Thailand Wasting Opportunity for Change in Deep South

Commentary by Zachary Abuza
191008-TH-DeepSouth-funeral-1000.JPG Mourners attend a funeral for Abdullah Esomuso, a suspected insurgent who was left in a coma after being interrogated by military forces in Pattani, a province in Thailand’s Deep South, Aug. 25, 2019.

Violence in Thailand’s troubled Deep South is at an all-time low. Bangkok has always conflated troughs in violence in the southern border region with popular support for the government and a willingness among the Pattani Malay population to be assimilated.

And yet, through a number of coercive policies and abuses of power, the pro-military government is squandering an opportunity to improve conditions there and win over local support from insurgents.

I predicted a spike in violence following the death of a suspected insurgent, Abdullah Esomuso, who appeared to have been asphyxiated while in army custody. Historically there have been such spikes, because violence in Thailand Deep South often involves tit-for-tat retaliatory strikes.

But violence is down sharply. Since Esomuso’s death only three people have been killed and one wounded in five incidents of violence. Whether due to heavy rains, a choking haze, an increased presence by security forces or simply a depletion within the ranks of the insurgency, BRN rebels have been unable to mount a sustained campaign of violence.

This should be an incredible opportunity for the Thai government.

Yet, rather than capitalize on the decline in violence to begin addressing the grievances of the local population, the government keeps finding ways to reinforce the popular narrative that it is patently anti-Muslim and can operate with total impunity.

After Esomuso’s death in late August, the military pledged a thorough investigation. As of today, only a preliminary investigation has been held; the formal one appears to have stalled. Regardless, it is highly unlikely that charges will be brought.

The military released a photograph of a very healthy-looking Esomuso during an interrogation by his military captors. Hours later, he was found collapsed due to asphyxiation. The military is aware of every person who came into contact with him, although their CCTV cameras were conveniently broken.

The government seems to be waiting for the furor to die down, so it can get away with punishing no one. This only reinforces the Malay community’s long-held sense of government impunity.

In September, the Special Branch of the Royal Thai Police instructed universities to provide it with detailed information on the activities and affiliation of all Muslim students from the Deep South studying in Bangkok. This was met with a popular backlash, and although the government backed down on Oct. 3, the damage was done.

Last week, a lower court judge in Yala province, Kanakorn Pianchana, shot himself in the chest in his court room after complaining that a supervising judge had interfered and tried to pressure him to reverse a ruling that acquitted five insurgent suspects.

In a video he posted on Facebook before entering the courtroom, the judge complained about constant political interference from superiors to convict suspects and, at the same time, being pressured to acquit the handful of security forces who’ve been charged with wrongdoing and abuse.

In stating that evidence derived from torture was inadmissible, Kanakorn publicly acknowledged the regular use of torture on insurgency suspects.

The sad thing is that despite the politicization of the judiciary in Thailand as a whole, the lower courts in Thailand’s Deep South have always shown a high degree of judicial independence and integrity. They have demanded higher standards of evidence, rejected confessions made under duress if not torture, and served as an important check on military abuses.

Pianchana acknowledged that wrongful convictions were counterproductive to government attempts to improve the security of the Deep South.

The military has denied interfering or applying political pressure on judges, let alone torturing suspects. And they have publicly attributed the judge’s attempted suicide on stress.

In the most recent case, the Internal Security Operations Command for Region 4 (ISOC-4) filed sedition charges against 12 opposition politicians and academics who held a seminar in Pattani on Sept. 28 to discuss alternative ways to end the insurgency. The offending language centered around Section 1 of the military-drafted constitution that establishes Thailand as a unitary state.

Even the discussion of autonomy is deemed seditious.

The leaders of ISOC-4 have denied that their decision is politically motivated or that it was done at the behest of the government. This is laughable as the sedition charges were filed against the leaders of the Future Forward Party, Prachachart Party, Pheu Thai Party, Pheu Chart Party, and Thai People’s Power Party.

The Future Forward Party’s charismatic leader, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, poses the single greatest challenge to military dominance of politics. As such, he has been the target of multiple legal challenges to silence or disqualify him from politics.

In addition, the Future Forward Party has provoked the army’s ire by leading the parliamentary investigations into the death of Esomuso, as well as the government’s decision to investigate Muslim students.

Future Forward has done more than any other party to address core grievances of the Malay community. So the sedition charge against Thanathorn undermines a potential political solution.

Despite the recent appointment of a new chief negotiator for the Thai government in talks with the MARA Patani panel that represents insurgent groups, there is no real peace process underway.

The military’s goal is to get violence to a low enough level that they can attribute it to criminality and therefore not be compelled to make any political concessions or address the Malay community’s grievances. Yet their actions in a number of different cases are undermining even that attempt.

Rather than use the drop in violence to reach out to the Malay community, and search for a durable political solution, they only push through policies that just alienate them further.

Zachary Abuza is a professor at the National War College in Washington and the author of “Forging Peace in Southeast Asia: Insurgencies, Peace Processes, and Reconciliation.” The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the U.S. Department of Defense, the National War College or BenarNews.


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