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The trouble in between: Thailand's restive south and Malaysia

The Economist

Dec 10th 2009

Thailand's restive south and Malaysia

Najib and Abhisit have a look-see

PEOPLE in Thailand’s three southernmost provinces have heard plenty of promises from Bangkok since January 2004, when Muslim insurgents began a campaign of separatist violence. Government ministers, royalty and military brass have descended in droves to dispense advice, arms and money. But the conflict, which has so far claimed the lives of nearly 4,000 Thais, shows no signs of ending.

Last year saw a surge in troops and a dip in violence. But the shootings and bombings have increased again, with gruesome tactics such as the beheading of victims. The militants behind the killings do not declare themselves. They have neither taken their violent campaign to the rest of Thailand nor combined forces with foreign, anti-western terrorists. Caught up in their own political drama, few Thais pay close attention to the southern conflict.

On December 9th Abhisit Vejjajiva, the prime minister, accompanied his Malaysian counterpart, Najib Razak, on a one-day trip to the area, a former sultanate that is populated mostly by ethnic-Malay Muslims. Mr Najib is the first Malaysian leader to visit since the insurgency began. Thai diplomats have worked hard to prevent the conflict from becoming an international issue, though America has begun to look more closely and has earmarked aid money for peace-building projects.

Mr Najib’s visit comes amid increased discussion of the need for a political solution that includes a degree of self-rule in the south. In theory, this should blunt local demands for independence. Duncan McCargo from the University of Leeds, who has written a book on the conflict, believes the idea is winning supporters in some unlikely quarters, and that a consensus could be emerging, though one that is held hostage to political rivalries.

Mr Abhisit has offered support for self-rule, but is loth to expend any political capital on it. The Thai security forces and bureaucracy recoil at any hint of autonomy. The army is doing rather nicely out of what a new report by the International Crisis Group (ICG), a think-tank, calls “the industry of insecurity”. Over $3 billion has been poured into the south since 2004. This explains why the army whose support Mr Abhisit needs, dismisses his calls to put civilians in charge.

That Mr Najib favours autonomy for his ethnic brethren in southern Thailand will arouse the suspicion of Thai security forces. They have accused Malaysia of affording insurgents a refuge and of turning a blind eye to their activities. For its part, Malaysia grumbles that Thailand’s human-rights abuses stoke the anger of Muslims on both sides of the border. The ICG points out that during nearly six years of violence, no Thai official has been prosecuted.

This mutual mistrust will keep Malaysia on the sidelines, in contrast to the southern Philippines, where it has played a useful role in hosting peace talks between Muslim rebels and government negotiators (see article below). But the conflict in Mindanao points both to the difficulty of striking political settlements with fractious rebels and of the dangers of fighting fire with fire. Private armies there began as self-defence against Muslim insurgents. Southern Thailand is increasingly awash with privately owned guns, including those provided by the authorities to village self-defence groups and other paramilitary forces. The killing in June of ten Muslims inside a mosque has been blamed on a Buddhist militia, which was probably taking revenge for Muslim attacks. The cycle of violence is far from over.


A Martial Plan?

Violence in Mindanao

Dec 10th 2009

A looming rebellion, or perhaps a chance to cover up embarrassing links

THE massacre last month of 57 people in the southern Philippine province of Maguindanao, on Mindanao, has provoked outrage. In response, the government of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has been striving to give the impression that it is doing its utmost to uphold the rule of law. The opposition thinks first impressions can be deceptive.

The killings involved a group on the way to file a candidacy for elections next year, accompanied by about 30 members of the press. Armed men shot or hacked to death all in the convoy, as well as some unconnected passers-by. Suspicion immediately fell on a local mayor, Andal Ampatuan, a member of a Muslim clan with a private army that lords it over the local government. The authorities in Manila soon arrested him and charged him with multiple murder, which he has denied. The security forces began uncovering arms caches on Ampatuan property. On December 4th the government declared martial law in Maguindanao, saying a rebellion was looming. Several more leading Ampatuans were detained.

The government said it would abide by the constitution. But martial law makes Filipinos nervous, because President Ferdinand Marcos used it in the 1970s to establish a dictatorship. So the opposition is suspicious. Until the massacre the government seemed to connive in Ampatuan control of Maguindanao.

Successive administrations have allowed warlords to dominate parts of the country, using private armies to keep voters in line and to keep communist or Muslim separatist guerrillas out. The Ampatuan alleged to be the mastermind of the massacre blamed it on Muslim separatists of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which this week resumed peace talks (in Kuala Lumpur) with the government after a hiatus of over a year. The MILF denied the accusation. Its fighters hold sway over parts of Maguindanao, and these areas are not covered by the martial-law declaration. Nor is the area around Prosperidad, where, in a seemingly unrelated incident, gunmen this week abducted 65 students and a teacher from a school.

The opposition suspects the government is using martial-law rule to cover up evidence of an unscrupulous relationship with the Ampatuans, including an alleged plot to manipulate the voting when Mrs Arroyo was elected president in 2004. The constitution says she must step down next year. Her more extreme opponents suspect that the declaration of martial law in Maguindanao is a dry-run for its imposition more broadly.

This is probably fantasy. But the government has shown itself ready to use all the powers the constitution gives it. Critics say it had already shown a willingness to use some it does not, by dabbling in the political shadows inhabited by the Ampatuans and clans like them.

Source: The Economist, London

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