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Thailand’s southern insurgency: School killings

A wave of brutal murders in the deep south, but also some glimmers of hope
The Economist, January 18, 2013

| BANGKOK |From the print edition

Last month men armed with assault rifles burst into the canteen of Ban Ba Ngo school in the southern Thai province of Pattani and shot dead two teachers. The next day the teachers’ unions shut down all 1,300 state-run schools in the three provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat, and in four districts of neighbouring Songkhla, in protest. They have only just reopened.

The murders attracted relatively little attention in Thailand—let alone outside the country. It is now inured to the grisly litany of death and destruction in the area. The gunmen were almost certainly from one of the shadowy Muslim groups, such as the Pattani-Malay National Revolutionary Front Co-ordinate (known by its Malay initials, BRN-C). They have been fighting for the restoration of the ancient sultanate of Pattani, which Thailand (then Siam) annexed in 1909. Though Thailand is predominantly Buddhist, ethnic Malays form a Muslim majority in the south. Since 2004 over 5,000 people have been killed in the four southernmost provinces.

The violence had ebbed somewhat in recent years, yet the carnage towards the end of last year suggests that the terrorists have regrouped and rearmed. Soldiers and policemen have been targets in the past, but Buddhist teachers in state-run schools have also been victims. Human Rights Watch, a New York-based group, estimates that 157 teachers have been murdered since 2004. The two December killings came amid a concerted assault on all schools and teachers in the area. On October 31st a school caretaker and his 11-year-old son were shot dead; on November 22nd the headmistress of Ban Tha Kam Cham school was killed while driving home; a week later part of a school was burned to the ground. Children have also been wounded in bomb attacks. The Thai army, which has about 60,000 soldiers in the four provinces, all heavily armed, has been unable to stem the violence.

Despite the carnage, however, glimmers of hope are emerging that the country might eventually find a way out of what has become an increasingly bloody and intractable civil war. The success last year of peace talks in Mindanao in the southern part of the Philippines has spurred similar efforts in Thailand. There, as in Thailand, fighters from a Muslim-majority southern region fought a decades-long terrorist campaign against the central authorities in Manila to win their own state. The violence cost 120,000 lives. Yet last year both sides accepted a compromise, the creation of a new semi-autonomous Bangsamoro state.

The Thai government has studied this agreement closely, and two weeks ago sent a high-profile delegation to talk to the Malaysian government, which helped broker the Mindanao deal. Malaysia should be well-placed to help out in any similar push to resolve Thailand’s problem, given its geographical and ethnic proximity to Pattani. According to one expert in conflict resolution, the Philippines process has had a cathartic effect.

It is also clear that the Thai government of Yingluck Shinawatra, elected in July 2011, is now taking the insurgency seriously as a political problem as well as simply a security issue. A new policy outlined last year explicitly commits the government to dialogue with those who have “different opinions and ideologies from the state”. The policy also broaches discussion about political decentralisation. Considered by many to be an obvious solution to the southern problem, it remains pretty radical stuff for a conservative establishment.

The government is also trying to meet Muslims’ complaints that they are culturally marginalised in their own country. It has just started a satellite-television service in their language, Malay. Big sums are now going to Islamic schools and a university.

But Thitinan Pongsudhirak of Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok thinks that, whereas these “below-the-radar manoeuvres are promising…the Thai establishment is not ready to move yet.” Any gestures towards decentralisation have always been anathema to the powerful army, which insists on Thailand’s unitary nature, under King Bhumibol. But the king is ill, and few have the stomach to question the territorial integrity of the state. So the trauma in the south of the country is unlikely to end just yet.