Muslim women display a banner saying "Stop violence, end conflict by peaceful means" during an anti-violence rally attended by Muslim and Buddhist residents in Thailand's southern Narathiwat province, January 22, 2019. Photo: AFP

For over a decade, Thailand has been gripped by two main struggles: a national-level conflict pitting pro-democracy versus pro-military establishment groups, and a bloodier separatist battle in the kingdom’s ethnic Malay Muslim Deep South, where over 7,000 have been killed since 2004.

Malay Muslim insurgents use of violence, including bombings, shootings and killings of ethnic Thai Buddhists, has made a shared sense of injustice between the military’s national-level and minority region opponents elusive.

But that might be changing. A unified national-local opposition on issues in the restive region could have major political implications for ex-coup-maker and now elected Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha’s coalition government.

The Deep South is comprised of the three southernmost provinces of Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala, and four districts of neighboring Songkhla, where Malay Muslim separatists have been fighting on-and-off against the Bangkok-centric Thai state for decades.

Two recent events have placed ethnic Thais at the forefront of calls for justice in the Malay-majority region, where the military stands widely accused of arbitrary detentions, abuse of suspects and enforced disappearances.

On October 3, in a dramatic episode that captured national headlines, a Thai judge shot himself in the chest in a courtroom in Yala province, in an apparent protest against the judicial system’s inherent political biases against ethnic Malay insurgent suspects.

Thai Future Forward Party leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit (C) greets Thai Muslim market vendors during a visit to the southern province of Narathiwat, September 13, 2019. Photo: AFP/Madaree Tohala

Earlier that day, the south’s regional army lodged a sedition complaint against a group of academics and opposition politicians, including Future Forward Party leader Thanatorn Juangroongruangkit, Peua Thai Party leader Sompong Amornwiwat and Prachachat Party leader Wan Muhamad Noor Matha, an ethnic Malay better known as “Wan Nor.”

The army claimed the military critics were trying to stir unrest at a public forum in the region’s Pattani province by suggesting amendments to the national constitution. Sedition convictions carry possible seven-year penalties under Thai law.

One of those charged, Chalita Banthuwong from Bangkok’s Kasesart University, suggested amending the constitution’s Article 1, which stipulates that the Thai kingdom is “indivisible”, as a path to conflict resolution.

Ultra-conservative nationalists have long feared that decentralization – and particularly full-blown autonomy – could lead to the country’s disintegration or even the establishment of a republican state, anathema to the conservative royalist elite.

In a national referendum on the military-backed constitution in August 2016, Malay Muslim voters overwhelmingly rejected the retrograde charter, which formalizes a role for the military in politics, including through an appointed Senate.

The charter also includes provisions, Articles 67 and 70, that give priority to Theravada Buddhism, seen by some as a step back for religious freedoms.

Calls for reformed governance in the predominantly Muslim-speaking region are not new. Even under Prayut’s coup-installed government, his chief negotiator with separatists suggested that a special administrative zone or decentralization measures had been considered.

A Thai soldier outside the Rattanaupap temple in Narathiwat province following an attack by black-clad gunmen that killed two Buddhist monks on January 19, 2019. Photo: AFP/Madaree Tohlala

From the liberal royalist Prawase Wasi to former army commander-cum-prime minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, who brought Wan Nor and the Malay Muslim Wadah political faction into politics in the late 1980s, political players of all stripes have suggested a range of Deep South autonomy models over the years.

When the military seized power in 2014, suspending democracy and civil liberties in the process, regional governance reform calls were put on a back-burner by civil society groups. Many activists tempered their criticism as the junta government clamped down hard on dissent.

So when Yala court judge Khanakorn Pianchana shot himself after dismissing a case against five Malay Muslim separatist suspects accused of murder, social media was ablaze with messages of support for his near act of martyrdom. (He survived his gunshot injury.)

In a written statement, Khanakorn claimed that senior judges had pressured him to rule for a death sentence for the suspects, despite a lack of evidence of their guilt. Asia Times could not independently confirm the judge’s claims.

Khanakorn’s statement also alleged that outside intervention and political bias in court proceedings was not confined to the Deep South and is prevalent across the country. Thailand, like other countries, maintains strict contempt of court laws barring criticism of judges and rulings.

The judge also took aim at controversial security laws in the violence-ridden region, including an emergency decree in place since 2005 that rights groups have long claimed violates basic human rights.

Thai judge Khanakorn Pianich in a file photo. Photo: Twitter

Khanakorn in effect gave credence to those claims by noting that because information from the defendants was obtained while the decree is in place, the evidence should not be admissible in court. The judge videotaped his impassioned verdict and concluded by saying “Return verdicts to judges. Return justice to the people.”

