In The News

Thailand’s Deep South: A Political Labyrinth

July 13, 2011

Contrary to the predictions made by the plethora of political pundits watching Thailand’s elections that the Democrats would have difficulty holding their five current seats in Thailand’s Deep South, the Democrats instead ran away with nine out of 11 constituent seats. This has led many to ask: Can the Democrats’ win in the region be interpreted as the people’s clear desire to see the government stay the course and support the return of the Southern Boarder Provinces Administrative Center (SBPAC)? Or, was the poor showing by supporters of the Pheu Thai Party, led by former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s younger sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, a reflection of voters’ rejection of Thaksin’s policies, which in 2004, helped to reignite Thailand’s violent conflict in the Deep South?

The political pendulum in the area has swung back and forth in recent elections, with the Democrats securing 11 of the region’s 12 seats in 2005, only to lose all but five in 2007. While its latest victory looks convincing on the surface if you look at winning constituent seats, a detailed analysis of voter count shows another story. Rather than solidly leaning toward the Democrats, vote counts revealed a tight race in a number of constituencies, with the Democrats capturing far less than half of the popular votes in most areas. For example, in constituency 2 of Yala, the Democrat candidate’s victory over the Pheu Thai incumbent was less than 300 votes. In Constituencies 3 and 4 of Narathiwat, the Democrat Party received less than 35 percent of the votes, narrowly edging out Chart Thai Patthana and Matubhum, respectively. Even in Constituency 1 of Pattani, traditionally a Democrat stronghold, Bhumjaithai and Matubhum returned strong results with the Democrat incumbent winning by less than 5,000 votes. Rather than reflecting a convergence of voters’ views and interests, the July 3 election instead highlights fractures within the communities and thus, the inherent difficulty of finding a durable solution to the long-running conflict.

Based on the very close popular vote, the results might not be interpreted as a clear mandate for the Democrats. Conversely, the poor showing across the board by Pheu Thai supporters could be viewed as citizens sending a message to the incoming government that southern voters are not interested in a return to the party’s hard-line policies.

While most party platforms focused on decentralization and the formation of a special administrative region such as Pheu Thai’s “Pattani Metropolitan Administration” plan, the Democrats promoted SBPAC’s role as the lead government agency in the area. According to The Asia Foundation’s 2010 Democracy and Conflict in Southern Thailand Survey, 89 percent of respondents felt that SBPAC had a high or neither high nor low level of integrity; 67 percent wanted greater decentralization; 71 percent preferred to elect their own governor; 51 percent rejected the idea of consolidating the three provinces; and only 23 percent responded that separatism was the answer to the conflict. Voters have demonstrated support for the continuation of SBPAC and civilian control over the military in the area, while there continues to be bit of a split in terms of what form they would like to see decentralization take. Moreover, with more than 77 percent of eligible voters in the South participating in the election (higher than the national average of 75 percent), the majority of southern residents clearly indicated that they reject the notion of separatism and acknowledge the legitimacy of the Thai State. The incoming administration should take heed of this in developing its southern policies.

Regardless of the party in power, the Thai government needs to truly understand that the Deep South is by no means a homogenous society, and would be wise to carefully listen to the diverse voices of its southern residents if they are to successfully come up with a resolution that will satisfy the desires of constituents there.

Pauline Tweedie is The Asia Foundation’s deputy country representative in Thailand. She can be reached at ptweedie@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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