The bloodless coup last week that deposed Thaksin Shinawatra, Thailand's twice-elected prime minister, has given Muslim leaders in the country's violence-plagued southern provinces hope that the separatist struggle may soon abate.
In the weeks before the putsch, coup leader and army commander Sondhi Boonyaratkalin, who now heads the military junta, sparred publicly with Mr. Thaksin over the best way to calm the insurgency that has devastated the majority Malay Muslim provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat.
Commander Sondhi, the country's first Muslim Army chief, favors a softer approach than Thaksin, whose hawkish policies are often blamed for worsening the hostilities.
"The ouster of Thaksin should make the situation in the South better," said Waedueramae Mamingji, chairman of the Pattani Islamic Committee. "We should now see a change in policy."
Experts say the conflict is not known to be linked to any global or regional jihadist groups. But they also warn that time is running out before those links develop and the violence spreads to other parts of the country, including Bangkok.
The dormant conflict awoke in 2001, when the newly elected Thaksin dismantled a security network in the South that provided Bangkok with a link to local Muslim leaders. The move was designed to shut down what the government regarded as an opposition-run organization. The conflict then exploded in January 2004, when a coordinated attack on a weapons arsenal by more than 30 militants unleashed a wave of carnage that has claimed more than 1,700 lives over the past 21 months.
Thaksin's administration had fought the insurgency with an iron fist, allowing security forces to tap phones, ban meetings, detain suspects without charge and impose curfews. This approach raised the ire of human rights groups, who accused the government of extrajudicial killings, kidnappings, and torture.
Moreover, Thaksin's aggressive strategy was failing; by nearly all measures, the violence was escalating. "The heavy-handed policies could not solve the problem," said Srisompob Jitpiromsri, a lecturer of political science at the Prince of Songkhla University in Pattani. "The military can't do this alone; we also need a political solution."
But many see Sondhi as the most likely to bring that political solution. Two months before the coup, Thaksin handed Sondhi complete control over counterinsurgency measures, in what many saw as a government attempt to pin its failures on the Army chief. Sondhi then stunned Thaksin by publicly calling for dialogue with the same militant groups that the government labeled "terrorists" – and ousted him in a coup less than three weeks later.
"This is a strategic moment," says Rohan Gunaratna, a regional expert at the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies in Singapore. "General Sondhi understands this situation more than anyone.... The new government without any further delay should make an announcement in favor of negotiations."
Many expect Sondhi to implement a series of proposals issued recently by the National Reconciliation Commission, a government body set up to find solutions. Recommendations include using the native Malay language for official documents, allowing the partial use of shariah law, and putting more locals in key bureaucratic positions.
But while many see Thaksin's fall as raising the prospects for peace, a resolution is still very far away. No groups have taken responsibility for any attacks, or have made demands.
The government knows about some of the militant groups but isn't exactly sure which of these, if any, is spearheading the attacks. A leader of the Pattani United Liberation Organisation (PULO) said last week that he welcomed the coup, but experts see it as a fringe group and wonder if the more active militant organizations would talk.
It is also unclear how much time Sondhi will be able to devote to the southern conflict now that he has the whole country to worry about. While most Thais initially welcomed the coup (a poll last week found more than 80 percent in support), civil society groups have quietly started to whip up dissent behind the scenes.
In its first week, the junta has banned public gatherings, put restrictions on the media, and detained former cabinet members without charge. If the generals, who are widely seen as puppets of the revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej, fail to install a civilian government within the promised two weeks and restore some civil liberties, analysts say the public may start to openly challenge the junta.
In that event, the South may yet become a sideshow. And if the separatists launch large-scale attacks in the meantime, the generals may have no choice but to react harshly, which could worsen the situation.
A small roadside bomb exploded Saturday in Pattani – the first attack since the coup – injuring four police officers who were providing security for a visit to the region by Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn later in the day. Although it's unclear if more bombings will follow in the days and weeks ahead, the blast reveals that the small window of opportunity for reducing tensions may close quickly.
"It would be constructive and a measure of goodwill if the insurgents show restraint at this time," said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, who heads the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. "They shouldn't force Sondhi to close those avenues for dialogue."