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Thai south looking past polls for peace
Publication Date : 10-03-2014
It is a Saturday night in downtown Narathiwat, and the steady stream of motorists pay little heed to the few dozen chairs and makeshift stage taking up one corner of the road.
Student musicians try to entertain five spectators. A lone man waves a giant Thai flag, the symbol of protests in Bangkok seeking to oust the caretaker Puea Thai government.
But that anti-government campaign, which saw major junctions blocked for weeks and left more than 20 people dead, is but a sideshow in Thailand's southern border provinces, where a separatist insurgency has claimed about 6,000 lives in the past decade.
The Malay-Muslim majority in the south are more concerned about how stalled peace talks will be restarted once disrupted polls are completed.
During the February 2 general election, protesters forced election officials to abandon polling in nine southern provinces. Far fewer attempted to do the same in the border provinces of Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala, even though the opposition Democrats - who boycotted the polls and who are closely aligned with the current anti-government campaign - took nine out of 11 constituency seats there in the 2011 election.
On Februrary 2, only one out of the 914 polling stations in Narathiwat was blocked and a good 45.7 per cent of its voters cast their ballot - about 2 per cent shy of the national average that day.
Wae-Isma-Ael Naesae, director of the Pattani-based civil society group People's College, told The Straits Times: "People voted because they believe in democracy. They don't care about the situation in Bangkok because changes there do not bring changes here."
The three provinces were part of the Patani sultanate until they were annexed by what was then Siam over a century ago. The wai, a standard joined-palms greeting in Buddhist-majority Thailand, is hardly seen here. Instead, locals wish visitors peace with the Arabic phrase assalamualaikum, chat in Malay, and speak hopefully of having syariah law as a greater part of their lives.
Simmering discontent over cultural and political suppression flared up a decade ago as militants escalated armed attacks on security officials or other symbols of government authority in a bid to create an independent state. The resulting inflow of troops, emergency laws and spiralling violence have made it one of the most undeveloped regions of Thailand.
The religious and cultural fault lines appear to have widened with the crisis in Bangkok. Of some two million people in the region, over 80 per cent are Muslims, while the bulk of anti-government protesters are Buddhists.
The Narathiwat chapter of the People's Democratic Reform Committee, the group leading the Bangkok protests, estimates that only 15 per cent to 20 per cent of its supporters are Muslims.
Anan Boonsamran, who heads the province's Bacho district, told The Straits Times: "Their concern is the situation here, how they can regain peace."
Bacho is known for the wrong reasons. In February last year, 16 militants were killed after the authorities got wind of their plans to storm an army base here.
Early last month, gunmen ambushed a couple and their three young sons as they were returning home from the mosque. All three boys died in a hail of bullets, fuelling anger among locals all too familiar with extrajudicial killings after years of living under emergency laws.
News coverage of the boys' murder paled in comparison to grenade attacks that killed four children a few weeks later near anti-government rally sites.
Since the boys' deaths, suspected militants have launched what appear to be reprisal killings against Buddhists. Then on March 3, an imam was shot dead outside a school in Narathiwat. Two days later, police said they arrested two paramilitary officers who had attacked the family of the three boys to seek personal revenge against their father.
It is hard to verify the motives for these killings. In a region awash with arms, business interests, personal vendetta, the insurgency and military response all merge into a toxic blend of intermittent violence that has worn locals down and bred suspicion about official narratives.
A regional leader from the Patani United Liberation Organisation (Pulo), who asked to be identified as "Pak Muala", said it is not uncommon for those seeking revenge to make it look like the work of militants because the "police will not investigate too much if it's related to the insurgency".
At the same time, some groups may launch attacks just to sabotage peace talks. "This attack on the imam may be because of this. They want to create anger."
Three Pulo factions came together recently to be represented at the next round of peace talks with the government, which has been stalled since last June. The Malaysian-facilitated dialogues wilted under intense publicity by local media concerned about ceding too much ground to groups they see as terrorists.
Meanwhile, the main militant group Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), which signed last year's dialogue deal with the government, seemed to push government negotiators into a corner by issuing difficult demands via YouTube, like recognising the BRN as a liberation movement and withdrawing non-local troops from the region.
Analysts see the demands as the BRN's way of showing it understood the wishes of Malay Muslims.
Official dialogues between the government and militants are on hold as the former is fighting for survival in the face of pressure from the streets and the courts. But discussions about the region's identity and political future continue. Increasingly, there is recognition that the conflict needs a political rather than a military solution even though secession is a violation of the Thai Constitution.
Malaysia's facilitator Ahmad Zamzamin Hashim told a forum in Pattani on Feb 28 that while it would not support any secessionist moves, it would back autonomy - in whatever form - that came out of an agreement.
Pulo's Pak Muala, when asked if he could accept anything less than independence after talks run their course, said: "We will need to have a discussion among the people on whether autonomy is enough."
If they agree, the militants will cease their violence, he added.
In the meantime, youth leaders such as Tuwaedaniya Tuwaemaengae say any solution would have to start from the understanding that the region is fundamentally different from mainstream Thailand.
The director of Pattani-based Academy of Patani Raya for Peace and Development said: "It's very important that the Thai government accepts the reality that Pattani people are not Thai people. We are Pattani Malay."
Their relatively strong turnout on February 2 showed their desire for self-determination, he said.
"They voted because they want to have a say in their future."