In The News

In Thailand: Violent Conflict: Past and Present

April 30, 2008

Ubon Ratchathani, Thailand ” For more than 800 km, the muddy brown waters of the Mekong River divide Thailand and Laos. Here at Khong Jiem, the easternmost point of Thailand, the Mekong drifts slowly into Lao territory, leaving Thailand for the last leg of its journey to the South China Sea. In this remote corner of Thailand, the economic and political ties with Bangkok are relatively recent, but growing quickly. By contrast, the links with the Lao across the river are ancient. While the Mekong today divides these two places across an international border, for most of the past 600 years, it was a unifier. Most of the people on both sides of the river share a common ethnic and linguistic heritage, and a shared history linked to the Lao kingdoms that emerged in the fourteenth century. Most of the population was concentrated along the Mekong, as it was the economic and transport corridor of the region. Before the advent of the modern Thai state in the early twentieth century, there were very few roads in this region, making travel to Bangkok a matter of weeks, and almost all trade was with settlements along the river. Very few people visited Bangkok ” the distant kingdom to the southwest ” though emissaries were occasionally sent to pay tribute to the King.

Today, this region of Thailand, also know as Isaan, is well integrated into the political and economic mainstream of the country. Every year, hundreds of thousands of Isaan residents migrate to the urban centers to find better paying jobs, and temporary work. The region is connected to Bangkok by modern rail, road, and aviation networks (my return trip to Bangkok took less than 4 hours). This region has also made its mark on Thai politics. The former Thai Rak Thai government, and the current People Power Party government, derive a significant portion of their support base from Isaan voters, and the policies of these governments have correspondingly favored this region with investment and social services.

More than 1,500 kilometers to the south, the violent conflict in the southernmost provinces is now in its fourth year, with more than 3,000 people killed. The government of Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej is engaged in a contentious public debate over how to address the violence. The government’s evolving approach is likely to resemble that of the previous Thaksin government, with a heavy security presence, minimal restraints on security forces, centralized decision-making, and large-scale economic development programs. The glaring omission in this approach is the absence of any serious attempt to address the political grievances of the conflict-affected Thai-Malay population, decentralization of governance, or accounting for past abuses that have seriously undermined the government’s credibility with the local population.

This story is not new in Thailand. The current violence in the deep south is reminiscent of a past conflict in Isaan.

Few people associate Isaan with violent conflict. But for much of the twentieth century, this remote border region was the epicenter of a violent conflict that gripped the nation. From 1965 to 1985, the Thai government fought an armed insurgency by the Communist Party of Thailand (CPT), based in the northeastern border provinces. In fact, there is a much longer history of tensions between the government and this region, marked by ethnic discrimination, political under-representation, and economic marginalization.

Comparisons of these two conflicts are rare, mostly because the differing circumstances and international context. The conflict in Isaan is usually attributed to Cold War politics, while the south is considered a separatist movement by a religious and ethnic minority.

There are important similarities between these two conflicts, however, especially in their shared history of center-periphery conflict with the Thai government. Both of these areas are located in a remote corner of the country, along an international border, where an ethnic minority lives in high concentration. While the population of Isaan has become more integrated into the Thai state since the conflict, during the most violent period the level of integration was far less than today. In both cases, there is a long history of local grievances with the government in Bangkok.

In response to perceived threats from foreign powers, the Thai state has sought to consolidate its authority along the border regions, and secure the loyalty of ethnic minorities living in these peripheral regions. This process of “state penetration” has been highly coercive at times, and has led to the creation of resistance groups that oppose the state politically, and sometimes violently. Most importantly, the degree of coercion and penetration directly corresponds to the level of resistance ” in other words, heavy-handed, centralized policies lead to violent conflict.

In both cases, the problems began just after 1900, when the government began to extend the power of the state into the peripheral regions of the kingdom. These regions, such as Pattani in the south and Isaan in the northeast, had long been autonomous regions where local affairs were managed by local elites, according to local customs. These regions were also home to non-Thai speaking ethnic groups, who were closely related to populations across international borders. As the Thai state penetrated these regions, local affairs came under the control of officials sent from Bangkok who did not understand local customs or speak the local language. The situation in both regions deteriorated during the military-dominated regimes of the 1940s through the 1970s. These governments imposed heavy-handed assimilation policies that forced minorities to adopt central Thai language and customs, further centralized political authority, and suppressed political dissent. It was during this period that the ethnic Malay groups in the south, and leftist factions in Isaan, were beginning to separately organize their resistance movements.

The origins of these two conflicts can be found in the history of centralized authority, forced assimilation of ethnic minorities, and the failure of the government to address the political grievances of the local population. The conflict in Isaan faded in the mid-1980s, after the government began offering political amnesty for insurgents and addressing many of the grievances of the population. While there were other important factors that precipitated the end of the conflict in Isaan, the government’s decision to abandon the military approach, and adopt a more nuanced, responsive approach that addressed local political concerns was instrumental.

It will take a similar change of course in southern Thailand to turn the tide of events there.

Thomas Parks is The Asia Foundation’s Regional Director for Conflict and Governance Programs. He is based in Bangkok and can be reached at tparks@asiafound.org. To read more about The Asia Foundation’s Programs addressing violent conflict, click here.

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