It’s time Thailand focused on the south, not on Cambodia

It’s time Thailand focused on the south, not on Cambodia

ON Friday, skirmishes again broke out between Cambodian and Thai military forces along the disputed border near Preah Vihear.

Both sides claim the other started shooting first.

Nothing new there, except that it is all getting very tiresome and in some ways rather puzzling, especially from the Thai side.

Because it comes at a time when Thailand has a far bloodier border conflict raging in its three southern Malay-Muslim provinces of Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala, and in parts of Songkhla.

On Friday, the same day as the Preah Vihear clash, a big bomb exploded in the Raman district of Yala, killing a Thai soldier and injuring two others.

The men were patrolling a road to ensure the safety of teachers working at a nearby school. As usual, Malay-Muslim separatists were blamed.

The day before, gunmen killed five and wounded four others at a village in Pattani. Officials then offered a reward of about US$1,600 for information about the rebels.

As invariably happens, no one came forward because sympathy for the insurgents is high.

Most of the region’s 2 million Malay Muslims – ethnically, religiously and linguistically different from the majority Thais – refuse to be assimilated into the largely-Buddhist nation.

Their animosity has festered since the 1902 annexation by Thailand (then called Siam) of the then Islamic and Malay-speaking Kingdom of Pattani.

The ongoing violence is gruesome. Last Thursday, another man was killed in Pattani when he was hit on the head and had his throat slit.

A day earlier, a family of four were shot dead in Yala – the husband and wife, and their 16-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son.

Last month, in one of the boldest attacks yet, insurgents raided an army base, killed six soldiers and stole a pile of weapons.

There seems no end in sight. Already, more than 4,300 people have been killed since 2004 – a casualty-rate seven times higher than during the Troubles in Northern Ireland (a place of similar size and population).

Thailand’s Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva says that his government is promoting development by offering promotional privileges to investment projects in the region.

But it seems a non-starter. Industry, agriculture and tourism in the deep south are moribund, if not dead.

No one appears to have any idea what to do. There is no dialogue process.

Instead, as an election looms, attention is distracted by making a lot of fuss over 4.6 square kilometres of disputed land on the Cambodian border.

The tactic has already backfired and caused acrimony between Abhisit and the Thai military.

After Cambodia agreed to remove two stone tablets claiming ownership of the area, Abhisit – seeking to bolster his strong man image – also demanded the removal of all national flags.

However, his Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwon said the flag issue was trivial, adding that “Cambodia has already agreed to destroy the tablets, what else does he want from them?”

An army source quoted by the Bangkok Post said:  “[Abhisit] seems to want to ease political pressure [at home] while building up his image to look stronger than Hun Sen.”

But as the Thai commander in the region bordering Cambodia, Lt Gen Thawatchai Samutsakhon, said: “Cambodia is not a ‘child’ that we can order to do whatever we want.”

Espousing a similar note of sanity, Atiya Achakulwisut, the Bangkok Post deputy editor, wrote that while the People’s Alliance for Democracy, or Yellow Shirts, blathers on about Preah Vihear, it never mentions the insurgency in the south.

Yet that involves a much larger piece of Thailand – three whole provinces, in fact.

While even the most cursory skirmish with Cambodia gets front page headlines, no one seems to care about the carnage in the south.

As the International Crisis Group noted: “The shameful fact is that Thais, numbed by the repeated atrocities and in any case unsympathetic towards the grievances of Malay Muslims in the south, have lost interest.”

The bloody insurgency in Thailand’s south has become a forgotten war.

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