Another surge of violence in Thailand’s south since Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra won his second term on February 6 augurs ill for the region’s future. On February 10 a bomb attempt on Governor Pracha Tehrat and senior army and police officers attending a military parade in Narathiwat came a day after the PM vowed to maintain his tough policy against the escalating Muslim separatist rebellion. Four days later Thai daily The Nation was reporting a chain of bomb attacks peaking in anticipation of the PM’s fact-finding mission to the troubled provinces, which then had to be cut short. One attack targeted a security patrol guarding teachers at a school at Narathiwat’s Joh Airong district; a second bomb 15 minutes later was aimed at security forces arriving to examine the incident. This was followed on February 16 by blasts outside a university in Yala province and near a bank in Narathiwat’s Ra Ngae district. The most serious attack occurred a day later at a hotel in Sungai Kolok, also in Narathiwat province, which caused four fatalities and left up to 40 wounded (www.nationmultimedia.com).
The attacks underline in graphic terms the political disaffection of Thailand’s south that was illustrated by the results of the February 6 election. Although Shinawatra won a landslide victory as a whole, his Thai Rak Thai party failed to secure a single seat in the predominantly Muslim provinces of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat. Suffering economic and political marginalization, the region’s Muslim population is wrestling with growing Islamist radicalization — which since January 2004 has taken a violent turn — coupled with a heavy-fisted military response, which is serving to further deepen resentment.
Islamic community leaders have advised against beefing up the military response, since it will not win Bangkok many friends. However, there does not appear to be any political will to change the approach. Prime Minister Shinawatra continues to see the political rout as a matter of inefficient electioneering and insisted to reporters “we are on the right track…one day people will understand us.” This was followed by statements reported on February 17 by The Nation that government funding would be withdrawn from villages suspected of harboring rebels, brushed off as ‘political revenge’ by local Muslim activists (www.nationmultimedia.com). Meanwhile Cabinet approval has been secured for a new 12,000-strong army regiment — and a huge budget to fund it — to be sent to the south. With the unprecedented electoral victory nationally of the ruling Thai Rak Thai party, the prospects of a more nuanced direction of security policies in the south do not look good. The danger persists that a local insurgency may take on more regional dimensions.