Candidate and prime ministerial hopeful Abhisit Vejjajiva waved at potential voters as he rode in a motorcycle with a sidecar in Thailand’s predominantly Malay Muslim far south, where a shadowy separatist insurgency has killed almost 7,000 people since 2004.
Abhisit was among candidates from various parties who talked about how they would approach the challenge of ending the conflict in the heavily militarized region, while campaigning in the Deep South earlier this month ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for March 24.
“We don’t see that the problems can be solved militarily,” Abhisit, 54, told a rally in Pattani, one of the provinces in the region, on March 3.
If his party won the general election, Abhisit promised, he would support peace talks with insurgents operating in the Deep South.
“We need to move forward with the talks with a clear direction,” said the leader of the Democrat Party – Thailand’s oldest party – as he called for decentralization of power away from Bangkok, saying this would be in line with the wishes of locals in the multicultural far south.
Abhisit was not alone among high-profile candidates who talked about “decentralization” as a solution for peace, while they were out and about campaigning in the southern border region. Eleven parliamentary seats representing the region will be up for grabs when up to 1.3 million voters in the Deep South head to polls later this month, according to the election commission.
Even Thailand’s military government, which has been pursuing Malaysia-brokered peace talks with the southern rebel groups since 2015, said lately that it was open to exploring the D-word, an idea it had resisted in the past.
In early January, Udomchai Thammasarorat, Thailand’s new chief negotiator in peace talks, announced that his side was “studying” the concept of decentralization on advice from Mahathir Mohamad, the new prime minister of neighboring Malaysia.
After he toppled Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in May 2014, junta leader Prayuth Chan-o-cha adopted several measures against the separatist insurgency, including deploying 60,000 troops and thousands of paramilitary ranger units to the Deep South, according to the International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR), a think-tank based in Singapore.
Prayuth complemented the troop deployments with the enforcement of an emergency decree and the Internal Security Act in the conflict areas, providing security forces with the option of detaining suspected insurgents for seven days at any location or 30 days with a court-issued warrant, ICPVTR said in a report.
In 2015, the junta launched a new effort at engaging in Malaysia-facilitated talks with the southern rebels. Since then, the military government has been dealing at the table with MARA Patani, a panel representing insurgent groups and factions in the peace process.
But nearly four years on, the talks have yielded no breakthroughs and hardcore leaders of Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) – the largest and most powerful of the southern rebel groups – have stayed out of the talks while carrying on with the insurgency.
A local man and former BRN “operative” in Deep South, who identified himself only as “Abdullah” in a recent interview, said the insurgents had urged their sympathizers in the region to vote for pro-democratic parties in the March 24 polls.
He did not name the political parties.
“They want to make sure pro-military parties won’t make it,” he told BenarNews, referring to the insurgents.
On Monday, Thai government officials blamed southern insurgents for a series of bomb blasts that struck in the Deep South and two provinces farther north over the weekend. No one was injured, but at least five suspects were arrested in connection with the blasts, police said.
It is rare for insurgents to set off bombs outside the confines of the Deep South.
“We defended [the Deep South] well, so they moved up to Pattalung and Satun [provinces] because they cannot mount attacks in the Deep South,” Prawit Wongsuwan, the deputy prime minister and defense minister, told reporters Monday.
“We arrested a handful of suspects ... [the attacks] are very unlikely related to politics,” he said, referring to the upcoming polls.
The Deep South, an impoverished region where martial law is in place, is overseen by Bangkok’s central government through an entity called the Southern Border Provinces Administration (SBPAC).
Prayuth, the incumbent prime minister, leads the Palang Pracharat Party. However, he is not expected to campaign in the Deep South after the party called off its plan to have the former army chief take the stage during rallies across the country, The Nation, a leading Thai daily newspaper, reported last week.
Promising to solve ‘social disparities’
Among other candidates who hit the campaign trail in the Deep South earlier in March was Thawee Sodsong, secretary-general of the recently launched Prachachart Party. The party is unique to the region. Its executive body is largely represented by members of the Deep South’s Muslim majority.
Thawee is a former head of SBPAC, who was removed from office following the coup that toppled Yingluck.
“We will return justice to the people and solve the problem of social disparities,” Thawee told a rally, as the audience of about 3,000 roared in approval. “Prachachart wants to return rights and power to the people!”
“In the past, Thailand tried to solve its problems with two parties – the security forces and dissidents,” said Thawee, a retired police colonel, referring to rebels as “dissidents.”
“But each time violence occurred, the victims are women, children and innocents, so we need multiple parties to get involved,” he added
‘There must be decentralization’
The day before Thawee campaigned in the region, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, scion of an auto-parts company and founder of the Future Forward Party, also rallied his supporters in Pattani province.
“Economic disparity must be solved,” Thanathorn, a 40-year-old who is also a prime ministerial hopeful, told reporters, as dozens of giggling teens wearing hijab used their smartphones to take photos of him.
“There must be decentralization, empowering locals so that they can handle their own matters,” he said.
Sobri Salae, a Pattani resident, said he hoped to vote for a candidate who could become a competent prime minister. He did not name his pick.
“I won’t elect any liar,” he told BenarNews. “I will vote for the competent one who can bring about prosperity and peace.”