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Interview: Ending Deep South violence requires building trust, analyst says

By Somchai Huasaikul for Khabar Southeast Asia in Hat Yai – 11/04/12

April 10, 2012

"We've to begin looking at the modalities for resolution," says the director of Chulalongkorn University's Institute of Security and International Studies, Dr. Thitinan Pongsudhirak. [Khabar/Somchai Huasaikul]

Dr. Thitinan Pongsudhirak is a leading Thai political analyst and commentator. A professor at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University, he directs its Institute of Security and International Studies. He contributes a regular column to The Bangkok Post. In this interview with Khabar Southeast Asia contributor Somchai Huasaikul, Dr. Thitinan discusses the recent bomb attacks in Thailand's Deep South and the prospects for resolving the ongoing insurgency.

Khabar Southeast Asia: I am really interested in your perspective on the Deep South and the recent bombings. How big a threat is this to Thai security?

Thitinan Pongsudhirak:. The structure of the conflict and the insurgency has not changed over the last five years. There is some insurgency involved, there is some domestic criminality involved. If you were engaged in smuggling, money laundering, trafficking … you would want some instability. You wouldn't want peace. And a lot of the people involved are officials, key police, local politicians. So the last people who want to see peace are the people engaged in these illicit activities.

On the other hand, there are insurgents, and there is a range of them led by the Barisan Revolusi Nasional Co-ordinate (BRNC). From studies, there seems to be a consensus that they number from 2,000 to 5,000 in disparate groups. They don't have a clear line of command; they are not under one roof, one commander. There were some talks about negotiations aimed at a resolution, but without progress.

So far, the conflict has been confined to the Deep South -- Yala, Pattani and Naraithiwat and a few districts of Songkhla, Thepas, Chana, Nathawee and Sabaiyoi. That tells us a lot of things. It tell us this is not an international terrorist movement. If it were international they would not be confined to a specific geographical area. Secondly, it tells us that it could spread, possibly to [tourist destinations such as] Phuket and Chiang Mai. The ramifications would be dire, dire. One big car bomb in Phuket or Bangkok or Chiang Mai would be a game-changer for Thailand.

Khabar Southeast Asia: The Lee Gardens Plaza Hotel bombing really sent chills down some spines here in Phuket.

Thitinan: I think it is only a reminder. It's potent and deadly, but if you look back at the patterns of previous incidents, there were some very serious and grave incidents in the past. Lee Gardens is only the most recent reminder that this has not gone away. Did you know we had a bombing at Hat Yai Airport [in 2005]?

Khabar Southeast Asia: But the size of the Lee Gardens device was at a different level from anything we've seen in the past.

Thitinan: Yes. Over time the technology has been diffused. Many people can now do car bombs now, but the material required still needs some sophistication, some access, some logistics and organisation.

To sum it up, it has been confined so far but we cannot take it for granted that it will not spread. We have to be vigilant.

We have to begin looking at the modalities for resolution. From a study of all the analyses that have been done, it is clear that these modalities ultimately have to include negotiations. The authorities cannot eliminate the insurgents completely, as happened in Sri Lanka. [But] the insurgents cannot really win and take over control over infrastructure such as power stations or move into Provincial Halls. So the insurgents must have an interest in getting what they want short of complete control.

It will take a change of mindset in Bangkok. Some level of autonomy could be broached, perhaps a special administrative region or zone of the kind that already exists for Pattaya. There is no reason why this could not be considered for the Deep South. There is a mindset in Bangkok that is very unitary, as if the Thai state is an inviolable unitary state. They think that if you allow a second language like Yawi to be used in official government documents or if you allow certain bureaucratic functions to be performed, certain reforms to be implemented, and so on -- they think that that would erode the Thai state, leading to some kind of secession or split. This is a deep psychological hangup. If they can somehow get around that, then you could talk about talks and negotiations.

Once the enabling conditions are in place, there is a better chance for these insurgents to surface. You need an arbiter or mediator. You don't have trust. You have to build trust, but there is so much bad blood now that you need some kind of a mechanism to get the different sides to the table and provide the conditions that are safe and trustworthy. Then they can start looking at ways forward.

Khabar Southeast Asia: What about the role of the Southern Border Provinces Administration Center (SBPAC) in all this?

Thitinan: As you know, the SBPAC was dismantled by [former Thai Prime Minister] Thaksin as part of his move to penetrate the Democrat Party's stronghold in the South, by getting his police henchmen to take over from the army -- and it boomeranged and blew up in his face. It was replaced by the Southern Border Provinces Peace-Building Command (SBPPC), but in more recent years the SBPCC has been sidelined and they have reconfigured the SBPAC.

Khabar Southeast Asia: I understand that the SBPAC recently allowed female Muslim inmates to wear the hiyap [veil] in prisons and was also pushing to establishing Muslim holidays there instead of the traditional Thai ones. Do you think changes like these would be considered drastic from the perspective of the authorities in Bangkok?

Thitinan: There are some people there who are progressive-minded and whose mindset has changed, but there are others whose mindset have not changed -- and will not change, so there is some tension. So the people who are receptive to hiyap, use of Yawi, Muslim holidays and education by pondok [Islamic schools], and so on … [these are] people whose mindsets have become more receptive.

In the background there is a chasm between military and civilian leaders. There are different conflicts at different levels … I think part of the solution requires a civilian supremacy over the military, because the military has a vested interest -- corporate interests, budget reasons, a lot of the perks and promotions, activities -- as reasons not to completely resolve this problem.

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