Thai leaders spar over autonomy for south

The interior minister says it could calm the insurgency-racked south. Opponents see a step toward secession.

By , Correspondent

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    Thailand's Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej met senior officers at the Ministry of Defense in Bangkok Feb. 11. The prime minister is also the country's defense minister.
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Seeking solutions to a grueling insurgency in Thailand's Muslim-dominated south – one of the most lethal conflicts in Southeast Asia – the new government has aired an old proposal for peace: autonomy for the restless area.

But frosty reactions from conservatives inside and outside the government, and the distractions of consolidating Thailand's shaky democracy, are likely to temper any bold initiatives to tackle the conflict.

Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej, who is also defense minister, laid out his policy platform Monday in parliament. He said his government, elected in December after 15 months of military rule, would try to resolve the southern unrest, now in its fifth year, but didn't offer specific proposals.

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Last week, Mr. Samak, a veteran right-winger, reacted coolly after Interior Minister Chalerm Yoobamrung publicly expressed interest in self-rule as a possible way to defuse the tensions. Samak said it was a delicate issue and that autonomy "might get out of hand," reflecting a deep suspicion among Thailand's elite that self-rule would be a step toward secession. Mr. Chalerm later backed away from the proposal after security chiefs voiced disapproval.

But with no end in sight to the violence, which has claimed more than 2,800 lives across four provinces since January 2004, political analysts say the Thai government must sharpen its responses both to the security threat and to the longstanding grievances that shape the conflict.

Partial autonomy may offer a way to bring southern Malay-Muslims into the fold, they say, just as it was used in Indonesia to end the conflict in Aceh in 2005.

Before that can happen, Thailand needs to assess the political context that feeds the unrest, says Duncan McCargo, a politics professor at the University of Leeds in England, who is researching a book on the conflict. "The government, the security forces, and the Thai population need to understand that the conflict is not about banditry, smuggling, or economic development.... It's a political struggle," he says.

Senior political advisers to the new government concede that pressure to deliver on economic promises will probably keep the conflict on the back burner. It barely registered during last year's election campaign, which marked a return to elected rule after a 2006 military coup. Testy relations between the government and the recently pushed-out military may also forestall a fresh approach to the conflict, they warn.

In a Feb. 15 editorial, the Bangkok Post called for autonomy to be considered properly and criticized politicians for lacking a coherent strategy. "The southern issue requires a consistent and solid approach. The south is not a partisan issue…. [It] must come before aspirations for power and political control," the paper said.

The backdrop to the current debate is the apparent failure of exploratory talks between Thailand's former military-installed government and exiles who claimed to speak for the southern insurgency. While this approach, coupled with legal amnesties, was successful in co-opting separatist leaders in the 1980s, it has so far been unable to tame the current groups in the south, say analysts.

Although the insurgency includes Islamist militants with foreign training, most security experts agree with Thailand's assertion that the groups are localized, largely self-financed, and focused on driving out authorities from Bangkok, which annexed the area in 1902. Thai officials say Al Qaeda has inspired, but not assisted, militants in the south.

Much of the violence is directed at civilians, particularly Muslims who cooperate with Thai authorities against the militants. Soldiers, police, and teachers are prime targets for shootings and roadside bombings, and more than 250 public schools have been razed by arsonists. The lethal conflict belies Thailand's image as a safe, peaceful tourist destination.

Last year, a surge in troop levels and aggressive sweeps of militant villages led to a decline in attacks after a peak in June. In addition to more than 30,000 police and soldiers, various paramilitary and ranger units are deployed in the south. Troops are also arming pro-government militias in Buddhist villages, with support from Thailand's influential monarchy.

But mass arrests of militant suspects, who have been held without trial at Army bases under martial law, are causing a backlash among Muslims, who allege torture and mistreatment during detention, says Sunai Pasuk, a researcher for Human Rights Watch. "The Army is depleting its community support, and this creates a breathing space for militants…. People don't want to warn the soldiers anymore about roadside bombs," he says.

Former Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont, a retired Army general, won praise in 2006 for apologizing for past government abuses in the south, including the breakup of a demonstration in 2004 that led to the deaths of more than 80 Muslim men in Army custody.

He also promised broad reconciliation and a redress of past injustices, raising hopes of a judicial reckoning for security forces implicated in abuses.

But a string of setbacks and political infighting caused his olive branch to wither, leaving Army hard-liners a free hand to go back on the offensive. "Surayud said the right things," says a Western diplomat in Bangkok. "It was a nice symbolic gesture, a step in the right direction, but there was no follow-through."

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