Friday, October 30, 2009


Singing on the beach in Pattani province. August 2009.

There has been a growing interest in granting some form of autonomy to the Deep South as a means of mitigating unrest in the region.

Since the rise of violence in 2003, the Thai state under has failed, often miserably, in its counterinsurgency efforts.

Normally, heavy handed tactics by security forces backed up by inappropriate and even warmongering rhetoric by successive Prime Ministers has done nothing but add fuel to the southern fire.

Yet there has been growing discourse in Thai academic and political circles that has admitted the state's persistent failures and has understood that greater political participation through the devolution of state powers is needed to quell the violence.

While Thai discourse has favored terms like decentralization or administrative reform what is really being talked about is a form of autonomy.

This is, of course, not separatism but a means of granting locals in the Deep South more political participation so that they have basic decision making control over affairs such as education, religious practice, and development.

A brief summary of the rise of Thai political discourse on autonomy might have started as early as 2005 when the National Reconciliation Commission (NRC) was formulating their recommendations for fostering peace in the Deep South. Insiders speculate that autonomy was the core recommendation that former Prime Minister and NRC Chairman Anand Panyarachun was planning to suggest. But, a 'powerful stakeholder' commanded that autonomy not be recommended and it was dropped.

In February 2008 Chalerm Yubamrung, then serving as Interior Minister, launched a trial balloon suggesting that public hearings on the issue of Southern autonomy be conducted. While immediately slapped down by Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej, Chalerm claimed to have support from the governors of the southern provinces of Narathiwat, Pattani, Satun, Yala, and Songkhla in addition to the Southern Border Provinces Administration Centre (SBPAC) director Pranai Suwannarat

By June 2009, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, while speaking on his weekly television program, had already floated the idea of turning Pattani, Narathiwat, and Yala into a “special administrative zone” while still being in line with the one and unitary state precondition established in the constitution.

And now, in response to Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak's suggestion that Thailand grant some form of autonomy to the Deep South, the Straits Times and Channel News Asia are reporting that Abhisit has considerably raised the bar:

"Thailand is supporting this approach but it's not an independent region. It does not contradict the constitution, but instead allows more public participation in the form of a local assembly," he told reporters."

Finally, and just after I called Abhisit's performance a failure, I must give him some praise.

This is just a small step in a long and evolving process of course, but it is an important and significant step towards a long term resolution to the conflict.

What will happen next will likely be a spirited attack by right wing nationalists.

If conservatives like Privy Council president Prem Tinsulanonda could not tolerate the idea of Pattani-Malayu (the dialect spoke by about two million Thai citizens in the Deep South) being a working language in the Deep South then he, and his intolerant brethren, will likely mount a fierce rebuke to autonomy.

The Royal Thai Army, which runs the Deep South like a fiefdom and basks in extraordinary state spending, will likely also strike back at Abhisit. This is serious. Abhisit's government is beholden to the military and, should they withdraw their backing, the government is on shaky ground.

And the ultra-nationalist lunatics that comprise the anti-democratic People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) will be furious. Their violent antics at Phrea Vihear could be replayed over any notion of special autonomy being granted in the Deep South.

Such a backlash could cause the government to considerably water down the details of autonomy.

And this is the real danger.

Autonomy as a means of mitigating conflict has the potential to address the core grievances in the Deep South that fuel unrest.

But a watered down autonomy agreement void of any meaningful devolution of powers reaffirms the fears and mistrust that many residents of the Deep South have in the Thai state.

It would also bolster the hawkish nationalists who would accuse the Deep South of not being cooperative and would lead to further calls for a military solution to the crisis.

And, as Abhisit and Panitan Wattanayakorn have been mulling over a Sri Lankan-type solution, it is not unfathomable to envision a different and very dangerous direction that the conflict could go if autonomy is not managed properly.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Abhisit's failing state

Village defense volunteers (Chor Ro Bo) demonstrating their skills at a Buddhist temple in Maigaan (ไม้แก่น) district of Pattani province. August 2009.

In June 2009, at a seminar hosted by the King Prajadhipok’s Institute called “Politics Outweighs the Military: A Solution to Sustainable Peace in Southern Thailand”, Prime Minister Abhisit talked about bringing justice to the Deep South.

He said that the perpetrators of the June 2009 mosque shooting in Narathiwat, “no matter who they are”, would be brought to justice and that this issue is a key point from which to judge the performance of his government.

I would like to now pass judgment on the performance of his government: failed.

Failed misserably might be more accurate.

In regards to the mosque shooting, a warrant was issued a few months ago for a Thai-Buddhist township defense volunteer (Or Ror Bor) named Suthirak Khongsuwan, yet the whole case seems, like every other legal case in the Deep South, to have disappeared without resolution and certainly without justice.

Obviously, Abhisit's bold rhetoric is fundamentally disconnected with the fact that his weak government is beholden to the military.

Worse, the fact that Thai-Buddhist militias, such as the one Suthirak Khongsuwan belonged to, are armed under patronage of the Kingdom's highest institution which ensures that Abhisit's rhetoric is simply rhetoric.

The Nation is reporting today that the Patani United Liberation Organization (PULO) is not happy about the failure to see justice in the Deep South:

"Four Prime ministers passed by in just two years and all have failed to deliver justice
and really sustainable development as hoped by the Malay Muslims, who are naturally anxious to manage their own affairs," it said.

