Sep 10th 2008
Failed solutions in Thailand and the Philippines
WHILE Thailand’s attention, and the world’s, has been focused on the clashes in Bangkok between the government and a royalist-backed opposition movement, the deadly insurgency in Thailand’s mainly Muslim southernmost provinces continues to rage. Routine violence there exceeds anything seen in Bangkok, but it elicits barely a peep from the news media in the Thai capital.
On September 9th—a fairly typical day in the four-year-old conflict—separatist militants shot a government official outside a school in Pattani province, then dragged his body out of his pickup truck and beheaded him in front of pupils and teachers. The same day, in the nearby province of Yala, rebels attacked an army post, killing a paramilitary ranger and seizing guns and ammunition.
The insurgency’s roots lie in predominantly Buddhist Thailand’s annexation a century ago of three provinces on the border with what is now Malaysia, inhabited mainly by ethnic-Malay Muslims. Separatist movements have waxed and waned since then but the insurgency returned with a vengeance, for reasons that remain unclear, in 2004, since when over 3,000 people have died. It is just as unclear who if anyone is organising the uprising: no credible rebel group has come forward to admit to any of the attacks.
In 2004, the then-prime-minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, made things far worse by abandoning attempts at building relations with southern Muslims and unleashing the security forces to launch harsh crackdowns. Ironically, one of the key backers of the anti-government protests in Bangkok—supposedly a protest against the abuses of Mr Thaksin and the government of Thaksin allies now in power—is General Panlop Pinmanee. General Panlop is a hardline general who commanded troops responsible for one of the worst atrocities in the southern conflict: the slaughter of 30 Muslims at the Krue Se mosque in late 2004.
The current prime minister, Samak Sundaravej, has also unleashed the army to quell the southern insurgency. Struggling to keep his job, Mr Samak has curried favour with the army chief, General Anupong Paochinda, by letting him chair Internal Security Operations Command, the agency in charge of the battle in the south—a position that is supposed to belong to the prime minister himself.
General Anupong has been conducting a “surge” of sorts. A new report from the International Crisis Group (ICG), a think-tank, notes that he has brought in fresh troops and commanders from other parts of Thailand and is boosting the numbers of locally recruited paramilitary rangers. The troops and rangers are sweeping through villages suspected of supporting the rebel movement and interning large numbers of young Muslim men. The independent Asian Human Rights Commission is alarmed at “disappearances” of suspected rebel sympathisers.
The army believes it is making progress: the rate of deaths and injuries has declined markedly in the past few months. But this may be false optimism. The ICG report notes that the rebels, while launching fewer small attacks, are resorting to more “spectaculars”. The latest example of this was a car bomb near a police station in the tourist town of Sungai Kolok on August 21st. The insurgents had set off a smaller bomb to draw the security forces into the area before detonating the explosives-rigged car, killing a newspaper reporter.
The increased use of rangers is especially worrying. They are poorly trained and undisciplined. The ICG report says many are using their weapons to settle personal scores. It says rebels may also be infiltrating ranger units. Insurgencies the world over have demonstrated the folly of setting ill-trained paramilitaries on a rebellious population, and of detaining large numbers of young men without trial. Such acts are recruiting-sergeants for the rebellion, ensuring its perseverance for another generation.
In July a former army general appeared on Thai television with supposed leaders of the rebel movement, saying a ceasefire had been agreed. The claim was scorned by the press and punditry in Bangkok, probably justifiably, as a hoax. But it was scorned perhaps a little too quickly, demonstrating the Bangkok elite’s lack of concern and compassion for the deadly conflict their southern compatriots are suffering.
A similar situation exists in the predominantly Catholic Philippines, where an insurgency has been raging for decades in mainly Muslim areas of Mindanao and other southern islands. On September 3rd the Philippine government scrapped an 11-year-old peace process with the main rebel movement. Extra troops and police are pouring into the region as renewed fighting has forced around 500,000 people from their homes.
Only a few weeks earlier the government and rebel leaders had been on the brink of signing a comprehensive peace deal, which would have given the Muslim regions much greater autonomy. The fighting resumed after the Philippines’ supreme court halted the signing. But the underlying cause of the deal’s collapse is that the incompetent and floundering government in Manila was neither able nor willing to persuade the majority of Filipinos to accept the sacrifices needed to make peace in the south.
Likewise in Thailand: the outline of a settlement to bring peace to its troubled south had been laid out by a reconciliation commission, comprised of a group of worthies, in 2006. But the Thaksin government was unable and unwilling to sell it to the majority Thai population, so it got nowhere.
As the successful peace process in Indonesia’s Aceh province has showed, it takes courage and determination from the national government to push through a peace deal to end a long-running separatist insurgency. Without a stable and serious government in the capital, there is little chance of peace in the rebellious provinces. Military “surges” only achieve short-term victories and, in the absence of a political solution, will end up perpetuating the conflict.