Democratic aversion impacts Thai South
By Jason Johnson
PATTANI - Since former Democrat Party parliamentarian Suthep Thaugsuban and his current People's Democratic Reform Committee's (PDRC) anti-government protest movement took to the streets of Bangkok in November in an effort to replace the elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra with an appointed "people's council", many political pundits have asserted that the PDRC movement is an obstacle to representative democracy.
This week, PDRC supporters, who largely back the Democrat Party and hail from Bangkok and the country's upper south region, have attempted to block voters from casting votes in a snap election that was called by Yingluck, the younger sister of 2006 coup-ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra.
Since 2001, parties aligned with Thaksin, who has lived in self-exile since fleeing abuse-of-power charges in 2008, have
demolished the Democrats at the polls in Thailand's vote-rich north and northeastern regions.
Critics, including the Thaksin-backed United Front for Democracy (UDD) "red shirt" movement, note that the PDRC and the Democrat Party oppose representative politics for most people in these less prosperous regions of Thailand. However, they tend to overlook how the party serves as a principle obstacle to regional representative politics in the country's conflict-torn far South region.
Since early 2004, this predominantly Malay-speaking Muslim region has experienced unprecedented levels of violence. Neither state nor separatist rebel forces have gained any kind of military edge, while nearly 6,000 lives have been lost through insurgency-related and criminal violence.
The international community has urged successive Thai governments to work towards a "political solution" to end the deadly conflict. By working towards some kind of negotiated settlement and offering regional representative government (eg something like autonomy), Thailand might be able to better control this conflict that dates back centuries, both analysts and policy-makers have claimed.
When Yingluck, widely viewed as the self-exiled Thaksin's proxy, entered office in 2011, it became increasingly clear that her Peua Thai party-led government would take the lead in this direction. Thaksin's appointed point man in the predominantly Malay-speaking region, Tawee Sodsong, secretary-general of the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Center (SBPAC), began talking about the need for special regional governance.
Towards that aim, Tawee has discussed the demands for autonomy by nationalist icon Haji Sulong (a Malay Muslim religious leader who was allegedly killed by Thai police in 1954), promoted Malay language radio and television, and offered unprecedented financial support to victims of state and separatist violence.
In early 2013, the Peua Thai government introduced the country's first formal dialogue process with a rebel group. Thaksin and Tawee brought in Malaysia, which has long been a source of sanctuary for insurgents, as a third-party facilitator and nudged (or according to many sources bullied) some figures from the rebel Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), the main nationalist liberation group active in the minority region, to the dialogue table.
The Democrats blasted Peua Thai for elevating the dialogue. Party leader and former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and others claimed that its formalization could result in outside intervention and a possible outright declaration of independence in the future.
Abhisit and other Democrat Party figures have also shown opposition to regional representative governance. Since 2009, they have denounced perhaps the most popular national-level political figure in the region, former premier and army commander Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, and his Mahanakorn Pattani model of special regional governance.
In an effort analysts and some locals believe was to show that Malay-speaking Muslims did not support Chavalit's model or any other models of special regional governance, the Democrat Party allegedly dramatically outspent Peua Thai and other parties in vote-buying in the run-up to the 2011 national election.
Such resistance to both special regional governance and formal dialogue stems in part from Thai speaking southerners, who overwhelmingly support the Democrat Party and the PDRC, and have held long-term administrative authority in the Malay-speaking far south region.
Thai speakers from outside the violence-plagued region, which comprises the southernmost provinces of Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat, and parts of Songkhla, have dominated regional high-ranking positions in the centralized Ministry of Interior for more than a century. Before this, the southern vassal states of Nakorn Sri Thammarat and Songkhla helped Siam, present-day Thailand, exercise authority over the Malay-speaking region, formerly known as Patani.
In 1981, southern bureaucratic power was further entrenched when then prime minister Prem Tinsulanonda, a Buddhist from Songkhla province who now serves as the president to the monarchy's advisory Privy Council, established the SBPAC. Until Tawee's appointment in 2011, loyalists to Prem and the Democrat Party dominated this regional administrative body.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the SBPAC and the Civilian-Police-Military (CPM) 43, which helped to coordinate security operations in the restive region, worked to successfully deter secessionist rebellion. However, as violence began to intensify after Thaksin dissolved the two structures in 2002, he was squarely blamed for upsetting a delicate balance in the troubled border region.
Immediately after the 2006 coup, analysts agreed that the appointed government of Privy Councilor and Prem protege Surayud Chulanont was a positive step towards reestablishing relative peace. Surayud, a former army chief, restored the SBPAC and apologized to the region's Muslims for past human rights abuses, including heavy-handed tactics that took place under Thaksin from 2001 through mid-2006.
Today, Suthep's rhetoric to justify the ousting of the "Thaksin regime" includes condemnation of Thaksin for human rights abuses, particularly the brutal suppression of Muslim protestors in Narathiwat's Tak Bai district in 2004, which led to the deaths of 85 Muslims.
But while that hawkish position dramatically deteriorated Thaksin's reputation among Muslims when he was in office, his Peua Thai government's willingness to challenge royalist bureaucratic authority is now praised by many Malay-speaking Muslims in the region. Intellectuals and activists in particular have commended Peua Thai for elevating dialogue and showing support for some kind of special regional governance. Meanwhile Tawee has acquired unparalleled popularity among Muslims for a SBPAC head.
Suthep, a southerner from the upper south province of Surat Thani, and the PDRC have voiced support for nationwide decentralization reform, including direct elections for provincial governors. Yet, to the surprise of seemingly few Malay Muslim intellectuals or activists, neither the Democrat Party nor the PDRC has ever backed any models of special regional governance for the far South.
To be sure, some Democrat Party figures and supporters are known to be sympathetic to the notion of autonomy and even formal negotiations. Those more progressive voices may need to come to the fore and alter the Democrats' conservative approach and mindset towards the Muslim far South.
With seemingly no chance for the Thai state to eradicate the resilient rebel movement through counter-insurgency measures and behind-the-scenes informal dialogue, a future Thai government will eventually need to bend to BRN demands made public last year on YouTube. That would include provisions for international organizations to sit at the dialogue table, elevating Malaysia's third-party role from "facilitator" to "mediator", offering an amnesty to insurgents, and recognizing that the region was colonized by Siam.
Insiders to the Malaysia-brokered dialogue process claim that Peua Thai would be willing to negotiate and compromise with the BRN dialogue team on these sensitive issues. But the power of the Democrat Party and the royalist establishment, which includes the influential army's top brass, has constricted Peua Thai's response, they say. As a result, the BRN dialogue team has allegedly pulled out of the process.
Since 2006, Democrat Party critics have seen Thailand's oldest political party as an obstacle to democracy at the national level. But over the past few years, it has become crystal clear that the party is also a core impediment to regional representative democracy and, by extension, relative peace in the country's far South.
Jason Johnson is an independent researcher and consultant covering southernmost Thailand. He is at present based in Pattani province, southern Thailand, and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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