The Wadah group is back in the limelight, and that is good news for it, the government and the Pheu Thai Party. But it is not a move for the southern insurgents to necessarily despair about.
The decision by Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yubamrung last Tuesday to bring Wadah into his orbit was welcomed by its nine members. The over-confident deputy premier hopes to use those politicians' home-bases in the far South to advise him on how to win the fight against the militants and build more government sympathisers in the strife-torn region.
The move is another step in the offensive by the government after the insurgents were defeated in their raid on a marine base in Bacho district of Narathiwat on the eve of Valentine's Day. The victory boosted the government's confidence and for the first time since violence returned to the southern border provinces on Jan 4, 2004, authorities believe they are no longer the underdog in this calamity.
Authorities were quick to credit cooperation from locals for the marines' successful defence of their barracks. That also is part of the psychological warfare _ by seizing the opportunity to demoralise the militants who are trying to end the administrative authority of the government in Bangkok in the Muslim-dominated area.
But a big question mark is the extent to which locals are willing to work with security forces. Some 30 assailants escaped from the Feb 13 attack, in which 16 were killed, and so far only four suspects have been detained. With more than two dozen of them nowhere to be seen, it shows the security agencies have more work to do to win the hearts and minds of the people down south.
What Mr Chalerm had in mind with this appointment was to seek advice from veteran politicians who probably know the situation on the ground best. Some Wadah members were, and still are, suspected by authorities of having links to the trouble in the sensitive region.
The problem, though, is whether the group can deliver what Mr Chalerm expects. Insurgents operate under a structure that is much more complicated than the old days, using a modern terrorism strategy. They are divided into small cells with a complex line of command which makes it difficult for outsiders, or even themselves, to break the secrecy surrounding the leaders. That is one reason why no groups or leaders have come out to claim credit for stirring up violence in the region.
They leave security officials in the dark, but Mr Chalerm believes the Wadah group could be the one to shed light on this secrecy and help him to outsmart the insurgents.
Mr Chalerm hopes to use the success of Wadah's input to add credentials to his cabinet profile. The group is expecting to grab this golden opportunity to redeem itself from a humiliating loss in the 2011 general election. Wadah was then completely wiped out in the three southernmost provinces in what was a shocking setback for its members. It has been licking its wounds since then _ 300 key supporters still hold regular meetings to find out what went wrong for the group, which once was hugely popular among Muslim voters in Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala.
The votes reflected the waning political influence of the group on its own turf and showed voter disapproval of the heavy-handed tactics favoured by former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. They believed the Thaksin-backed Pheu Thai Party would inherit his strategy. But the Pheu Thai-led government has offered both carrot and stick rewards to insurgents as it realises that using force alone will never win the fight against the militants.
The southern violence will not end overnight _ until Muslim locals curb their distrust of security officials.
Mr Chalerm is not banking on the Wadah politicians to completely turn around the situation, but at the least they should improve it in the months ahead. And any success could put the group back on the political map in the troubled region one more time and give Pheu Thai a foothold in the far South.
Only the Wadah faction can show the deputy prime minister that it is relevant by weakening the insurgents. Failure or success can be easily proved by watching what happens in those provinces from now on.
Saritdet Marukatat is Digital Media News Editor, Bangkok Post
About the author
- Writer: Saritdet Marukatat
Position: Opinion-Editorial Pages Editor