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Thailand Tries to Project Normality

But unresolved grievances likely to impede efforts to end civil conflict.

Ryan Pierse / Getty Images (left); Vivek Prakash / Reuters-Landov

Former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra (left) and current Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.

Following a year of violent antigovernment protest
and military backlash in Bangkok, and with elections likely soon, Prime
Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva appears eager to show that Thailand is on
the mend. In late December, the government lifted the state of
emergency that had been in place in the capital for more than eight
months, and Abhisit then gave an optimistic end-of-year speech
promising stability. As one indication, the cabinet also lifted a much
older state of emergency in three districts of Thailand’s troubled Deep
South—where successive administrations have been unable to quell an
insurgency that since 2004 has claimed more than 4,400 lives. “It shows
that the government is making progress,” Abhisit said of the move.


Yet analysts familiar with the region, where parts
of the Muslim and ethnic-Malay majority have long clamored for a
political voice, say the conflict is far from easing. In fact, while
violence in the three districts in question has traditionally been low,
it has risen overall during Abhisit’s two-year tenure, according to
analysts. “The violence isn’t down,” says Zachary Abuza, a professor at
the National War College who has done extensive fieldwork in the area.
“People just accept that violence as the new normal.”

The conflict has
been simmering since 1902, when Thailand annexed what had historically
been parts of the Kingdom of Pattani, but flared up in 2004 following
the heavy-handed approach to the region by the then-prime minister,
Thaksin Shinawatra. Insurgent demands now range from more political say
to a fully independent state and implementation of Sharia.

Abuza says there’s no end to the conflict in
sight: Thai authorities have yet to get a handle on what is a
hard-to-pinpoint, low-grade insurgency that has no clear-cut message,
central command, or even identifiable leaders. Harsh military and
police tactics, meanwhile, such as detaining suspected insurgents
without charge and allegedly using torture, seem only to make things
worse. And even lifting the state of emergency represents no
significant policy shift—many of the measure’s stipulations remain in
effect through the Internal Security Act. Conventional wisdom holds
that the government must settle its problems in Bangkok before it can
properly address the trouble in the South.

The core issue is legitimacy, says Duncan McCargo,
a professor of Southeast Asian politics at the University of Leeds.
Thailand’s government is extremely centralized, with even regional
governors appointed by Bangkok, where the military and monarchy sit. In
the South, many residents feel estranged from the power structure, and
the notion has been exacerbated by the military presence and decades of
neglect. The red-shirt protesters who occupied part of central Bangkok
for two months last year were supporters of Shinawatra, a populist
billionaire who went into exile after being deposed in a 2006 military
coup—and was the first prime minister to begin shifting some power from
Bangkok to the country’s North, which is his base. “What you see in the
Deep South is just an extreme version of the national problem in
Thailand, which is that power is overly concentrated in Bangkok,”
McCargo says. The red shirts took to the streets again in the capital
this month following the lifting of the emergency decree.

Devolution of power is the only long-term answer,
both in the Deep South and countrywide, according to Michael Montesano
of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. Yet the
controversial subject is unlikely to be broached any time soon: the
Bangkok elite are reluctant to cede real power, while Abhisit’s
government is backed by Thailand’s most centralized powers—the military
and the crown. “It would be hard to do this even if there weren’t a
political crisis,” says Montesano. Until the country’s leaders are
willing to address the longstanding grievances held by Thais outside
the traditional power structure, unrest, both in the South and in
Bangkok, will likely continue to be the norm.
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