2014 coup and the Deep South Crisis: Interview with Sunai Phasuk

Separatist violence has plagued Thailand’s Deep South for over a decade, resulting in an approximate toll of 6000 deaths and 11,000 casualties since the Muslim separatist insurgency reignited in 2004. Prachatai speaks with Human Rights Watch’s senior researcher Sunai Phasuk to find out more about the situation in the South and the implications of military governance in the region. 
 

Sunai Phasuk, Human Rights Watch's Thailand senior researcher
 
According to Sunai, central to the conflict is the issue of identity politics, which triggered the multifaceted state-minority conflict. Since 2001, Bangkok has proved unable to control the insurgency in the Deep South. Both Ahbisit and Yingluck’s government tried to impose peace building mechanisms, introducing concessions and facilitating dialogue between key leaders and the government. The reconciliatory approach was well supported in a poll that indicated 67% of those surveyed were confident in Peace Process (Source: Center for Conflict Studies and Cultural Diversity (CSCD), Prince of Songkhla University, Pattani Campus, Opinion Survey on Peace Process during March 21-25 2013)
 
He said that negotiations had failed to reap desired results because of a few factors: Conservative views of key power wielders of the South, the Thai state’s adamant perceptions on Thai-ness and national sovereignty and the fluidity of insurgent networks. Insurgents do not operate in monolithic networks. The informal channels they operate in make it difficult for the government body to “get the right person to the negotiation table.” 
 
In light of such challenges, past civilian governments have tried talking to key exiled leaders and elders to facilitate some sort of dialogue between both sides. 
 
Asked what is the most important element(s) on the reconciliation process, Sunai recognized decentralization as a crucial requisite but emphasized that a more nuanced view of ‘National Identity’ is required as well. 
 
Thai-ness as conservative thinking 
 
“The biggest problem lies in the Thai perception of its own nation state and national identity.” 
 
Such perceptions of Thai-ness have inevitably influenced policies dealing with the conflict, he said.  
 
“As Thais become more conservative in thinking, the Muslims become more radicalized. And as Thailand becomes more militaristic, in defense, the Muslims become bolder in their identity.” 
 
Power politics of the South can be characterized as an ‘action-reaction’ process. It is crucial to look at nation building from the Muslim perspective to gain insight of the issue, he added. 
 
“As we observe a resurgence of violence in the region, we become more aware that much of the debate has been centered on the Thai state,” said Sunai.  
 
Decentralization reversed 
 
Both Democrat and Pheu Thai parties have made efforts in allowing a degree of informal autonomy and self-governance in the South. The effort to permit decentralization has unfortunately been impeded by key power wielders (the military) in the region who possess conservative views on governance in the south. They maintain the need to retain authority in the region and restrict any form of autonomy. 
 
“Bangkok cannot control the South” Sunai reiterated. He said that Bangkok cannot control the chain of command, the communication between the generals in Bangkok and the governors in the South were not always smooth. 
 
Decentralization is necessary, but the NCPO has just released a statement to further consolidate power in the capital by scrapping local level elections. This move is detrimental to the situation in the South as there is represses the imperative for greater political space and expression, especially in regions that are experiencing an ongoing legitimacy crisis, according to Sunai.  
 
On the future of negotiations and military governance
 
The NCPO has made it very clear that they will not tolerate any form of self-governance, which has already been a compromise on the part of past civilian governments. They could not grant independence but at least there was a concession of some informal autonomy. 
 
“But with the Military, it is a complete no” said Sunai, adding that insurgents do not have any room for bargaining, so there is no point in negotiations. 
 
The NCPO has very clear stands on Thai national identity. A stark requirement would be the usage of the Thai language. Previous civilian governments have attempted to make concessions to this strand of national identity, in order to reach out to the Malay Muslim community in the South, by reasoning that as a Thai, one is not restricted to speaking purely Thai. Although Thai may be the official language, the working language of the region can be something else. 
 
But according to NCPO guidelines, language wise, only Thai can be used. There is a regression of the developments in the South. Attempts at political reconciliation have been undone by the hard handedness of the junta. 
 
“The rolling back of existing limited concessions makes it impossible to progress with the peace dialogue,” said Sunai.   
 
This Ramadan, observers brace themselves for surges in violence. Contrary to popular belief, Ramadan has always been a violent period for Thailand’s Deep South. Although the Yingluck government attempted to show gestures to win the “heart and minds”, there was an unfortunate surge of targeted killings during that period, supposedly fueled by requests of insurgent elders for amnesty which led to a conflict between Thais and insurgents. The trust between both sides has eroded and they continue to attack each other, fueling a vicious cycle of violence and a lack of accountability on both sides. Every important foundation for confidence building has collapsed and the prospects for peace building are dim.