now, as many insurgents operating in poorly connected cells appear to oppose normalization of relations with the Bangkok government.
“Continuing violence, mistrust on both sides and the lack of a valid unified negotiating voice among the insurgents have combined to thwart [a long-running peace initiative]”, Wrote Paul Chambers, a leading expert on Thailand specializing in civil-military relations, in a recent article.
Thailand’s military-allied government, which has been in power since staging a coup in 2014, has pledged to end the southern insurgency. So far, however, he has not kept his promise.
The administration of Prayut Chan-o-cha, a former army chief who led the putsch, kept tight control over pro-democracy student-led protests in Bangkok by employing riot police against peaceful demonstrators in an often violent manner. At the same time, the Thai security forces have shown much less success in combating an insurgency waged with bombs and guns.
âThis government only knows how to crack down on people like us, unarmed demonstrators. In the south, they made a big mess, but they will never admit it. They continue to ignore the situation in public [in the hope that] people will forget about it, âPhichit Thongsuk, a young pro-democracy activist from southern Thailand, told UCA News.
Some of the tactics employed by the Thai security forces in the region have done little to improve their reputation. Rights defenders who have followed developments in the Deep South have long accused the regime of alienating many Muslims through summary arrests, enforced disappearances and torture of suspects.
Meanwhile, Muslim separatists have made their views known on the Thai state’s outreach efforts by targeting administrative initiatives such as polls. At the end of last month, for example, a bomb hidden in a parked motorcycle exploded next to an eight-vehicle convoy carrying ballot boxes for the elections in Yala, the troubled third province with a Muslim majority. Several vehicles were damaged in the explosion and a poll official was slightly injured.
Insurgents have also attacked schools and teachers in an attempt to delegitimize state-run education, which emphasizes seeking to instill in Muslim children a love for Thailand. During this process, suspected insurgents committed potential war crimes by regularly targeting not only the security forces but also civilians (teachers, administrators, Buddhist monks) through various acts of terror.
However, due to the constant tit-for-tat violence, some of the hardest hit people in the troubled region are themselves Malaysian Muslims. They are “marginalized people caught in the middle” that include women, children and the elderly, according to Chambers.
âAlthough they receive little attention, these civilians have directly and indirectly suffered the most from the relentless violence. Thailand’s deep south has a higher incidence of poverty than any other region in the country, âthe expert noted.
âResuming negotiations and reaching a solution to the violence in the Deep South requires increased trust and sincerity on the part of both parties and pressure from international actors and civil society. “