Seven steps to building up southern trust
Violence in Thailand's deep South is at its lowest level in the past 11 years. While this is a very positive development for the people of the South who have lived with violence and fear on a daily basis, it does not portend a lasting peace. Indeed, it could actually be counterproductive.
The government's calculation is if violence diminishes to such a low level, then it will not have to make any serious concessions, especially on the issues of autonomy, self-governance or general amnesties. As the old saying goes: the absence of violence is not peace.
It is unclear whether peace talks will resume. The preconditions set by the Thai government seem unlikely to be met anytime soon. The insurgent groups see little reason to negotiate with the junta, and will likely hold out for the re-establishment of a democratically elected government; though the way things stand now with the Constitution Drafting Committee, it will most likely be a very constrained and weak democratic polity.
But that does not mean that the government cannot unilaterally take steps and implement some reforms to address deep-seated grievances amongst the ethnic Malays. Without any negotiations, or acts of parliament, the government can implement seven reforms that will do much to win back public confidence.
Every person that I have interviewed who had been arrested on suspicion of being an insurgent said that they were either assaulted or mistreated in some way during their interrogations. The mistreatment included beatings, all night interrogations, sleep deprivation, blasting air conditioners after being stripped down, threats of extra-judicial killings, and psychological pressure on detainees' families.
The National Human Rights Commission found that 75% of torture complaints between 2007-2013 were filed in the South. The Supreme Court is also handling the first case of security force torture, something that even the government has not contested. First and foremost, therefore, the government must stop rogue security forces from torturing suspects.
Second, under the emergency decree, the government can hold people for up to 28 days without charge. Thereafter, they have to be charged with a crime or freed. If the government doesn't have enough evidence, often they find additional charges to keep people detained under under the Criminal Code.
Third, when charges are dropped or suspects are acquitted in the court, the government can no longer treat them as suspects. They are free and innocent. Yet ex-detainees tell me that despite dropped charges or acquittals, their names remain in the national database, so that when they pass through the ubiquitous checkpoints across the South, they are stopped, questioned and harassed. That these people are still treated as suspects by the security forces is counter-productive. This is akin to "double jeopardy".
Fourth, the government must tackle the issue of impunity by its security forces, who have enjoyed blanket legal immunity since the emergency decree was passed in mid-2005. In the rare cases where immunity has been waived, cases against security forces are either quietly dropped or end in acquittal.
A ranger was recently charged for shooting dead a young Muslim man, who passed through a checkpoint. Killing him was within his responsibility; it was the planting of a pistol in his hands, that was what got him in trouble. But what about the police who conduct raids or demand DNA samples without warrants? Not one has been charged with wrongdoing.
Fifth, the government must ensure that the practice of extrajudicial killings stop. Much of this has been the result of the inability to win convictions. But there is often collateral damage in such "targeted" killings and it guts any government assertion of their commitment to the rule of law. And as importantly, veiled threats against suspected insurgents must stop.
Sixth, the government tends to only offer compensation to victims of insurgent violence. But families of suspected insurgents who are gunned down or victims of extrajudicial killings are rarely given compensation. The same goes for orphans of suspected insurgents; they tend to be the communities' responsibility. If the Thai government's goal is to convince the Pattani Malay that they are Thai citizens, then it has to treat them as equal citizens. If they are offering compensation to Buddhist widows and orphans, then they need to do so to the Muslim widows and orphans, regardless of who their husband or father was.
Seventh, the government has to give more space to civil society organisations. Government security forces tend to treat all Muslim NGOs as fronts for the insurgents without offering any evidence.
The NGOs in the deep South often operate where there is an absence of government services, often in communities that the government deems "red zones". While many individuals in NGO's share the insurgents' deep sense of prejudice or injustice on the part of the Thai state, I know of no organisation that publicly supports secession or condones violence. They might have sympathies for the insurgents' cause, but they are not fronts and often take great risks by cooperating with the government or negotiating their work with security forces.
If the goal is to end violence, then the government has to give more space for ethnic Malay nationalists to operate freely above ground.
The government will likely feel confident that with violence down, they do not have to make any concessions or reforms. Yet, the lull is tactical and temporary; the insurgents have not been defeated, nor have they surrendered. But with violence down, the government can make small but meaningful changes in their operations to start to win back popular support.
These seven steps could be implemented quickly and with little cost, but do much to eliminate the sense of alienation and injustice that pervade the deep South. The government has an opportunity and obligation to build on the lull in violence. These seven steps would go a long way.
Zachary Abuza, PhD, is a specialist in Southeast Asian politics and security issues. He is the author of 'Muslims, Politics and Violence in Indonesia', 'Conspiracy of Silence: The Insurgency in Southern Thailand', and 'Militant Islam in Southeast Asia'.