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What do Local Perceptions tell us About Prospects for Peace in Southern Thailand?

December 15, 2010

The Asia Foundation’s first survey of the population of southern Thailand, released December 16 in Bangkok, gives us rare insight into the conflict, from the perspective of those most affected by it. Since the re-emergence of violent conflict almost seven years ago, the region has been notoriously difficult to understand, in large part due to the lack of in-depth, credible information. This survey helps identify the fault lines and critical issues that sustain the conflict, and determine areas where there may be some space for compromise.

Thai Police Ban Paa Ming Mosque Pattani

Security and police presence is high in Thailand’s southern provinces, where a violent conflict has left over 4,000 dead since 2004.

An analysis of survey results indicate that the primary factor driving the conflict is discriminatory governance and the alienation of the southern population from the Thai state. Furthermore, significant differences between the ethnic Malay-Muslim and Buddhist populations in the southern provinces illustrate the contrasting experiences of these two groups. For example, 63 percent of Muslims (who are primarily ethnic Malay) believe that the national government is not concerned about what they think, while only 35 percent of Buddhists in the southern provinces say they feel that way. In another question, the majority of Muslims (80%) in the southern provinces believe that there are different standards of justice for Muslims and Buddhists, with 26 percent saying that there are always double standards. These dramatic differences in perception seem to indicate that a majority of the Muslim community believes they are treated differently from the Buddhist population, and that governance in the region discriminates against them.

This frustration with government is closely linked with the ongoing violence in the minds of the ethnic Malay-Muslim population, and there is widespread belief within this community that the key to ending the violence is through fundamental changes in governance. When asked what they thought the main cause of the problems in southern Thailand were, 37 percent of Muslims cited the failure of the national government to understand the local population, far more than any of the other possible causes of the conflict (based on the list that survey respondents could choose from). By contrast, the Buddhist population identified separatism (or separatist movements) as the main cause (31%), and only 24 percent felt that lack of government understanding was the primary cause of the conflict. Similarly, when asked if political decentralization or limited autonomy would address the problems in the south, there were significant differences in responses between the Muslim and Buddhist populations in the south and the national population. Over 60 percent of southern Muslims believe that decentralization or limited autonomy would end the violence, compared to Buddhists in the south (46%), the national average (48%), and especially the central region of Thailand (36%).

Despite these indications of alienation from government, it’s also clear that the southern Muslim population maintains a complex and nuanced understanding of the state, and may in fact be optimistic about the direction of the country. For example, despite widespread perceptions of double standards in access to justice, the courts are recognized as the institution with the highest level of integrity (64%) among the whole population, with only 5 percent indicating low integrity. The Southern Border Provinces Administrative Centre also enjoys a relatively good reputation, with 42 percent indicating high integrity, and only 11 percent indicating low integrity. These numbers show that the southern Muslim population has some confidence in parts of the Thai Government. In fact, remarkably, the southern Muslim population has a generally high satisfaction with the current national government, despite long-standing grievances over specific policies and government practices. The southern population as a whole is significantly more satisfied with the government, with 75 percent responding that they are somewhat or very satisfied with the job that the government has been doing – a perspective that is shared by Buddhists (86%) and Muslims (75%). In fact, Muslims in the south have a higher satisfaction rating with the government than the national average (53%). These remarkable numbers may be partially attributable to the relatively buoyant economy in the southern provinces, or other factors not related to the conflict.

The survey also includes some surprising and promising signs of openness for compromise between the Muslim and Buddhist populations in the southern provinces. On several issues, both groups held relatively similar views that would indicate a broad level of support for reforms that could improve the prospects for peace. For example, only 23 percent of the population says that separation is the only way to solve the conflict, with similar levels among Pattani-Malay speakers (23%), all Muslims (24%), and Buddhists (16%). These numbers indicate that a substantial majority in both the Muslim and Buddhist communities believe that there can be a political solution to the conflict short of separation. Furthermore, the Buddhist population in the southern provinces shows high levels of support for key reforms that would address many of the major grievances of the ethnic Malay population. For example, 62 percent of Buddhists and 72 percent of Muslims say they are supportive of locally elected governors. Buddhists are also strong supporters of bilingual education (90% in favor); required use of the Pattani-Malay dialect by state officials (96% in favor); and road signs in both Thai and Yawi (94% in favor), the written form of the local Pattani-Malay dialect. Finally, when asked if there are common values that unite all Thai citizens beyond the current political divides, 88 percent of southerners agreed, including 88 percent of Muslims and 99 percent of Buddhists.

While the results are mixed, there is good reason to be hopeful that there may be common ground for finding the compromises necessary for peace in southern Thailand. As an indication of public perceptions, this survey reflects that while there is a clear political divide, the divisions may not be as severe as many had feared.  However, the survey does not adequately capture the perspectives of elites or armed actors who have significant influence over the course of the conflict. Even if there is fertile ground for compromise, local elites and influential Muslim and Buddhist leaders must be on board first, and must have a compelling interest in reaching a peaceful compromise before there can be any progress.

Thomas Parks is The Asia Foundation’s regional director for Conflict and Governance based in Thailand. He can be reached at tparks@asiafound.org.

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