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Southern explosions shake the campaign trail

Mar 13. 2019
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By The Nation

Candidates vying for office are hopefully prepared, if elected, to view the troubled borderlands differently

The nasty spike in brutality in the three southern border provinces and a spate of bomb attacks in Satun and Patthalung – which have always been outside the usual theatre of separatist violence – have been followed by an opportunity. The most significant of the militant groups issued a public statement calling on the international community to become directly involved in resolving the conflict.

The Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), which gives virtually all of the armed combatants in the South their operating orders, reiterated its claim to Patani, as Malay Muslims refer to their historical homeland in the border provinces. The organisation also repeated its position that everyone, regardless of ethnicity and religion, has the right to live in Patani in peace and harmony – and that it feels obliged to safeguard their safety and wellbeing.

The attacks in Satun and Patthalung erupted amid campaigning for the general election on March 24. The southern violence naturally forced its way into election analyses.

The BRN placed all blame for the attacks on the government’s refusal to conduct peace talks in line with international best practices. Successive governments have refused to label the insurgency a “conflict” lest the overseas community feels compelled to intervene. It is instead, in the eyes of the authorities, a “disturbance”.

Armed insurgency erupted in the Malay-speaking South in the 1960s in response to the state policy of assimilation. Conservative Muslims abhor the idea of yielding a significant portion of their religious and cultural identity. Importantly, the armed conflict exploded 50 years after the Ango-Siam Treaty was signed in 1909, when the border between Siam and British Malaya was redrawn, trapping the southern Malay Muslims in what to them was a foreign land.

Relations between Patani and Siam were hardly rosy up to that point, but earlier governments were careful to give the southerners a level of comfort that prevented tensions from boiling over. Then, in the 1950s, Thai “nationalism” reared its ugly head, everyone had to be a Thai-speaking patriot, and cultural and religious differences were assailed.

The wave of armed insurgency that began then continued into the late 1980s and early ’90s, when a decade of relative peace intervened. Government leaders wrongly assumed that the absence of violence meant peace would prevail. Instead, a new generation of militants was being groomed. They surfaced in late 2001 but were ignored by the government until January 4, 2004, when scores of them raided an Army battalion in Narathiwat and made off with 350 weapons. 

Bangkok could no longer dismiss the political underpinnings of the southern troubles. Ever since, the young militants under the BRN’s direction have defied official attempts to dismiss them as “sparrow bandits”. Some 7,000 people have been killed in insurgency-related violence since January 2004, yet the government insists there is no “conflict”. 

We may have a long wait and have to witness the deaths of many more soldiers and civilians before our leaders come to their senses and seek sounder alternative paths to resolution. With or without foreign assistance, Thailand will have to accept changes in the relationship with the Malay minority. 

We’ve been barking up the wrong tree for too long. It’s time to act differently and think differently. It will require political courage, moral tolerance, ethical compromise and a sense of fair play.

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