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.


  1. as you imply, autonomy is not the answer perse

    getting rid of the 'powerful stakeholder'(? do you mean the royal family or just Prem and his mates?) and the royal hangers-on including the army will immediately improve the situation in the south, probably it will entirely resolve the issue

    of course getting rid of these parasites on the Thai people will resolve most problems in the whole country, at least permit the Thai people, including those in the south to vote for their own government!

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