Page 1 of 2 AN ATOL INVESTIGATION Faint reform glimmer in south Thailand
By Jason Johnson
PATTANI - Thailand's political conflict between forces linked to 2006
coup-ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra and those connected with the ruling
Democrat Party has dominated media and policymaker focus in recent years.
Somewhat lost in Thailand's most pervasive divide in its history has been the
maelstrom of violence in the predominantly ethnic Malay Muslim southernmost
Since 2004, violence between ethnic Malay Muslim insurgents and state security
forces, alongside and intersecting with private and political killings, has
resulted in some 4,500 deaths in this region that roughly corresponds with the
former Malay sultanate of
Patani, a tributary state of Siam, present-day Thailand, until its formal
incorporation in 1909.
Now often referred to as Thailand's "deep south", successive Thai governments
have battled the shadowy, ethno-religious nationalist insurgency through a
combination of security measures and hearts-and-minds programs largely overseen
by the military. While these operations have contributed to a reduction in
violent incidents and deaths over the past three years, political reform models
that could potentially soothe moderate Malay Muslim nationalist aspirations,
neutralize pipedreams of independence, and curtail violence have been shelved
The House of Representatives' recent approval of a Democrat Party-led bill
proposal that will restructure the Southern Border Provinces Administrative
Center (SBPAC), located in Thailand's deep southern town of Yala, will not hand
authority over to Malay Muslim leadership, but it will undercut the Thai
military's controversial role in the strife-torn region. Rather than operating
under the command of the military-controlled Internal Security Operations
Command's (ISOC) Fourth Army Region, SBPAC and its director will be appointed
by, and report directly to, the prime minister.
First established in 1981 under the government of Prem Tinsulanonda, a former
prime minister and current president of the monarchy's Privy Council, the SBPAC
has acquired a reputation for playing a mediating role between the Thai state
and ethnic Malay Muslim leaders. It has received credit from analysts for
reducing separatist inclinations and violence and giving greater legitimacy to
the Thai state in the 1980s through the mid-1990s.
In a move that partially reflected Thaksin's ambitions to undermine the
Democrat Party's dominance in the south, in 2002 the premier ordered the
disbandment of the SBPAC. In 2006, the SBPAC was revived by the coup-installed
government of General Surayud Chulanont. However, violence in fact escalated
despite a slew of analysis that asserted the resumption of the SBPAC
represented a turn towards a softer approach to counter-insurgency. Under the
strong-fisted tack of the Thaksin administration, Thailand's security forces
were lambasted for two of the worst cases of human-rights abuses in Thailand's
history, the Kru Se Mosque and Tak Bai incidents, in 2004.
Some military officials reportedly opposed the recent bill, but SBPAC officials
and some Malay Muslim leaders have lauded the forthcoming changes, which will
take place once it receives royal approval expected within the next several
months. Tasked with programs concerning development, education, and justice,
SBPAC officials have complained that military oversight has hindered the
center's effectiveness. ISOC has at times resisted allocating its budget to the
SBPAC, and some village leaders have even refrained from accepting SBPAC
projects because of their military affiliation.
Despite anticipated improvements in a civilian-led SBPAC, its empowerment
symbolizes a longstanding government effort to garner the consent of the Malay
Muslim population in a manner that maintains central authority over political
power in this region where Islam became dramatically more established as a
result of Siam's wars that devastated the former Patani Sultanate in the late
18th and early 19th centuries.
Senior-level positions in the SBPAC have always been held by centrally
appointed Thai Buddhist bureaucrats. Malay Muslim leaders have landed prominent
roles on the 49-member SBPAC advisory council, but their subordination in
top-level decision-making has long fueled various degrees of resentment.
Animosities intensified in light of the SBPAC bill's inclusion of the southern
border provinces of Songkhla and Satun. Four districts of Songkhla form part of
the region that roughly corresponds with the former Patani Sultanate, but the
province is predominantly Thai Buddhist and relatively wealthy. Meanwhile, as
part of the Malay Sultanate of Kedah until its formal incorporation into
present-day Thailand in 1909, most of Satun's population has Malay roots.
However, its population has become more assimilated into Thailand's mainstream
and has always been free of the separatist violence that has long beset the
deep south provinces of Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala.
