When Yingluck Shinawatra’s campaign for the leadership of Thailand came to the southern province of Pattani, she donned a crimson hijab and promised that if elected she would attempt to bring peace to the restive region whose population is majority Muslim and ethnic Malay.
While Yingluck’s Pheu Thai party won what is being called a landside victory in this month’s elections, in Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat — the three Muslim majority provinces in the country’s south — not a single seat was one by a Pheu Thai candidate. All of the provinces’ seats went to the outgoing Democrat Party, which had tried to heal relations scarred the last time a Shinawatra, Yingluck’s older brother Thaksin, held power.
The region has a history of antagonism with the incoming government that some fear could get worse with Pheu Thai’s victory. Shortly after taking power in 2001, former PM Thaksin pushed to expand his government’s influence in the region. This move led to a violent backlash.
Two days after the national elections, Samchai (his only name) came out to dismantle the large election signs that had lined the streets of Pattani, the largest city in Thailand’s far south. He said the wooden frames would soon rot but the plastic could be sold for recycling. Samchai told New Matilda, "She came to us for votes, but now if we want to see her, she will have no time for us. She’s too big now."
For the election, over 12,000 heavily armed security agents were assigned to guard polling stations in the south. No violence was reported, but this kind of heavy security presence is the norm in the area. There is a curfew at night, and military roadblocks and soldiers with assault rifles are on constant patrol.
Thai security forces are accused of a horrific range of human rights abuses including torture, illegal interrogation techniques and extrajudicial killings. They appear to operate outside of the law.
"Not a single soldier has been convicted for any of the human rights violations in the south, so there is a culture of impunity," said Yap Swee Seng, Executive Director of the Asia Forum for Human Rights and Development, in a phone interview from Bangkok.
Cases of military abuse have been dismissed by civilian courts that claim to have no jurisdiction over the actions of military personnel. The Emergency Decree on Public Administration has been in effect since July 2005, giving the Thai military enhanced powers. Section 17 of the decree codifies immunity from prosecution for military officials who commit human rights abuses.
With no effective legal channel to address grievances, the population feels compelled to seek revenge through violence. This creates a cycle of retaliation between the military and insurgents that shows no sign of stopping.
The militants operate in the shadows; they are not believed to be associated with transnational Islamic movements. While there is an active separatist movement, the general population doesn’t seem fervently opposed to the Thai state.
Economic disparities between the south and wealthier areas of the country are one cause of the conflict. The Thai economy has performed well in recent years and is expected to continue growing for the rest of this year. An April 2011 World Bank report highlights increases in domestic consumption as a source of growth. But the poor have only reaped a small portion of the country’s growing wealth. Some argue that it is this uneven distribution that fuels discontent in the region.
While relations with Thaksin’s government were generally problematic, some residents of Pattani appreciated his attempts at developing the south and saw it as an effort to even the gap with the rest of Thailand. "Many of the voters here didn’t choose Yingluck but that doesn’t mean they have a particular problem with her. At least when Thaksin was in power he tried to redistribute some of the country’s wealth," Mahmoud, an instructor at the Poming Foundation School for Islamic Cultural Studies, told New Matilda.
Others point to a historical animosity between the Muslim minority and Buddhist majority. The Thai government has encouraged migration of ethnic-Thai Buddhists to the area. The Malay insurgents have used violence to push Buddhists out. The Thai military is made up of Buddhists and has a history of anti-Muslim violence and suppression.
Some locals feel it’s not religion that is responsible for the tensions, but a lack of upward mobility for young people in the area. "Religion isn’t the problem, it’s business that’s the problem. If more young men had business opportunities that tied them to the rest of the country they wouldn’t be interested in separating from Thailand," said Mena Azib, owner and operator of a firm that provides attire and décor for traditional Islamic weddings.
A challenging question is at the heart of Thai politics and society: how the poor majority can attain improvements in their standard of living without having to rely on redistributions of wealth from the wealthy. The campaigns of the major parties in the recent national elections all promised generous welfare benefits to the poor. But many doubt the feasibility of extravagant government-financed projects for the poor and these transfer payments caused resentment among well-off Thais.
One of the new Thai government’s most pressing challenges will be to create open lines of communication between different factions. According to Swee Seng of the Asia Forum for Human Rights and Development, "The future [of Thailand’s south]depends on what policy the new government takes. We hope that they will reach out and encourage dialogue. Most importantly, they must address the issues of corruption and human rights violations and hold perpetrators accountable. That needs to be addressed before the situation can move forward."
Yingluck’s tenure is already off to a rough start. The Thai Election Commission announced on July 12 that she would be among the candidates whose victories would not be endorsed until investigations into allegations of fraud are complete. It is already being feared that this is an attempt to prevent Pheu Thai from taking power. If the Election Commission refuses to endorse Yingluck’s victory it could lead to protests by the party’s energetic supporters and send Thailand into the kind of political crisis many feared before this election.
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