Thaksin hints of flexibility in southern Thailand

Updated On: Feb 15, 2005

Bangkok-Just a few days after declaring that he would not change his government’s hardline policy towards southernThailand, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra appeared to have had a change of heart. Mr Thaksin, who was re-elected by a landslide on Feb 6, said his government is ready to welcome new ideas and proposals from others, even the opposition party. His remarks came as a new wave of violence, including a failed assassination attempt on its governor, continues to rockthe southernprovinceofNarathiwat.

Mr Thaksin told reporters on Feb 13that he would be meeting security agencies to “fine-tune several strategies” that the government had used in tackling the unrest in southernThailand.

“We may have to find new tactics in the region before I visit the south on Feb 16,” said the Premier, who had been criticised for his heavy reliance on military force to quell the violence in the Muslim-majority south.

Mr Thaksin also said the government would push ahead with a plan to set up a new psychological-warfare unit in the south that could transform itself into a combat force if needed.

The 15thInfantry Division would be deployed in the strife-torn provinces of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat.The 10,000-strong unit will have both regular combat forces and psychological warfare specialists.

The government has blamed Islamic militants and separatists for the violence in southernThailand. But many analysts and moderate Thai Muslim leaders have argued that the unrest in the region also stems from legitimate local grievances such as poverty and a sense of alienation from the rest of mainly Buddhist Thailand.

Despite massive victories in other parts ofThailandin the Feb 6 polls, Mr Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai party was trounced in the south, winning only one out of 54 seatsin the 14 southern provinces.

Militants in the southernprovinceofNarathiwatresponded to Mr Thaksin’s polls victory by launching a series of bomb attacks on an almost daily basis.

On Feb 10, Narathiwat governor, Mr Pracha Therat, escaped injury when a powerful bomb went off at a stadium just 20 metres from where he and other senior officials were watching a military parade. Six security officers were wounded.

In the latest incident on Feb 14, eight soldiers and police were injured by a remote-controlled explosion. The attack, in theprovinceofNarathiwat, appeared carefully planned. The injured troops were caught 15 minutes after they arrived to investigate an earlier blast, reported the BBC.

Mr Siva Saengmanee, deputy director of the Southern Border Provinces PeaceBuilding Command, said: “The insurgents are trying to discredit the authorities. They want to show the local community that in spite of stricter controls, they are still able to carry out these kind of attacks.”

In a commentary on the southern problem, The Nation suggested that if Mr Thaksin is really serious about adopting a new approach, he shouldconsider the Pattani Declaration, drafted by the opposition Democratic Party, last December.

“The declaration calls for a return to the status quo before Thaksin came to power. This covers the revival of the Southern Provinces Administrative Centre and the abolition of the CEO governor system in the south. Other recommendations touch on the importance of education for Thai Muslims and the establishment of syariah (Islamic) courts to handle family and inheritance matters…In more ways than one, the opposition’s blueprint could be the lifesaver that Thaksin is looking for.”

But knowing Mr Thaksin’s reluctance to accept advice, the commentator asked: “Does he have the humility to accept the opposition’s advice?”

* Southern crisis: Thaksin’s Catch-22 (The Nation, Feb 14)

* Southern violence: Thaksin weighs shift in tactics (The Nation, Feb 14)

* Stadium bombing misses governor (Bangkok Post, Feb 11)