There were no reports of insurgency-related violence and voter turnout was heavy as up to 1.3 million voters in Thailand’s Deep South cast ballots in Sunday’s general election – and notably for a party with strong local roots – officials said.
The Prachachart Party, a pan-Muslim party based in the border region near Malaysia, won six out of 13 parliamentary seats representing Pattani, Narathiwat, and Yala provinces as well as two districts in neighboring Songkhla province, according to unofficial Election Commission counts of votes.
The Democrat Party, Thailand’s oldest party that dominated the Deep South in the 2011 general election, won only two seats in Sunday’s electoral contest in the heavily militarized region, officials said.
Prachachart’s leader, Wan Muhamad Noor Matha, the first Thai Muslim to serve in parliament and lead the Wadah Group, a coalition of southern Muslim politicians, was running as Prachachart’s prime ministerial candidate in the election.
“I believe I could win 20 seats in this election with the Prachachart Party. Pro-democracy parties nationwide will win and form a coalition,” the 74-year-old party leader, who is better known as “Wan Noor,” told Benar News before casting his ballot at a polling site in his home province of Yala.
Prachachart, a newly formed party, campaigned on a platform of promoting peaceful religious coexistence between Muslims and Thai Buddhists, cracking down on drugs and finding solutions to 15 years of insurgent violence. Nearly 7,000 people have been killed in the Deep South since the decades-old rebellion flared up again in 2004.
Roadside bombings and other attacks by ethnic Malay armed separatists are a frequent occurrence in Thailand’s mainly Islamic far south but, for a day at least, things were relatively peaceful on Sunday.
“The situation is good and I urge people to come out, as many as you can,” Pattani Gov. Kraisorn Wisitwong told reporters as he cast his ballot.
Sukifli Ayosae, the deputy village headman in Yala’s Yaha district, was among Wan Noor’s supporters.
“The leader is a native. He can pray and go for the Hajj [pilgrimage] like us, and he understands our trouble,” Sukifli told Benar. “Other persons in the party also have experience in the Deep South. They know what problems people are facing and how to solve them.”
Thawee Sodsong, a retired police colonel who serves as secretary-general of Prachachart, said his party believed in engaging with local people to find solutions to the conflict.
“When violence occurs, the victims are women, children and innocents, so we need multiple parties to get involved,” Thawee said.
Involving people and giving them a voice in helping to solve the violence is important, given that martial law is in force throughout the Deep South and allows the military to arrest and hold suspects without charge, he suggested.
“I think it is hard to change laws that quick but we can stop allowing military to solely use [martial] law… [P]eople should have involvement in the case of the military’s detention of suspects,” Thawee added.
Sunday’s vote took place against the backdrop of Malaysia-brokered peace talks between the Thai military government and MARA Patani, a panel representing various southern rebel groups and factions in the negotiations. The talks have lasted nearly four years but led to no breakthrough.
Before politicians swung through the Deep South while on the campaign trail earlier this month, a local man and former BRN “operative” in the region, who identified himself only as “Abdullah” in a recent interview, said the insurgents had urged their sympathizers to vote for pro-democratic parties in the March 24 polls.
BRN, or Barisan Revolusi Nasional (the National Revolutionary Front), is the largest and most heavily armed of the insurgent groups in the Thai far south.
“They want to make sure pro-military parties won’t make it,” Abdullah told BenarNews, referring to the insurgents.