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Philip Bowring: Thaksin's dilemma

International Herald Tribune

BANGKOK Given the escalating violence in Thailand's southernmost, Muslim Malay majority provinces, it may not be surprising that Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has declared a state of emergency there. A cabinet decree has given Thaksin extraordinary powers that include extending the period under which suspects can be detained without charge, limiting freedom of movement and enabling the censoring of news in and from the region.
The government can reasonably claim that such powers are not unique, with similar measures being associated with the likes of Northern Ireland, the West Bank and Guantánamo. The question is: Will they do more harm than good? The subtext of that question is: Do you trust Thaksin to use the powers judiciously?
Two very different sets of people will need to be convinced of the net benefits of the emergency powers. The most obvious is the Muslim majority of the region, who comprise about two-thirds of the population in the three provinces and part of a fourth where the decree is in effect.
The situation in Thailand's deep south is certainly very serious. Occasional incidents have escalated into almost daily attacks, mostly on organs of the state but also on non-Muslim civilians like schoolteachers, who have been given permission to be armed. The very evident danger is that under the cover of the new power, the security forces will further alienate the local population of what was once an independent Malay sultanate of Patani. Security force killings last year of large numbers of unarmed protesters are still fresh memories and have made it easier for the insurgents to recruit followers.
Since then, Thaksin had supposedly been following a more accommodating policy to reach out to the majority. But his government has failed to make progress on the fate of a prominent Muslim lawyer most likely killed by the authorities. A recent report by the International Crisis Group laid the blame for the troubles on historical grievances exacerbated by the policies of the Thaksin government, including the use of extrajudicial killings. Assumption of the new powers also comes as the National Reconciliation Commission, headed by respected former Prime Minister Anand Panyarachun, is examining the problem. Its report is due in early 2006.
A political solution, not just increased force, is needed if the Malays are to isolate the insurgents in their midst. Meanwhile, the militants are having their desired effect of persuading many non-Muslims to leave the region. A further aggravating factor is rivalries within the police and military that include disputes over smuggling, still a lucrative cross-border business that continues.
There are two other dangers from Thaksin's escalation of the issue. One is that anti-insurgent cooperation with Malaysia, seldom easy given the Malay ethnic sentiments involved, will become more difficult. The other is that the insurgents, so far a localized group without links to the large numbers of more integrated Muslims elsewhere in Thailand, will take their campaign from the south to Bangkok and Phuket as the IRA took theirs from Londonderry to London. A future link-up with international jihadists, so far not a player in this conflict, cannot be ruled out either.
The second group to need convincing of the merits of Thaksin's policies is the rest of the Thai population, or at least the Bangkok opinion leaders. His earlier hard-line policy toward the south did him no harm during the February election when he was returned with a huge post-tsunami majority. But since then his administration's standing has been hurt by a series of corruption scandals, an economy under pressure from oil prices and the effects of the tsunami and southern troubles on tourism. There is also growing reaction against his efforts to control the media and undermine national institutions that are supposed to act as checks and balances on executive power. The opposition Democrat Party is gaining traction, at least in Bangkok.
A few months ago, Thaksin would probably have carried most of the country, including Bangkok, with him. But although there is scant sympathy for the cause of the Malay-speaking Muslims, there are now widespread doubts about the prime minister's use and abuse of power. Mainstream media once unwilling to criticize him are showing at least some concern that emergency powers may be counterproductive.
Thaksin's decisiveness, his get-things-done approach that won him praise at the time of the tsunami, is now being questioned. Solving the dilemma of the south requires time, patience, political flexibility and a willingness to listen to criticism - not attributes associated with the prime minister. So unless he can show that emergency powers can really make a positive difference, they may damage his political standing as well as make a bad situation in the south much worse.
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