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No democratic hope for south Thailand

Asia Times - July 22, 2011

Jason Johnson, Pattani Thailand's Puea Thai Party won this month's general election in a landslide, pummeling the incumbent Democrat Party. But in the insurgent-torn far south, local Malay Muslim politicians who had campaigned for some form of elected regional governance lost to Democrat Party candidates who remain opposed to any regional autonomy initiatives to resolve the armed conflict.

In the lead-up to the widely anticipated July 3 general election, several parties touted political reforms on the campaign trail in the southernmost provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat. Puea Thai, the party that captured a majority of the national vote, and smaller parties such as Matubhum, Prachatam and Taen Khun Paendin, all conveyed to Malay Muslim voters that they would work to ensure Bangkok grants political concessions to the region.

On the other hand, the incumbent Democrats, the party believed to be favored by the monarchy, its Privy Council and the military's top brass, did not share this political vision. Rather, the party headed by outgoing prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva suggested that it would seek to improve the region's Southern Border Provinces Administrative Center (SBPAC), whose head has always been a Thai Buddhist bureaucrat appointed by Bangkok.

To the disappointment of Malay Muslim advocates of some form of elected regional governance, the Democrat Party captured nine out of the provinces' 11 constituency seats and some 55% of the region's party list votes. In other words, voters from this historically restive region where the population is approximately 80% Muslim in effect stood by the status-quo of political power arrangements between Thailand's center and its peripheral far south.

Since early 2004, the Malay Muslim region of Thailand's far south has been embroiled in violence. Though a large part of it has little or no ideological basis, there is a violent ethno-religious nationalist movement aiming for outright independence or at least some form of autonomy from Thailand.

Certain Malay Muslim politicians and nationalist activists have called on successive Thai governments to introduce some new form of special regional governance. They have argued that this could quell insurgent-instigated violence as well as the political and cultural grievances that insurgents share with other Malay Muslims in this region that was formally incorporated into Siam, present-day Thailand, in 1909.

For some Thais who oppose granting political concessions to the ethnic minority region, the election results signaled that Malay Muslim voters do not want any kind of special administrative organization. That was the opinion of some figures from Thailand's army, which has some 30,000 troops based in the region to combat Malay Muslim insurgents.

Political promises

Had voters shared the nationalist ambitions of some politicians and activists, they would have thrown their support in with Puea Thai, claimed one prominent Thai Buddhist politician opposed to autonomy-granting reforms.

Puea Thai is the most recent incarnation of the Thai Rak Thai, a party formed by former premier Thaksin Shinawatra that won elections in 2001 and 2005. Insurgent violence in the far south dramatically escalated under Thaksin's watch in 2004. During those early years of this now seven and a half year stretch of violence, the businessman-cum-politician showed no interest in decentralizing political power to the far south.

However, his current political proxy and prime minister-in-waiting sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, has stated that Puea Thai will seek to establish a special administrative organization in the far south. The party could turn to former premier and army commander General Chavalit Yongchaiyudh to play a senior advisory role on far south matters.

The 79-year-old Chavalit has long maintained close ties to many Malay Muslim political elites and earlier this year he unveiled a model of reformed governance for the region he referred to as "Nakorn Pattani", which has recently been renamed "Mahanakorn Pattani". Chavalit had served as Puea Thai's chief advisor until he abruptly stepped down in April due to the anti-monarchy sentiments of certain Thaksin allies in the United Front of Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) protest group.

Meanwhile, many Thaksin critics question whether Puea Thai will follow through on its pledge to offer locals more power in the Malay Muslim region. Many doubt that the new government will be able to uphold other policy promises such as a wage-hike, free tablet computers for students, and a guaranteed minimum salary of 15,000 baht (US$500) per month for university graduates.

As premier from 2001-2006, Thaksin showed more interest in concentrating state power than in decentralizing it. His application of heavy-handed tactics in the far south, including the massacres at Krue Se mosque and Tak Bai, gave little indication Thaksin was interested in a political solution to the unrest while he was in power.

From self-exile in Dubai, Thaksin recently reflected that his "iron-fist" approach in handling the far south was a mistake. That strategy certainly did not win him many Malay Muslim friends, but there are still some in the region who admire him for rocking the foundations of Thailand's traditional elite, including the monarchy and Democrat Party. Some even believe a government led by his sister may devolve significant power from the center to the periphery.

Yet in the three violence-struck provinces of the far south, Puea Thai failed abysmally at the polls. The party, which maintains its strongholds in the Thailand's northern and northeastern regions, was unable to garner even a single constituency seat and received only about 12% of the Deep South's party list voters. The party fielded many inexperienced politicians and, according to several sources, did not deliver much patronage down to its local candidates and canvassers.

