Thai premier Surayud Chulanont has responded to escalating violence in Thailand’s southernmost regions by travel to the region and making his most recent move towards ending decades of violence.
The insurgency in southern Thailand has received significant media attention in the aftermath of a series of violent incidents centered in the three southern provinces of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat.
The history of this separatist movement can be traced back to the early twentieth century when in 1902 Patani was annexed by Thailand (then called Siam). Seven years later Thailand was given sovereignty over the region from a treaty with Great Britain. Patani was split into the three aforementioned provinces, along with two districts of Songkhla, in 1933.
Patani was a Malay Sultanate and because of this over three quarters of the population in the three southern provinces today are Muslim. Whilst having some linguistic and cultural similarities with the Malays of Malaysia, Thailand’s southern Malay community retains a distinct individuality and sense of independence.
As far back as the 1930s there was a drive to establish an independent southern state. The movement has taken many forms and the ideology has changed between a desire to establish this independent state and a desire to establish cultural autonomy.
The resurgence of violence in the turn of this new millennium has cast a deathly shadow over Thailand’s southernmost area. The problems have not been aided by the words and actions of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his government who until 2004 insisted that criminal gangs, rather than insurgents, were responsible for the violence.
Attempts to set up a dialog with the insurgents have been riddled with problems surrounding the anonymity of the movements’ leaders.
On August 31, 22 banks were simultaneously bombed in Yala, whilst on September 16 six bike bombs killed four people in Hat Yai as attacks overran in the neighboring province. Bloodshed continued to spill onto the streets of the southern provinces since the military coup of September 19 approached.
The military coup and present political volatility in Thailand has done little to quell the friction in the South and attacks have persisted.
The Kru Se Mosque incident happened when 32 insurgents sought refuge in Pattani’s most sacred place of worship following a coordinated assault on 100 police outposts. Army commander Pallop Pinmanee ordered troops to storm the mosque and all 32 rebels were killed.
The Tak Bai massacre was spurred by a demonstration demanding the release of six men arrested for allegedly supplying weapons to insurgents. The demonstration became a massacre when the army used tear gas to control the crowd. Shooting began shortly after and scores of sailors were piled up, piled as many as five people high in trucks and driven for five hours. 85 men died in all, 78 of whom suffocated from the trucks.
The newly-installed premier’s pledge to rid the southern provinces of violence has thus far been unsuccessful as attacks continue to break out on an almost daily basis. Surayud stated that his government will only use peaceful means to end the century tensions, although there has been no mention of the potential for an independent state. Surayud has rather made clear that his intentions are to unite Thailand.
The Southern Border Provinces Administrative Centre was recently revived, after a five year absence, and is now led by Phranai Suwannarat who has been charged with instilling peace to the area.
The current government has been very vocal about the negative implications of the previous government’s actions, but as of yet it’s uncertain how the newly-revived body will tackle the circumstance.
Surayud has already done what Thaksin refused to: he has apologized. However, this is only a single step on an already long trip that will most likely take years to complete. If Thailand is to unify itself then steps must be taken to eliminate the feelings of alienation felt by the country’s Muslim population.