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    Southeast Asia
     Nov 23, 2010


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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 provinces.

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 by Bangkok.

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.

Central resistance
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 the SBPAC.

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 disintegration.

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.

Separatist fantasies
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. 

Continued 1 2  


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