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Muslim insurgency in Thailand's restive south heats up

The Muslim separatist attacks that have racked southern Thailand since 2004 grind on amid a cooling of autonomy talk in Bangkok.

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But her party failed to take any seats in the region, and last week, when pressed before parliament to provide details on the plan, Yingluck's deputy prime minister appeared to distance himself and the administration from the proposal. This has led to speculation that the plan could ultimately be abandoned.

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“It’s not a good start in terms of building trust between the new government and people in the South,” says Sunai Phasuk, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. He notes that while some in the south may yearn for more control of the region, residents will now see the proposal as a political ploy.

Still, is some form autonomy an option in the months or years ahead? “The end game will almost inevitably involve a degree of power devolution,” says Davis. “The question is what form and how long that will take.”

However, “there are obviously powerful institutions, notably the Interior Ministry and the Royal Thai Army, that at this stage do not see the granting of anything approaching self-government as a good thing.”

Others say heavy-handed security forces are to blame for inciting the ongoing violence by mistreating locals and suspects. A solution is “very straightforward,” Mr. Sunai says. The government must “end the abuses by state officials and hold them to account."

Government involvement in the south

Addressing journalists in Pattani one evening last week, Udomchai Thammasarorat, the Thai Army commander in charge of the restive provinces, denied that the violence is becoming more bloody.

He said that the Army is sticking to its plan of trying to promote “understanding” between the government and locals, and argued that economic development will help win hearts and minds.

He pointed to government outreach programs such as one in which medics at an Army base provide local Muslims with free medical services. But on a recent visit there were no speakers of Pattani Malay, the local language, on hand, so locals who don’t speak Thai must bring a relative who can when seeking treatment.

The government is also working to help eliminate “injustices” perpetrated against innocent people, according to the Director of the Justice Ministry's Central Institute of Forensic Science Pornthip Rojanasunand. She noted the use of new forensic DNA techniques.

But one of the tools she touted was the scandal-plagued GT200 bomb detector, which was revealed in early 2010 to be bogus. The Thai government's own tests revealed that the devices work only 20 percent of the time.

Among the detainees at the army base was a 30-something Muslim man who gave his name as Amatsydee. Sitting on a bed in his cell, he patiently explained, in passable Thai, that he had been detained because the authorities accuse him of assisting a “group of bad people.”

Asked about the reason for insurgent attacks in the region, “I don’t know how to say it,” he said, looking up at a burly guard standing beside him. “My Thai isn’t very good.”

With the autonomy proposal now in question, it appears unlikely that any new political policies will be undertaken or that the Army will alter its tactics.

The danger of not changing the strategy in the south, says Davis, is that there is a sense of complacency in Bangkok, the conviction that things are getting better in the deep south.

“But it’s a real mess down there,” Davis says, “and arguably it’s getting worse.”

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