x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Violence worsens in Thailand

The increase in violence southernmost provinces of Thailand have come amid country's worst political crisis in decades.

Relatives of one of the two Muslim militants who were shot dead by policemen weep as they look at the dead body in Yala province.
Relatives of one of the two Muslim militants who were shot dead by policemen weep as they look at the dead body in Yala province.

BANGKOK // Violence in Thailand's predominantly Muslim south could increase in the coming weeks as separatists there step up their campaign for an independent homeland. In the past few days violence has spiked in the three southernmost provinces of Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala. Two young suspected insurgents were killed in a gun battle with soldiers on Friday while at least five other people have died and more than 80 were injured in two major incidents last week. The increase in violence comes amid Thailand's worst political crisis in decades. While the government of Somchai Wongsawat is preoccupied with preventing the country's economic woes worsening as a result of the international financial crisis, anti-government protesters have besieged the capital, forcing the government to move its centre of operations to the old airport on the outskirts of the city. "The political mayhem in Bangkok has hijacked the policy towards the south, allowing the army to conduct increased suppression activities without any real scrutiny," said Sunai Pasuk, a Thai human rights expert with the New York-based Human Rights Watch. "The violence is only likely to rise further, as increased repression will only encourage more young Muslim men to join the separatist movement and fight back." This week three massive explosions rocked the southernmost province of Narathiwat killing one person and injuring more than seventy. The biggest explosion was outside an annual meeting of local village chiefs and the bomb used was twice as large as anything the insurgents have used before. "November is always the month that violent separatist attacks peak, after a lull during Ramadan," said Srisompob Jitpiromya, director of Deep South Watch, a research centre at the Prince of Songkhla University in Pattani. "These latest attacks are a wake-up call to the authorities - the message: 'We are still here and capable of doing damage'," said Panitan Wattanayagorn, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok who specialises in military affairs. "These bombs are significant because of the size and target [hundreds of government officials] - it's a clear warning to everyone and was certainly meant to sow increased tension and fear within the communities in the south," Prof Panitan said. Narathiwat and the provinces of Pattani and Yala, which border Malaysia, were a Muslim sultanate until a century ago before they were annexed by Bangkok. More than 80 per cent of people there are Muslim and speak a Malay dialect. Since Jan 2004, when separatist violence erupted in these three southern provinces, more than 3,000 people have died and more than 5,000 have been injured. More than 7,000 children in the area have been orphaned by the conflict according to community workers in the area - higher than the number of tsunami orphans. There are concerns that the violence will spread possibly to key tourist resorts in southern Thailand, including Phuket and even to Bangkok. Tentative plans for a bombing campaign have been found on suspected insurgents detained by the authorities, according to military sources. But Mr Pasuk from Human Rights Watch said no evidence has been found to suggest the insurgents are planning attacks outside the three southern provinces or that they are being assisted by foreign bodies. He added that civilians were bearing the brunt of the violence. "The real tragedy of this wave insurgency is that it's mainly civilians who are suffering. More than 90 per cent of the victims are students, teachers, doctors and government officials," he said. A climate of fear hangs over the three southern provinces and a crackdown by security forces in the area has created the conditions for the insurgency to thrive, according to development workers based there. "The authorities accuse all young Muslim men of being insurgents or sympathisers, harass and intimidate them," said Soraya Jamjuree, a leading member of Friends of Victimised Families, a Pattani-based non-governmental organisation that works with communities affected by the violence in the south. "As a result the youth leave the villages, angry and dispirited - it increases the mistrust felt towards the authorities, and leaves many feeling there is no choice but to join the movement." Fifteen battalions, or nearly half of the Thai army, is deployed in these three provinces. As a matter of policy they are kept from developing cordial relations with the local community, according to human rights workers monitoring events in the south and who accuse the army of brutal suppression. "Assassinations, abductions, disappearances, torture and intimidation are the government's only answer to the legitimate grievances of the local people," said Isma-ae Salae, a leader of the Young Muslim Association in Yala province. Some northern politicians have raised concerns over the government's methods in the south. "It's little wonder they hate us," said Kraisak Choonahavan, an MP and deputy leader of the Democrats, the main opposition party in parliament, who regularly visits the southern provinces and has conducted his own investigations there. "The conditions of those detained are inhuman - I recently visited a prison where 300 people were cramped into one cell with only one toilet available. These conditions are intolerable," he said. But the insurgency in the south seems intractable for the time being. Efforts this year to negotiate a ceasefire between the government and representatives of the insurgents in Indonesia got nowhere. "The military is not interested in dialogue or negotiations," Mr Kraisak said. "They now have an enormous budget - 30 billion baht [Dh3bn] - which has increased six-fold since the violence started four years ago, and we parliamentarians cannot scrutinise any of the budgets." With the Thai government distracted by the political chaos in the capital and the country's economic crisis, the army's operations in the south are not likely to be hindered by civilian concerns. The real fear is that this violence will escalate if the authorities do not move to adopt a more conciliatory approach to the problems in the south. "We must negotiate - there is no other way out," Mr Kraisak said. ljagan@thenational.ae