Blog Note: Both Abhisit and the Thai military has been saying that the security situation in the Thai Deep South is getter better. The fact is that more are being killed per day in 2009 than in 2008. The following is from an expert on terrorism. The blog is available in the National Security Section in Thai Intelligent.
By Zachary Abuza
It has now been one year since Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and the Democrat Party assumed power in Thailand. He promised to resolve the violence and search for a political solution for the Malay insurgency that has left more than 4,000 people dead since January 2004. Southern Thailand has been the scene of escalating violence that has led to de facto ethnic cleansing (15% of Buddhist population has fled) and the erosion of the social fabric of the southern Malay-majority provinces.
In the run up to last week’s summit with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, Prime Minister Abhisit made several assertions: First, the violence has gone down in the South. This is not quite true. He cited the death toll from 2004 to its peak in 2007. Violence dropped precipitously in 2008, the year before he came to power. From 2004-06, the rate of violence was 1.5 people/day killed. At its peak, from September 2006 to July 2007, the average was 5 people per day killed. The violence dropped in 2008 to well under one person a day being killed.
But since 15 December 2008, when he became when the People’s Power Party was ousted, and Abhisit became Prime Minister, violence has actually increased. Since 15 December 2008,1.2 people a day have been killed; well below the peak, but clearly an un-sustainable rate.
In the past year, based on my open-source statistics that are very conservative and tend to under-report the violence, some 429 people have been killed and 811 wounded. Those killed include 25 police, 35 soldiers and 26 paramilitary rangers. 303 civilians, 13 teachers, one monk and 26 village defense volunteers were also killed. In the past year, there have been 155 bombings, including 3 car bombs, and roughly 30 attempted bombings. There have been 11 beheadings and corpses have been burnt or desecrated 18 times. 10 schools were arsoned.
The 60,000 strong security forces are unable to defeat the insurgents who continue to be able to attack at will. While the arrest earlier this week of three Thai citizens in Malaysia, alleged bomb-makers, will help, the reality is few insurgents have been arrested and convicted.
Abhisit’s second was that there needs to be a durable political solution to the crisis. But his government has done little to achieve this. Indeed, the southern crisis has been an almost non-existent priority for a government that is singularly obsessed with former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The south has only become an issue, one year into his tenure, because of the fence-mending summit meeting with his Malaysian counterpart.
There has been no accountability of the security services, which still retain blanket immunity under the Thaksin-era emergency decree. This remains a major irritant of the Muslim community. The government has brought no security forces to justice, nor have they reined in unaccountable Buddhist militias, that often operate as vigilante squads. Government forces still engage in disappearances and EJKs.
Third, Abhisit asserted that the insurgents have no legitimacy. This is patently false and a sign of the government’s denial. The insurgents are not loved. They are brutal- especially towards their own community. Over half of their victims have been their co-religionists, people they deem to be government collaborators, those who preach reconciliation with the Thai state, or those who denounce the insurgents’ violence. The insurgents are more Islamist than the local population and are clearly implementing (slowly) their social agenda.
But to say that they have no legitimacy is incorrect. They are entrenched in their communities. Police and military get little assistance from the population. Most terrorism suspects are never charged. Indeed, at then end of the 30-day detention period, over 80 percent are freed. Few will cooperate with investigations or turn state’s witness because the government does not offer an adequate amount of security. The population may not be 100 percent behind the insurgents, but they are also not supportive of the Thai state, which has been corrupt, abusive, engaged in systematic violations of human rights, favors the Buddhist community, and which does not provide adequate security. In sum, the insurgents are not doing a better job than the government in winning hearts and minds, but they are not doing worse, either. And in an insurgency, this is often enough.
While, there have been no bombings in the tourist venues of Phuket or Bangkok, I make the case that they do not have to. They are achieving their short-term goals:
1. Making the region ungovernable.
2. Eliminating potential local opposition
3. Destroying secular institutions and forcing people into parallel Islamist organization: in short imposing their social agenda on the population.
But it’s probably a matter of time. What happens in Yala, won’t always stay in Yala. The insurgents have the technical capacity and a demonstrated willingness to engage in mass casualty attacks, such as the 6 October 2009 car bombing of the Merlin Hotel in Narathiwat’s Sungai Golok.
But we should be concerned for a number of reasons: First, there is no end in sight. The government has made little headway in defeating the insurgents or winning back the hearts and minds of the local population. This remains the most lethal conflict in Southeast Asia. While we are inured by the violence in Iraq and Afghanistan, small conflicts left to fester do not benefit anyone’s security. Conflicts feed off another and become part of the jihadist narrative. Second, this is a lawless and ungoverned space in the heart of Southeast Asia.