The addition of two southern provinces that border Malaysia apparently resulted
from the political muscle of upper southern Democrats, specifically the faction
led by deputy prime minister Suthep Thaugsuban. Suthep's political ally, deputy
interior minister Thavorn Senneam, a Songkhla native, chaired a government
committee that ruled to include Satun and Songkhla under the jurisdiction of
Conversations this writer had with several groups of ordinary Muslims in
Pattani revealed a lack of awareness of the SBPAC bill, but when informed about
the inclusion of the two provinces all expressed disapproval. One prominent
Malay Muslim political leader who spoke to Asia Times Online sneered at this
component of the bill, noting that it will pull resources away from the SBPAC's
role in addressing the deep south's lack of development as well as issues
related to its unique ethno-religious character.
That character has long been cited by Malay Muslim leaders and others to
highlight and justify the need for special regional political arrangements. The
explosion of violence beginning in 2004 dramatically opened up the political
space for Malay Muslim nationalist activists' calls for political reforms.
These activists have in effect produced a non-violent nationalist movement that
has garnered political clout at Thailand's center by successfully linking up
with many Bangkok-based academics, activists, and even politicians sympathetic
to moderate nationalist demands.
Some individuals in this network told Asia Times Online that they believe prime
minister Abhisit Vejjajiva is sympathetic to moderate political demands to
grant more authority to local leaders. However, it is widely known that the
Oxford-educated premier's hands are tied by royally-backed bureaucratic power
holders who tend to view the deconcentration or decentralization of authority
as a threat to national unity and possible first step towards the country's
With significant political reforms seemingly off the table, the Abhisit-led
government has attempted to shore up its legitimacy by not only empowering a
civilian-led SBPAC but also through the recent appointment of a Malay Muslim as
provincial governor in Pattani. Nipon Narapitakkul is the second Malay Muslim
ever to hold the position of governor in the deep south, following Thira
Mintrasak, former governor of Yala. However, it is no coincidence that both
governors - who like all provincial governors are unelected and fall under the
central authority of the ministry of interior - have Thai names rather than
Malay Muslim ones.
In spite of Thailand's well-chronicled state-building efforts that have
effectively marginalized Malay identity in this predominantly Buddhist country,
there has been a marked shift in recognizing Malay ethnicity and language in
recent years. In fact, the new SBPAC bill is loaded with language signifying
the Thai government's enhanced recognition of Malay identity and the
significance of Patani history to ethnic Malay Muslims.
This stands in contrast with the lack of official recognition of Malay identity
when the current wave of violence began in 2004. Then, one rarely heard Thai
Buddhist officials refer to ethnic Malays as Malay, or khon Melayu in
Thai. Largely due to the efforts of Malay Muslim nationalist activists, who
play prominent roles in representing the Malay Muslim population to Thai
bureaucrats, Bangkok-based academics, activists, and politicians, as well as
foreign journalists and researchers, officials now often use the term Melayu to
refer to both the people and the local Malay language.
These ethnic markers have also begun to impact Malay Muslim society outside of
intellectual circles where ethnic identity is prioritized over Muslim or Thai
identity. For instance, this writer has noticed a recent rise in understanding
- and even use - of the term Melayu among Malay Muslims. But similar to
researcher Thomas McKenna's findings on the ethnic Moro separatists in the
southern Philippines - the movements that southern Thailand's insurgents have
drawn most comparisons with - few locals prioritize this ethnic identification.
Both survey and ethnographic research has shown that the vast majority of Malay
Muslims refer to themselves as khon Isalam and their language as pasa
Isalam or pasa Yawi when speaking Thai. Meanwhile, this writer
and several anthropologists have noticed how the local Malay word for Malay, Nayu,
is used not only in reference to ethnic Malays in the far south, Malaysia,
Brunei, and parts of Indonesia, but also for any Muslim in the world, including
Muslims that come from other parts of Thailand.
Thailand's shift to gradual acceptance of Malay identity will not satisfy
ideologically-driven insurgents, however. When this writer informed one
politically-informed detainee from Inkhayut Camp's notorious "reconciliation
center" of some military officials' improved efforts to accept Malay identity,
he shrugged it off as a thoughtful but ultimately insignificant gesture. He
emphatically stated how local Malay Muslims, whom he referred to as khon Melayu,
need political authority over their own affairs.