Fighting fire with fire

One of the region’s longest-running and most intractable conflicts continues to smoulder in Thailand’s deep south. The new military government has promised peace, but one of its first moves was handing out military-grade weapons to locals

Daniel Besant
December 9, 2014
Fighting fire with fire

One of the region’s longest-running and most intractable conflicts continues to smoulder in Thailand’s deep south. The new military government has promised peace, but one of its first moves was handing out military-grade weapons to locals

By Daniel Besant

“We are doing all that we can,” Thailand’s defence minister, Prawit Wongsuwan, said last month. “We will try to bring peace within a year.” 

That may be a tall order. 

In the past decade, monitoring group Deep South Watch estimates that more than 6,000 people have been killed and nearly 11,000 injured in violence linked to insurgents in the country’s Muslim-majority southernmost provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat. Although the insurgency seems to have no sole leader and there is more than one group operating, the rebels’ common aim is the granting of increased autonomy for the area’s ethnic Malays. 

“There is a lot of prejudice against the Malay,” said Zachary Abuza, an independent researcher on the Thai south. “They feel there is no space for them in the construct of the Thai state, whose three pillars are the monarch in the form of a Hindu god-king, Buddhism and an overly centralised, Thai-dominated bureaucracy.”

Despite numerous initiatives and promises of peace by successive governments, schools are still regularly torched, tit-for-tat murders are rife and explosive devices take their deadly toll. Government responses to the violence have drawn accusations of human rights violations. The insurgents counter arrests with targeted killings.

“The violence in the deep south has become normalised. The Thai state has been preoccupied with politics in Bangkok to the point that it is willing to neglect the violent conflict in the south,” said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, associate professor at Kyoto University’s Centre for Southeast Asian Studies. “The government tends to send officials to the south for some kind of punishment, thus putting the wrong man in the wrong job.”

The former government of ousted Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra began peace talks with one militant group in 2013, drawing approval from academics and rights groups. However, a political crisis put paid to those talks and ended with Shinawatra leaving office on May 7 and a military takeover on May 22. And now the very military that patrols the provinces, arresting suspects arbitrarily, has instigated a new peace initiative.

Anchana Heemmina, director of the Heart Support Group, an NGO working with the families of detainees, suspects the military government will only bring more of the same. “It will be a bad situation,” she said, “because the military believe that they have the right mindset, the right way of doing things and that all Muslim people are insurgents, particularly villagers.”

It is difficult to put a precise figure on how many people are currently incarcerated, but Heemmina estimates that between early 2004 and August this year, the military has detained about 6,000 people for various reasons and lengths of time. Interviews by her organisation with 120 families of Muslim detainees found that the overwhelming majority had been tortured while in custody.

Although the situation has improved over the past few years, there are still high levels of mistrust toward the government from Muslims – 85% of the population in the three unsettled provinces, according to Abuza. “Much of that comes from security-force impunity. Under an emergency decree, security forces have blanket immunity, and the government has rarely waived that even in the face of terrible crimes,” he said. “Until they deal with that, which they won’t, there will be mistrust of the government.”

The government’s latest wheeze is to hand out 2,700 Heckler & Koch HK33 military-grade fully automatic assault rifles to village defence volunteers (VDVs), who have little to no training, in order to counter insurgents. This comes despite similar distribution projects previously resulting in the firearms falling into the hands of the very insurgents they are supposed to be used against.

“They need weapons for self-defence. They can’t fight with just wooden sticks. They are for security volunteers who are stationed at provincial halls, district offices. They will also protect governors and district chiefs,” a defence official told AFP, adding that the majority of the weapons have gone to local Muslim villagers.

Following the weapons giveaway, the army has pledged to withdraw non-local troops – who are a major bone of contention in the area as they are considered ignorant of local customs – and put security into the hands of the VDVs.

Leaving aside the question of the weapons falling into insurgents’ hands, another area of concern is the legal situation surrounding their use. As the region has been ruled under an emergency decree since 2007, nobody seems to know if anyone can be prosecuted if the weapons are used improperly. 

“The question that no one can give you a straight answer to concerns whether or not the VDVs are covered under the emergency decree,” Abuza told Deutsche Welle. “Do they have immunity? Again, I know of no case where a VDV has been convicted, and yet there is a lot of vigilante justice and extrajudicial killings.”

A major red rag for the insurgents is the continued ban on the teaching of Malayu, the preferred language of the local Malay population, in schools. Education is given only in Thai, in line with the policy of assimilating the Malay. Malayu is sporadically allowed for official purposes, but as most government officials are Siamese, they don’t speak the local language. 

On October 12, insurgents simultaneously set fire to six primary schools in Pattani province, immediately before the commencement of the new school year and just after a wave of arrests by the military. “There have been 200 schools set alight in the past ten years and 178 teachers killed,” said Abuza. “As the agent of assimilation, the education system will always be a primary target.”

Although these attacks are thought to be targeting property rather than people, the deadly violence continues. In mid-November, yet another teacher was killed when she was shot twice in the head outside her home. On the same day, a bomb concealed under a vandalised road sign injured a VDV. Attacks such as these happen weekly in Thailand’s south.

However sincere defence minister Wongsuwan is in his pledge to bring peace, the decision to hand out thousands more weapons seems misguided at best. According to Chachavalpongpun, there is only one way to solve Thailand’s long-running conflict conundrum: “Open dialogue and grant autonomous power.”

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