Family splits

In general, Malay Muslim parliamentary candidates who openly supported political reforms came up short at the ballot box. The only Puea Thai incumbent, Sukarno Matha, lost in a very close race in Yala's constituency 2. Sukarno is the younger brother of Wan Muhammad Nor Matha, popularly known as "Wan Nor," a former interior minister under Thaksin and former head of the once-powerful faction of Malay Muslim politicians called Wadah. Like many other former Thai Rak Thai politicians, Wan Nor is banned from holding political office until 2012.

Sukarno may hail from a powerful political family, but one of his key associates, Mahamah-amin Munah, defected for the Matubhum Party and competed against him. Had the two remained united, Matha surely would have retained his seat, as he lost narrowly to Democrat candidate Abdulkarim Dengrakeena.

While the Matha family may remain loyal to Thaksin-aligned parties, other former Wadah elites have defected to Matubhum in recent years. This includes Ariphen Utarasint, Natjmuddin Umar, Muk Sulaiman, Paisal Yingsamarn, Jeh Isma-ae Jehmong, and even Den Tohmeena, Wadah's founder and the son of nationalist leader Haji Sulong Tohmeena, who was allegedly killed by Thai police in 1954.

Fronted by former army commander General Sonthi Boonyaratklin, a Muslim who staged the coup that overthrew Thaksin in 2006, Matubhum publicly supported the introduction of some kind of new regional governance during the election campaign. Yet not one of the former Wadah elites won a constituency or party list seat.

Matubhum's only successful candidate in the far south was Anumat Susaroh, who narrowly defeated incumbent Nimukta Waba from Bhum Jai Tai in Pattani's constituency 3. However, Anumant, a former mayor of a sub district administrative organization, is more known for his "dark influence" than for promoting political reforms, according to sources.

Prominent parliamentarian Waemahadee Waedao, commonly known as Mor Wae, also failed at the ballot box. Rather than join Matubhum or Puea Thai, the former Thai Rak Thai and later Puea Paen Din politician created his own party, Taen Khun Paendin. Despite his steady calls for political reforms, the politician who was once accused of being linked to the Indonesia-based terrorist organization Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) only won about 4% of the region's party list votes.

Lack of unity

A common thread among the former Malay Muslim political elite is a lack of unity.

As pointed out in an article in the Thai daily Matichon by Daungyewa Utarasint, a researcher from the Prince of Songkla University's Deep South Watch, a think-tank based in Pattani, divisions within Wadah and among other Malay Muslim politicians provided the Democrats with an opportunity to capture the region's constituency seats. If there had been a unified Malay Muslim political party, political reform advocates would have been more successful in the election, she claimed.

To be sure, Malay Muslim voters have grown weary of the Wadah elite in recent years for being more concerned about their own material success rather than their constituents' grass roots interests. Still, The Democrats' success may also stem in small part from Malay Muslim cynicism towards the prospect of reforms.

Some suspected that Puea Thai was not sincere in its campaign promise; many more believe that powerful figures at the national level would never allow for the establishment of a model of governance such as Mahanakorn Pattani, which would likely entail the dissolution of the SBPAC and establish an elected governor for the region.

Besides these doubts, Malay Muslim support for the Democrats may also reflect relative priorities. The Malay Muslim region is one of Thailand's poorest and according to numerous sources material incentives played a strong role in winning voters' support in this election. In one constituency with a known dearth of Democrat support, some voters were rumored to have received 2,000 baht to vote for the party. (Asia Times Online could not independently confirm the claims.)

But with the Democrat Party democratically defeating Malay Muslim politicians who promoted political change, the power to press the new Puea Thai government to follow through on its promise to establish a special administrative organization may now lie in the hands of civil society.

That was the opinion of several local academics and activists, including Deep South Watch's Utarasint. "The steps toward a special administrative organization have been hit with a setback with the election results in the region," she said in an interview "Now, Malay Muslim politicians may not be the main actors pushing for reformed governance. However, civil society will continue to work on this sensitive matter." Malay Muslim political figures may also need to rethink their reform priorities. Over the past decade in Thailand, Thaksin-led parties have clearly shown that they can consistently garner widespread support in the populous north and the northeast while the Democrats have held sway in Bangkok and most of the south. But in the restive far south, there is still no single party that has consistently mobilized a mass base of popular support.

[Jason Johnson is an independent researcher and consultant covering southernmost Thailand. He is currently based in Pattani province, southern Thailand, and may be reached at jrj.johnson@gmail.com.]

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