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.
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.