Thai premier Surayud Chulanont has responded to escalating violence in Thailand’s southernmost regions by travel to the area and making his most recent 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 centered in the three southern provinces of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat.
The history of this 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 split into the three aforementioned provinces, along with two districts of Songkhla, in 1933.
Patani was a Malay Sultanate and because of this more than 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 individuality and sense of independence.
As far back as the 1930s there has been a drive to set up an independent southern state. The movement has taken many forms and the ideology has shifted 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 moment.
The resurgence of violence at the turn of the new millennium has cast a deathly shadow over Thailand’s southernmost place. The problems have not been aided by the words and actions of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his government who until 2004 insisted that criminal gangs, rather than 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 more than a hundred Muslims in a series of attacks.
Attempts to set up a conversation with the insurgents have been riddled with issues surrounding the anonymity of the movements’ leaders.
On August 31, 22 banks were concurrently murdered in Yala, whilst on September 16 six bike bombs killed four people in Hat Yai as strikes overran in the neighboring province. Bloodshed continued to spill onto the streets of the southern provinces as the military coup of September 19 approached.
The military coup and current political volatility in Thailand has done little to quell the friction in the South and strikes have persisted.
The Kru Se Mosque incident happened when 32 insurgents sought refuge in Pattani’s most sacred place of worship after a coordinated assault on 100 police outposts. Army commander Pallop Pinmanee ordered troops to storm the mosque and all 32 rebels were killed.
The demonstration became a massacre when the army used tear gas to control the crowd. Shooting began shortly afterwards and dozens of sailors were piled up, piled as many as five people high in trucks and driven for five hours. 85 men died 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 ineffective as strikes continue to break out on an almost daily basis. Surayud said that his government will only 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 that 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 to the region.
The current government has been quite vocal about the negative implications of the former government’s actions, but as of yet it’s unclear how the newly-revived body will tackle the situation.
Surayud has already done what Thaksin refused to: he’s apologized. However, this is only a single step on an already long trip that will most likely take years to finish. If Thailand is to unite itself then steps must be taken to remove the feelings of alienation felt by the country’s Muslim population.