Implicit in the PULO statement is that the Thai state's failure to deliver justice is a rational for autonomy or separatism.

They may have a point.

Not a single official has been prosecuted for any human-rights violations or killings since the surge of fighting began in 2004. Even the Tak Bai case in which state security forces killed 86 protesters – 76 from mistreatment after being taken into custody – were ‘acting in accordance’ of the law as judged by a Songkhla provincial court.

More worrisome, is that Abhisit's failure is part of a habitual failing of the Thai state that is akin to the symptoms of a failed state.

What exactly is a failed state?

From the Failed States Index: A state that is failing has several attributes. One of the most common is the loss of physical control of its territory or a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. Other attributes of state failure include the erosion of legitimate authority to make collective decisions, an inability to provide reasonable public services, and the inability to interact with other states as a full member of the international community. The 12 indicators cover a wide range of state failure risk elements such as extensive corruption and criminal behavior, inability to collect taxes or otherwise draw on citizen support, large-scale involuntary dislocation of the population, sharp economic decline, group-based inequality, institutionalized persecution or discrimination...
From the perspective of the Deep South, the Thai state is clearly bordering on failed state territory.

When a failed state can not provide justice, politically motivated armed groups (separatists) will try to take over the functions of a state as a means of garnering legitimacy in the eyes of locals.

This is already happening.

As reported in Matichon today (sorry, cant find the story on their website but saw a copy of it early), separatists have released their own 'wanted' poster complete with photos and names of the five Thai-Buddhist suspects from the mosque shooting incident. While it does look like a wanted poster for criminals, theirs is titled 'จับตาย' which translates as 'wanted dead'.

Such vigilante actions are a symptom of the Thai state's inability to provide justice.

While I do still appreciate Abhisit's flowery promises of justice, his government has clearly failed to deliver.

Yet the real problem is not simply the current government's failure to provide justice, its the fact that its the sixth year in which the Thai state has failed to provide justice for citizens of the Deep South.

From a southern perspective, the perpetual lack of justice suggests that the Thai state is a failed state in the Deep South.

And that, of course, supports PULO's argument for autonomy or even independence.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Rumors, rumors, rumors


Well-wishers at Siriraj Hospital. September 25, 2009.

While local Thai papers are towing the official line that all is well with King Bhumibol Adulyadej, there have been serious rumors since he was admitted to hospital on September 19th.

Some rumors told directly to me have suggesting it is time to stock up on black clothing, others are more opaque.

From the Nation:
"There was a panic in early trading due to rumours, but the market rebounded," said Therdsak Taweethiratham of AsiaPlus Securities. "In recent weeks the stock market has been rising. Now investors are profit-taking."

The Bangkok Post:
"Rumours circulated throughout Wednesday that his condition [King Bhumibol] had deteriorated, prompting a 2.04 percent drop in the Stock Exchange of Thailand (SET).

The blogs are a little more creative.

New Mandala's cleaver use of a single quote:
"Less than forty-eight hours before he died the First Queen had reported that “His Majesty has improved in all respects.” - Extracted from Vella and Vella 1978. Chaiyo! King Vajiravudh and the development of Thai Nationalism, p1.

Thailand Crisis with a distinctive tone which always makes for good reading:
"There is sense of deja vu : Sovietology… When during the Cold War people were spending huge amount of energy and time to try to decipher what was going on at the Kremlin…"


"It’s a shame to serve such bullshit to the public. Shame on those people. Shame on Nation to write such non sense. The thai people have the right to know the truth."

Political Prisoners Thailand, while verging into conspiracy territory, comes up with something much more worrisome about the number of troops scheduled to descend upon the streets. (Also, they are the right on track to critically question the 2,000 "civilian volunteers" which are part of the security force):

"That’s a total of 36,000 security personnel mobilized. Even leaving aside the questions of human rights and intimidation, this is clearly way, way more than would be reasonable for controlling a rally that the government estimates will be “about 10,000 people.”"

"Suthep stated that “Attention will be given specially to Government House, parliament and Chitrlada Palace.”"

"PPT has no answers that we haven’t given before.However, this kind of mobilization is suspiciously large. If we were being really cynical and conspiratorial, we’d be tempted to link to an earlier post."

And finally, Bloomberg has a good story which captures how the King's health is making the market jittery:
"Speculation that the King’s health had deteriorated helped spark the biggest drop in the benchmark stock index in two months yesterday and the biggest decline since June in the baht."

A theme that emerges in this is that the Palace is seriously mismanaging their communication with the people leaving unanswered questions and fears to morph into dark rumors.

But an even bigger theme is that the whole succession, the embargo on honest reporting on the monarchy, fears of lese majeste, the unpopularity of the crown prince, republican sentiments, and all the other Yellow Elephant in the Room issues which the country is forced to try to ignore have left the nation unprepared for the inevitable outcome of all this.

The market is jittery because the nation is jittery.

Simply put, Thailand is not prepared for what will be the most profound cultural and political upheaval this country has seen in decades, some suggest the biggest upheaval ever, and all because we simply can not openly talk about the monarchy.

Long live lese majeste.