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Who is perpetrating the violence?

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  • CHAN Beng Seng
    Who is perpetrating the violence? There is no other conflict in Southeast Asia with such an ambiguous understanding of who is causing the violence and for what
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 13, 2006
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      Who is perpetrating the violence?

      There is no other conflict in Southeast Asia with such an ambiguous understanding of who is causing the violence and for what reasons _ and that fact is a major detriment to resolving the crisis

      By MATTHEW B ARNOLD

      Insurgents, militants, Malay separatists, Islamic terrorists, bandits, drug addicts, rogue politicians and criminals are all names that, amongst still others, have been given at various times to the perpetrators of violence in Thailand's southernmost provinces. The violence in the South has most often been generically described as being committed by ''insurgent groups'', with a general sentiment that they are ethno-nationalist, separatist ones and that there is a dash of Islamic fundamentalism involved.

      Even though there are some proclaimed insurgent groups _ such as the Pattani United Liberation Organisation (Pulo), Barisan Revolusi Nasional Coordinate and the Gerakan Mujiheddin Islami Pattani _ none of them have claimed responsibility for any post-2004 violence, and it is largely unknown how involved they actually are in the violence.

      Much of the present discourse on the violence in the South has focused on the government's policy responses to it, with no consistent, deep understanding of who is actually perpetrating it. Without really knowing the identities and motivations of the perpetrators, it is hard to prescribe appropriate responses.

      Whatever his other faults, ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra's biggest mistake in the South was his inconsistency in responding to the violence. This was provoked by his thoroughly inconsistent framing of the situation.

      Mr Thaksin initially branded the violence as being undertaken by criminals and corrupt government officials, and hence defined it as a ''crime problem'', something he could understand as a former policeman.

      However, his understanding later morphed into seeing the violence as being committed by ''professional'' separatist insurgents using a Cold War-era lens. This provoked his emphasis on ''red zones'' and on an entrenched militarised response centred on controlling territory.

      Mr Thaksin's opponents have conversely commonly argued that the escalation of violence directly correlated with his militarised approach, the government's systematic abuses of human rights in the South, and an overarching lack of justice there.

      With Mr Thaksin's political exile, there is an attempt to return to the policies of the 1980s and 1990s, which were based much more on dialogue and compromise, than force.

      Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont has sought to achieve reconciliation and increase dialogue. This effort has entailed, for instance, public apologies, dropping charges against Tak Bai arrestees, the re-constitution of the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Centre (SBPAC), and a very explicit public campaign to reach out to the Malay-Muslim community.

      Underlying General Surayud's policies is an assumption that there is a connection between the repression and alienation of the southern Malay-Muslim community, notably under the Thaksin government, and the increase in violence since 2004. Given this, Gen Surayud's policies presuppose that if the government reaches out to the broader Malay-Muslim community, the violence will subside.

      However, given that the identities and motivations of the present perpetrators of violence are largely unknown, it is somewhat unconvincing to claim that mitigating the wider Malay-Muslim community's sense of frustration with the government will easily translate into a decrease in violence.

      It is not really known if the perpetrators are building a general resentment of the Thai state, and specifically of the Thaksin government, or are more autonomous, dedicated militants who aren't actually reliant on, or perpetuated by, public anger against the government.

      Furthermore, it is difficult to assume that a return to a dialogue and reconciliation-based approach used in earlier decades will end the violence, since it is not known if the perpetrators are actually the same groups, or whether they at least share the same motivations other than a loose inclination towards separatism.

      Gen Surayud's present response is worthy in itself. Even if there were no southern violence, it would be necessary to ensure that no community in Thailand feels like it doesn't belong there and suffers from marginalisation.

      Such progressive policies should be justified not as ''counter-insurgency'' strategies, but rather as essential for basic governance in an equitable, fair-minded state, which Thailand intends to be.

      The Malay-Muslim community undoubtedly disliked the heavy-handedness of the Thaksin government; who wouldn't? It didn't necessarily mean that the community was broadly willing to support violence because of it.

      Overall, it should not be so quickly assumed that reaching out to the southern Malay-Muslim community will in itself end the violence _until the perpetrators of the southern violence, and their motivations, are better known.

      In fact, there are several reasons to believe that there actually isn't much broad support for militant violence within the Malay-Muslim community and hence for doubting that a dialogue and reconciliation-based approach will work to end the violence.

      Firstly is that, indeed, despite the dialogue and reconciliation approach of the Surayud government, the violence isn't decreasing and may, in fact, actually be increasing.

      Secondly, most of the violence in the South is in reality against Muslims.

      According to research done by Prince of Songkhla University, starting in the first half of 2005 more Muslims began to be killed by the political violence of southern militants than were Buddhists.

      This gives reason to believe that much of the violence is being undertaken by what are most likely small, disparate cells of autonomous militants, using tactics of small-scale bombings and motorcycle shootings.

      Furthermore, it is notable that their anger, as shown through ''Muslim-on-Muslim'' violence, is as much directed against what the militants perceive as a wayward, uncooperative Malay-Muslim community as it is against the ''Siamist'' Thai government. This could mean that the original separatist motivations that defined the conflict for so long have been supplemented, or even supplanted, by other desires, such as to inculcate and entrench a stricter interpretation of Islam on the southern Malay-Muslim community.

      In any case, that, as with much of the present discourse on the southern violence, is largely just conjecture. Ultimately, too much of the debate on the South has attempted to analyse the policy responses to the violence there _ mostly the alleged failures of Mr Thaksin _ without really identifying who is actually perpetrating the violence.

      This has left the discussion hindered because it has had no logical starting point for proceeding to worthwhile policy conclusions. How can one know if the government is responding appropriately or not, if nobody really knows who they are responding to?

      Undoubtedly, it is hard to know who exactly is behind the violence since nobody ever claims responsibility. Yet, it is impossible to really design or debate policy response if nobody has a coherent, consistent understanding of who is actually perpetrating the violence. Coming to such awareness is imperative to resolving the violence in the South.

      The writer is a visiting Fellow at Chulalongkorn University.
      Bangkok Post 14 Dec.2006

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