Pro-government supporters immediately suspected that Khanakorn, a native of the northern province of Chiang Mai, where animosity towards Prayut’s iron-fisted rule runs deep, carried out the incident in collaboration with Thanatorn’s Future Forward – an upstart party that exceeded expectations by running on an anti-military ticket at the March 24 election.

Piyabutr Saengkanokkul, Future Forward’s secretary general and a French-educated former law professor, said he received information from the defendants that appeared to confirm Khanakorn’s allegation of outside interference in the lighting rod case.

Ever since former premier Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted in a 2006 military coup, his “Red Shirt” activist supporters have claimed that they have been unfairly targeted for prosecution by the courts. Between 2008 and 2014, Thailand’s Constitutional Court handed down rulings that led to the dissolution of three Thaksin-aligned governments, in moves critics said reflected the judiciary’s pro-establishment bias.

When the 12 opposition figures accused of sedition filed a counter-complaint against the military at the Crime Suppression Unit in Bangkok on October 6, a small group of Red Shirt supporters gathered to lend support.

In a Facebook post, one Red Shirt sympathizer spoke at length about a shared sense of grievances among Red Shirts and Malay Muslims. “Brothers and sisters of Patani, of the three border provinces, we are all the same group” because we all want “justice.”

Foundations for a mutual sense of national and regional level injustice between Thaksin allies and Malay Muslims deepened significantly during the Yingluck Shinawatra administration.

A supporter of former prime ministers Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra at the Constitutional Court in Bangkok, August 5, 2016. Photo: AFP/ Lillian Suwanrumpha

Yingluck’s point-man in the border region, Taweee Sodsong, then secretary-general of the state’s Southern Border Provinces Administrative Center (SBPAC) and currently secretary-general of the Prachachat party, galvanized Malay Muslim support when he referred to Malay Muslim Haji Sulong’s seven-point petition for creating an autonomous region in the late 1940s.

Haji Sulong was jailed on sedition charges and allegedly killed by Songkhla police in 1954, and has been a nationalist icon for Malay Muslims ever since.

In light on Puea Thai’s highly publicized, Malaysia-brokered dialogue process in 2013, nationalist activists from the border region started to hold forums on various reformed governance models, both in the Deep South and in other regions.

What distinguishes this current period of anti-military sentiment from the pre-2014 era is the rise of Thanatorn, a billionaire auto-parts tycoon, and his progressive Future Forward.

While the region-based Prachachat Party won seven out of the 11 seats up for grabs in the Deep South at March’s election, Future Forward has emerged at the forefront of representing Malay Muslims’ long-spurned calls for justice.

Panikka Wanich, Future Forward’s spokeswoman, has visited the region several times and held a press conference following the death of alleged insurgent Abdulloh Esormusor, who human rights groups believe fell into a coma after being abused at Pattani’s Inkhayut military camp in July.

The outspoken former TV news anchor lambasted security laws in place in the region and made a highly spurious claim that 54 suspects, mostly Malay Muslims, have died in military custody since the 2014 coup.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha with members of the new Thai cabinet at Government House, Bangkok, July 16, 2019. Photo: AFP/Lillian Suwanrumpha

One foreign diplomat who communicates regularly with leading human rights groups put the figure at four or five in the region since the Prayut-led 2014 coup.

Future Forward’s efforts to represent Malay Muslim grievances may be a strategy to galvanize some degree of sympathy and support for the minority group from ethnic Thais who traditionally resent or mistrust Malay Muslims.

While Wan Nor and his Wadah allies have deep roots in the border provinces, they have long been suspected by both security officials and ordinary Thai Buddhists of having ties to violent separatists.

By deflecting scrutiny away from Malay Muslim politicians, many of whom also have known ties to Thaksin, Future Forward may be more successful at raising national-level support for justice-related issues.

That may even include a surprising number of former pro-establishment, anti-Thaksin groups. Some of Thanatorn’s known supporters hail from anti-Thaksin backgrounds, not only in Bangkok, where the party performed well at the March election, but also the upper south, where animosity towards Thaksin still runs strong.

That potent combination of Thaksin’s Red Shirts and an emerging new generation of politically energized urbanites will likely ring alarm bells among pro-military groups and Prayut’s ruling coalition.

And if Prayut’s national-level political opponents can establish common cause with Malay Muslims on issues of injustice and other grievances related to military abuses, they will have a potent new ally in their effort to rock the foundations of Thailand’s military-dominated state.

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