BANGKOK – After nearly a decade of conflict that has left thousands dead, Thailand is considering handing over limited powers to its Muslim-majority south in an effort to persuade rebels to lay down their arms.
Thai officials will meet with the two main insurgent groups on Thursday in Kuala Lumpur for a third round of talks that have so far failed to end near-daily violence in the region bordering Malaysia. Since 2004, there have been more than 5,500 deaths.
In an effort to find a breakthrough to end the violence, Thai authorities has floated the idea of handing some local decision-making to the three southern provinces dominated by Malay-Muslims. The three provinces are Yala, Narathiwat and Pattani.
“We are not talking about autonomy but about local administration,” Bangkok’s lead negotiator Paradorn Pattanatabut, head of the National Security Council, told AFP last week.
“They have their own identity (in the south) so local administration might be suitable to recognise that identity, culture and religion,” he said, but added that the idea would not be on the table at this week’s talks.
His comments revived an idea previously raised by the government but later shelved.
Bangkok and the tourist hotspot of Pattaya already have a form of locally-elected administration able to make by-laws, levy taxes and manage their budget.
Paradorn said elected governors there could provide a template for the culturally distinct southern provinces of Yala, Narathiwat and Pattani, whose top political rulers are appointed by Bangkok.
“It’s possible that there would be some kind of elections,” he said. “There could be governors for each province or a single governor for the three provinces.”
Paradorn raised the idea after meeting Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, suggesting government backing and recognition at the highest levels of a political dimension to the violence.
Hopes of progress in the bitter standoff received a boost after rebel group PULO (Patani United Liberation Organisation) joined the second round alongside the BRN (Barisan Revolusi Nasional)– held responsible for most of the violence.
Full autonomy for the south remains taboo as the constitution insists the Buddhist-majority kingdom must not be divided.
While that over-arching principle is in place, some experts doubt whether the insurgents will end their violent campaign.
“The rebels are fighting for independence, so exploration of alternative administrative models, along the lines of the Bangkok or Pattaya metropolitan areas, is not going to mollify them,” said Matthew Wheeler of the International Crisis Group (ICG).
Moreover, concerns among the Thai elite — both political and military — mean it is far from certain that Yingluck will press ahead with a potentially divisive policy.
“Many senior military officers and civilian bureaucrats are antagonistic to the idea of a special administrative zone, as is the opposition Democrat Party,” Wheeler said, adding it “seems unlikely” Yingluck would exhaust political capital on the issue.
Some in the south, where both Buddhist and Muslim civilians have borne the brunt of the conflict, see Paradorn’s proposal as a distraction from the wider issues of alleged abuses by Thai security forces and the perceived denigration of Malay Muslim culture.
“It would be useful for the people to have an (elected) representative who would understand them and know their thoughts and feelings,” said Adilan Ali-Ishak, head of the Muslim Attorney Centre in Yala province.
“But I don’t think it’s the priority of the people. They want safety… and an end to discrimination. Detainees are still assaulted and are not allowed to speak the Malay language.”
At the same time, there is a growing realism among some of the south’s wider population that limited local power would represent progress of sorts.
“It is very important to give power to the local people,” said Srisompob Jitpiromsri, director of conflict monitor Deep South Watch.
“Decentralisation is a kind of justice… it is a political justice that gives opportunities and rights for the people to administer themselves.”
Some experts warn that the fragile peace process could collapse altogether in the absence of an impartial mediator empowered to help draw up a roadmap out of the conflict.
“This whole process is on life-support, and it’s unclear whether either side is able to generate enough goodwill to get it off life-support,” said Anthony Davis, a security analyst with IHS-Jane’s.
An alternative approach
While the Thai government mulls ceding power to the troubled south region, residents in Satun province will be hoping that a community policing scheme may help sow the seeds for peace.
Nestled between Malaysia and the Andaman Sea, Satun province marks the furthest point in Thailand’s southwest.
While its neighbours are caught up in a separatist movement, this border province is free from insurgency but not for long if no preventive measure is taken.
Sutinan Ananthakhan, squad leader of Sub-division 6 in Crime Suppression Division, said: “Satun is one of the provinces targeted by the separatists. We have to make sure this area is free from insurgents so that it won’t face the same problems as the four other provinces do.”
To stop separatism from spreading, police have chosen a community in a remote neighbourhood of Satun for a security experiment known as the Community Policing Project.
It is based on the philosophy that collaboration between law enforcement authorities and individuals to reduce crimes will increase trust in the police.
The Ban Hua Thang community, located in the Mueang district of Satun province, has been selected for this project because it shares similar characteristics with the violence-plagued areas. It is a Muslim community that didn’t have trust for police and has a staggering number of crimes by juveniles.
This small community was once a very dangerous place to live in and was known as a hotbed of crimes and a heaven for gangsters, drug addicts and robbers. The situation started to improve when a group of police officers came here and introduced a pilot project to the local residents.
Police Lieutenant Colonel Jirapong Rujiradumrongchai, deputy superintendent of Sub-division 6 in Crime Suppression Division said: “We selected officers who are Muslim and interested in community service. We sent them into the community, where they joined the residents in communal activities. Once good relationship was created, the locals began to trust the police and started telling them about the problems in the community.”
The number of youth crimes have dropped since the scheme started.
Santi Sunsaboo, a resident, said: “The officers have a good intention for my community. They help young people achieve good education and career, creating a role model for our younger generations. They made me realise that I need to be a good example for my children and grandchildren.”
Another resident Weerawat Kebkamen, said: “Every officer treats us like their brothers. They didn’t use force or violence but kindness and reasons. That is why I decided to change my life.”
The successful outcome has generated a sense of optimism that the unrest in southern Thailand, carried out by young insurgents, can be resolved through this project.
Mr Ananthakhan said: “I’m sure this project can help solve the ongoing violence because it creates a safe community. Besides reducing crimes, we also educate young people of what is right and wrong. If neglected, these kids could become a major force in spreading the violence.”
There are plans to implement the project in other communities across Thailand’s deep south and together with the peace dialogue, there is hope that it will bring an end to the violence in the region.