NEWS ANALYSIS

Less violence in Thai south but bigger issue remains

Lack of trust, undercurrent of alienation hindering efforts to achieve lasting peace

The number of bombings and killings in Thailand's restive south has dropped sharply, but there is no consensus on what is behind the shift.

While different agencies - both governmental and non-governmental - issue varying sets of data on the violence in the heavily militarised provinces of Yala, Pattani, Narathiwat, and a section of Songkhla - all the figures have headed downwards recently.

According to Deep South Watch, a group which monitors the separatist conflict, there were 674 incidents of violence last year - a 16 per cent drop from 2014 - which is the lowest since major hostilities began in 2004. A total of 246 people were killed last year - down from 341 in 2014 - which is also the lowest ever recorded.

The Thai authorities have been quick to attribute it to their counter-insurgency strategy - a combination of tighter policing, better intelligence, as well as closer ties to the Malay-Muslim majority who have acted to shrink the space for separatists to manoeuvre. They point out that they have heeded residents' request to replace troops from Thailand's other regions with more of those recruited locally.

In Narathiwat last November, before a group of visiting Bangkok-based journalists, a military unit inflated a bouncy castle for children and handed out bags of rice to an assembled group of villagers. Rear-Admiral Somkiat Ponprayoon, a deputy director in the Internal Security Operations Command, told journalists about the trust that had developed between the locals and the military.

But some of the locals paint a different picture. Civil society activist Artef Sohko, the foreign affairs liaison from the Academy of Patani Raya for Peace and Development, says the insurgents are paying heed to pleas from locals to reduce the bloodshed.

"They are still active but they have learnt to adjust their activities," he said. For example, instead of shooting at members of the state-funded local militia, they threaten them and take their weapons away.

A combination of history and policy fans distrust of the Thai state in the south. The region was once part of a Malay sultanate, and local Malay Muslims accuse the majority Buddhists of being insensitive to their language and culture. The area has been flooded with troops and paramilitary forces because of the separatist insurgency, which has claimed more than 6,500 lives and hindered educational and economic development.

Meanwhile, recent events have raised tensions. Early last month, a man who was arrested in Pattani died in a military base where he was being interrogated. According to local newspaper Khaosod, Mr Abdullayib Dolah's death is the first such case in the region since 2010. In a joint press conference with the military last month, a hospital director said no injury was found on Mr Abdullayib's body. His wife, however, suspects he was tortured.

In a bid to improve arrest and prosecution rates, the police in the south are increasingly relying on DNA testing. They have amassed DNA samples of more than 40,000 people, according to a Reuters report last May. Yet the collection methods are controversial. Civil society activists have been forced to undergo swabs, which they interpret as an attempt at intimidation. In November, the army even collected the DNA sample of the five-month-old son of a fugitive car-bomb suspect.

Against this backdrop, there has been relatively little optimism about the peace talks now being broached by the Thai state and the insurgents. The first round of peace talks in 2013 - between the civilian government headed by then-prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra and insurgent group Barisan Revolusi Nasional - was suspended after the former was crippled by political unrest late that year.

With the military government now in charge, a new set of Thai negotiators met an alliance of southern insurgent groups calling themselves Mara Patani, in Kuala Lumpur last August, hoping to restart formal talks.

"In general, people are not against the peace process," said Mr Hara Shintaro, an academic based in southern Thailand. But locals are still sceptical that Mara Patani can represent their wishes, he added.

Hence, while violence has waned in the region, perhaps the bigger task for Thai authorities is tackling the undercurrent of alienation.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 07, 2016, with the headline 'Less violence in Thai south but bigger issue remains'. Print Edition | Subscribe