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Deep South Watch

The shooting at the Al-Furquan mosque in Narathiwat's Joi Airong district on June 8, 2009 was another startling incident to rock the southern border provinces of Thailand. Since the beginning of June, there has been a considerable increase in violent incidents across the region. Several teachers have been killed, and there have been many other coordinated attacks, including a car bomb detonated in the center of Yi Ngo town in Narathiwat province. The spike in violence has recaptured the attention of the media and national-level policy makers. Both had largely been distracted from the deteriorating situation in the south by the on-going political turmoil in Bangkok.

The recent upsurge of violence has demonstrated that the enhancement of security forces in the region has clearly not mitigated the problem of unrest. In spite of some government claims that the situation had been improving, a rise in violent incidents this year - most particularly since the beginning of June -- suggest otherwise.

The obstacles that Thai authorities confront in dealing with the situation are reflected in villagers' reaction to the Al-Furquan mosque attack. Many immediately questioned the cause of this tragic incident.

Najmuddin Umar, a member of parliament with the Pheua Thai party, has also questioned the reason behind this incident. Najmuddin elaborated on this incident as well as why there has been a marked escalation of violence in June.

Even though he admitted that several incidents, including incidents in Yala and even the car bombing in Narathiwat, had been the work of insurgent groups, the people responsible for the Al-Furquan mosque incident is not known.

"The officials must provide answers to villagers"- Najmuddin Umar, politician from Narathiwat

For Najamuddin, this tragic incident seems to be strikingly similar to another incident that took place in Yala a few years ago when there was a case of violent retaliation and the authorities were unable to come up with a clear explanation for who was responsible for the attack.

He also said that while people in the region would like to see the perpetrators of the mosque attack brought to justice, they also want the government to concentrate on resolving the conflict through political means. Najamuddin has thus not only called on the government to discover the truth behind the mosque incident, but he has also suggested that the government introduce a new administrative apparatus for the region at the next parliamentary meetings. According to him, this could mitigate the problem of unrest.

Najamuddin's suggestion is an important one. Even though more should be learned about the feelings of locals, who must deal with this messy conflict on a daily basis, the recent escalation of violence clearly indicates that the conflict has not been solved by military means. The government must take the initiative to improve it, and the introduction of a new form of special administration for the region may be an important step in this direction.

Professor Srisompob Jitpiromsri, Director of the Prince of Songkla University's recently established Center for the Study of Conflict and Cultural Diversity (CSCC), gave further insight into the recent escalation of violent incidents. Srisompob said that analysis of the frequency and intensity of incidents over the course of 2009 indicates that violence has definitely spiked upward. Moreover, although the number of incidents is not as high as the first few years of the violence, Srisompob noted that violence continues on in a similar manner.

Srisompob observed that prior to March of 2009, the number of violent incidents was lower than 100 per month. Since March, however, incidents have jumped to more than 100 per month. The statistics also show that June has been the most violent month for each year of this current wave of conflict that began in 2004.

Srisompob claimed that there are probably several proximate factors that have impacted the recent escalation of violent incidents. One may be the feelings of many people in the region. More specifically, Srisompob said that in the CSCC's recent public opinion survey that assessed people's opinions toward government authorities, most people had negative views toward those authorities responsible for security in the region. Because security authorities are generally not trusted by locals, it is possible that recent incidents have resulted from security forces' inappropriate actions and abuse of power under the Emergency Decree and martial law.

To a certain degree, these attitudes toward security authorities are unavoidable because authorities, especially soldiers, are required to patrol and enter areas that many others, such as civil servants, do not have to visit. In fact, civil servants now have a significantly reduced role in the region because of the violence and because they fear being targeted by armed groups.

"Although soldiers are trying to reach out and serve the public, in some areas the public does not trust the authorities very much. The people who work for these agencies need to improve their performance."

In addition to analyzing the CSCC's survey research to understand the current situation, the context of the conflict between the two sides is another important point that can shed light. Srisompob said that it is possible that the recent deterioration of the situation is the result of the recent court ruling in the Tak Bai case. The rise in violence came immediately following the Songkhla Provincial Court's decision that cleared Thai security forces of any wrong doing in their handling of the October 2004 incident that left 85 dead. Srisompob said that local people expected, or at least hoped for, a different outcome. Since many locals hold grievances toward authorities for a lack of justice and for human rights abuses, many were very disappointed that no officials or members of Thailand's security forces were held accountable for this tragic incident. According to Srisompob, this court decision may have created the conditions for armed group's violent retaliation.

Not only has this internal, domestic factor influenced the intensification of violence in June, but Srisompob also links important external events such as the recent OIC meetings in Syria in late May. The Thai government was successful in convincing the OIC to postpone considering the case of the situation in southern Thailand. This may have led the armed groups to respond by increasing violent activities and intensifying the conflict in an effort to both humiliate the Thai government and to raise the issue to the international level. Even though the OIC has generally expressed strong concern for the situation, most especially in terms of the state security forces' violation of human rights, the government has improved its standing with the Muslim organization in terms of its handling of the situation in the south.

"I think they will not stop violent attacks. By perpetuating and raising the levels of violence they hope to generate more interest in the region and create the conditions for a negotiation." - Srisompob Jitpiromsri

As a result, Srisompob surmised that when the trends and factors of the recent rise in violent incidents are considered, it seems possible that the armed groups have stepped up violent attacks in recent months to communicate to the OIC that the situation is still a major problem.

Besides the direct message that the armed groups have seemingly been sending to Muslim countries, Srisompob noted that the violence may also be a message for Malaysian authorities. He said that the perpetuation of violence may lead towards Malaysia's role as mediator between Thai authorities and the armed groups.

Finally, Srisompob suggested that the armed groups may be producing more violent incidents in order to lure the Thai government into employing heavy-handed military tactics. The opposition leaders may believe that if the government's security forces increasingly violate human rights, they can use this as leverage in acquiring greater political authority if international organizations such as the OIC intervene and encourage the government to negotiate. However, because the government has been reluctant to rely on an iron fist approach, the armed groups have had trouble working this particular angle. Both the armed groups and the government realize that if the government does not resort to using violence, more people from the region will cooperate with the authorities.

Additionally, even though there have been numerous flaws in Thai governments' actions in the region, government figures have increasingly come to realize that this has contributed to a poor image for the government. As a result, Srisompob said the government has begun to adjust its strategy in resolving the conflict.

But the military, which has been the key institution responsible for managing the problems in the region, still has several weak points, he added. The incidence of security forces' human rights violations has heighted locals' animosity towards them. Meanwhile, the military's unwillingness to accept any responsibility for its role in contributing to the situation tends exacerbates it. The outcome of the Tak Bai case shows that the military can still operate with immunity from the law.

The recent trends in violence in the far south may be a warning to society and government policymakers that the situation in the south must be addressed. But will policymakers reconsider whether the same old policies and strategies benefit all members of society?