Thai premier Surayud Chulanont has reacted to escalating violence in Thailand’s southernmost areas by travel to the region and making his latest move towards ending decades of violence.
The insurgency in southern Thailand has received significant media attention in the wake of a series of violent incidents based in the three southern provinces of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat.
The history of the separatist movement can be traced back to the early twentieth century when in 1902 Patani was annexed by Thailand (then known as Siam). Seven decades after Thailand was given sovereignty over the area from a treaty with Great Britain. Patani was divided into the three aforementioned provinces, along with two districts of Songkhla, in 1933.
Patani was a Malay Sultanate and because of this over three quarters of the population from the three southern provinces today are Muslim. Whilst having some linguistic and cultural similarities with the Malays of Malaysia, Thailand’s southern Malay community keeps a distinct identity and sense of independence.
As far back as the 1930s there was a drive to establish an independent southern state. The movement has taken many forms and the ideology has changed between a desire to establish this independent state and a desire to establish cultural autonomy. Separatist groups have continued to be active until the present day.
The resurgence of violence in the turn of the new millennium has cast a deathly shadow over Thailand’s southernmost place. The problems haven’t been aided by the words and actions of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his government who until 2004 insisted that criminal gangs, as opposed to insurgents, were responsible for the violence.
When martial law was declared in the southern provinces of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat in January of 2004, the situation worsened as Thai troops and police were responsible for the deaths of over a hundred Muslims in a string of attacks.
Attempts to set up a dialog with the insurgents have been riddled with problems surrounding the anonymity of the movements’ leaders.
On August 31, 22 banks were simultaneously bombed in Yala, whilst on September 16 six motorcycle bombs killed four people in Hat Yai as attacks overran into the neighboring province.
The military coup and current political volatility in Thailand has done little to quell the friction in the South and strikes have persisted. On Thursday November 2, military-appointed Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont made a speech to 1200 Muslims in Pattani province apologizing for the problems created by the previous government, primarily resulting from the Kru Se Mosque and Tak Bai events which happened in April and October of 2004 respectively.
The Kru Se Mosque incident happened when 32 insurgents sought refuge in Pattani’s most sacred place of worship following a coordinated assault on 100 police outposts.
The Tak Bai massacre was spurred by a demonstration demanding the release of six men arrested for allegedly supplying weapons to insurgents. The demonstration became a massacre when the army used tear gas to control the crowd. Shooting began shortly afterwards and scores of sailors were rounded up, piled as many as five individuals high in trucks and driven for five hours. 85 men perished in all, 78 of whom suffocated from the trucks.
The newly-installed premier’s pledge to rid the southern states of violence has thus far been unsuccessful as attacks continue to break out on an almost daily basis. Surayud stated that his government is only going to use peaceful means to end the century tensions, although there has been no mention of the potential for an independent state. Surayud has rather made clear his intentions are to unify Thailand.
The Southern Border Provinces Administrative Centre was recently revived, after a five year absence, and is now led by Phranai Suwannarat who has been charged with instilling peace into the area.
The present government has been very vocal about the negative implications of the previous government’s actions, but as of yet it is uncertain how the newly-revived body will handle the circumstance.
Surayud has already done what Thaksin refused to: he’s apologized. However, this is just a single step on an already long trip that will most likely take years to finish. If Thailand is to unify itself then steps must be taken to eliminate the feelings of alienation felt by the country’s Muslim population.