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Can Civil Society Bridge Gap to Peace in Thailand’s Deep South?

October 31, 2012

More than 5,000 people have been killed and thousands more injured in Thailand’s southernmost provinces since a decades-long separatist Muslim insurgency reignited in January 2004.  The predominantly Muslim southern region has a long history of resentment toward the central government, dating from 1902, when Siam, as Thailand was then known, annexed the Islamic Kingdom of Pattani.  Thai Muslims have suffered from decades of political mismanagement despite Thai government efforts to improve economic development and raise educational standards.  The insurgency has never really been about poverty or underdevelopment, but more about identity as Muslims in the four southernmost provinces resent the state’s refusal to better appreciate their language, culture, ethnicity, and local history.

Successive governments since 2004 have failed to ameliorate the violence.  None of the groups thought to be behind the violence have claimed responsibility or made any official demands.  Some insurgent cells have merged with underground cartels involved with drug-trafficking, human trafficking and arms smuggling.  The daily violence has created a climate of fear for the people of southern Thailand, most of who are law-abiding citizens.  On September 11, 2012, the Thai government extended for another three months the existing state of emergency in the South, the 30th extension of a draconian law which is believed to have facilitated security force abuses.

Compounding the problem in the South is Thailand’s overall political instability.  The four southernmost provinces are remote from Bangkok and considered more of a security or criminal headache than a political challenge.  But Don Pathan, Director of Foreign Relations for the Patani Forum, in his paper “Conflict Management and Resolution in Asia: The Role of Civil Societies in Thailand’s Deep South,” provides hope that civil society in southern Thailand may be able to serve as an effective bridge in formulating a meaningful and sustainable peace process when a lack of political commitment has been lacking by both the Thai state and separatist groups.  Mr. Pathan argues that while the jury is still out on whether “the proliferation of peace efforts is a good thing ….. [it] has helped to build a more critical mass and has opened up space (for community and religious leaders and civil society organizations) that otherwise would not have been there.”  However, both sides must act with trust and there must be a meaningful buy-in by the Thai state, something that is lacking.

The Thai state providing assistance to reduce poverty and under-development is important, but what is more important is that the Thai government upholds the rule of law, provides access to justice, and guarantees equal access to education and employment opportunities that are sensitive to Malay Muslims’ cultural rights and expressions.  Accomplishing this would help contribute to the stability of Thailand and the wider Southeast Asian region. Don Pathan’s paper is an important contribution to this endeavor.

Editor’s note: This version has been edited slightly from the original.

John J. Brandon is director of Regional Cooperation Programs for The Asia Foundation in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at jbransdon@asiafound-dc.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not necessarily those of The Asia Foundation.

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