Potential Thai PM forced to face Deep South insurgency question

Commentary by Don Pathan
Potential Thai PM forced to face Deep South insurgency question Move Forward Party leader Pita Limjaroenrat, center, responds to a reporter in Bangkok after signing a memorandum of understanding in an attempt to form a coalition government with other parties following the Thailand general election, May 22, 2023.
Sakchai Lalit/AP

The platforms of Thai political parties have left out the insurgency in the Deep South because solutions to the separatist conflict could require concessions that constituents likely will not accept.

And so politicians stop short of talking about the root causes – much less solutions – because these kinds of discussions require them to talk about concessions needed for a peaceful settlement.

Every now and then the questions come up, often unexpectedly, and a candidate is put on the spot and forced to think on his feet. A recent encounter between reporters and Pita Limjaroenrat, the leader of the Move Forward Party and a potential prime minister in waiting, is a case in point.

The journalists asked him if his party would allow the far south to break away from Thailand, should Move Forward succeed in forming a new government.

Pita tried to play it safe, saying the problem was rooted in the livelihoods of local people. His remarks didn’t go down well with the new generation of young local activists, many of whom voted for him.

“The incoming leader must be firm. That person must not act on rumors as it could result in misdirection. We could drift toward granting a bigger budget to the army to address the problem,” he said during a news conference at the signing ceremony of a memorandum of understanding among coalition parties on May 22.

“And the problem will never end. The reality is, the problem of the three southernmost provinces has to do with livelihood, the economy and public health.”

As expected, the social media was flooded with all sorts of snotty remarks, accusing Pita of not being creative or bold enough.

Complex, misunderstood

But for many, the off-the-cuff statement was something that could be forgiven. After all, the conflict in the far south is complex and often misunderstood.

“Even veteran politicians like Wan Muhammed Noor Matha whose Prachachat, the so-called Malay party, chose to play it safe by claiming most people in this historically contested region don’t want an independent state,” said Artef Sohko, president of The Patani, a political action group advocating for the right of self-determination for the people of Thailand’s southern border region.

Of course, no Thai government had ever carried out a referendum to gauge what locals want. The closest was a research project headed by Mark Tamthai, an academic from Chiang Mai’s Payap University who specializes in peace and conflict studies. 

In the “Weaving Patani’s Dream Non-violently: An Analysis of Conversations for a New Imagination (2019),” he asked 1,000 pro-independence people in the region why they embraced this cause. A vast majority said it was their “sacred value.” 

Mark was Thailand’s chief negotiator for the southern peace process during the government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. 

For Malay Muslims in the border region, democracy and nationalism featured prominently during the 2023 general election.

“It was obvious that the priorities of the political parties were elsewhere as democracy and nationalism in the Patani region were not properly addressed during the election campaign,” said Asmadee Bueheng, author of “Rawang Thang Sata” (“Along the Road of Faith”), published in March.

No one wanted to have a frank discussion about the historical grievances or why the ethnic Malays rejected Thailand’s policy of assimilation. Malays say it comes at the expense of their ethno-religious identity. 

The Thai state, on the other hand, sees the rejection as undermining its nationhood.

Muslim men and women shop at a market in Pattani province in Thailand’s Deep South region, March 16, 2019. [Panu Wongcha-um/Reuters]

While the current wave of insurgency in the Muslim-majority, Malay-speaking south began in 2004 and more than 7,300 people have since died because of related violence, a critical mass outside the region was never generated.

One reason is because successive governments didn’t want to engage in critical discussion about the Malays’ grievances for fear that such discussions would legitimize the uprising.

Moreover, for many of the past 19 years, regardless of whether the government was democratically elected or came to power through a coup, peace initiatives came and went and none generated enough traction to move the talks beyond a confidence-building measure, or CBM. Military options were always on the table.

Peace process

If Pita and Move Forward can form a government with a coalition of other parties, they will inherit a peace process that has not moved beyond a talk shop. 

But if Move Forward has the political will that it said it has, then conflict resolution for the far south could see a turning point. Meaningful concessions could very well be made and the local Malays, as well as the rebel group Barisan Revolusi Nasional, could be forced to respond.

Pita might have shot himself in the foot with the statement about livelihood being the cause of the conflict. But this is nothing compared to the wrath from Thai nationalists, as well as army hardliners that he and rookie politicians could face if his party is seen as being too lenient on the majority-Malay population in the far south. 

Thai people have long associated Thainess, or kwam pen Thai, with the state-constructed identity and narrative and could be extremely unkind to people who challenge these constructs. Kwam pen Thai has provided the platform for ethnic groups in this country to call themselves Thai.

Malays in the far south, on the other hand, embraced a different narrative. Religious identity and ethnic identity are inseparable. And so, when the Thais tried to change one side, it naturally affected the other.

Regardless, even with a new government with a full mandate from the people, resolving the conflict in the far south will not be smooth sailing. 

The roadside bomb attack in Narathiwat province’s Rueso district last week that injured two paramilitary personnel – part of security details for Buddhist monks receiving alms – is a reminder of the difficult road ahead for the incoming government. 

Don Pathan is a Thailand-based security analyst who works on conflict and insurgency in the Southeast Asia region. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of BenarNews.


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