With Thailand having just gone to the polls for an historic election, in which some 6 million voters were unable to cast ballots, international media have zeroed in on the protests raging on the streets of Bangkok, where an emergency decree has been in place for about two weeks.
Given its status as one of the most visited cities in the world, concern about the violent flare-ups is understandable. But much of the mainstream coverage has neglected an important and underreported issue in Thailand: the ongoing violence and human rights abuses in the country's southernmost provinces along the Malaysian border. In this area, there have been emergency laws in place for nearly a decade.
The predominantly Muslim region was included within the borders of Thailand after the signing of the Anglo-Siamese Treatyin 1909. There has been long-standing unrest ever since, due in part to forced assimilation policies implemented by successive Thai governments. In the past 10 years, however, this unrest has escalated to unprecedented heights, with a steady pattern of sectarian violence targeting state authorities, religious figures, teachers, and civilians, including children. Bombings have become commonplace, the threat of murder and authoritarian reprisals loom large, and the people in these locations – many of them rural poor – live in constant fear.
On the surface, a simple casualty toll can provide a glimpse into the extent of the problem. According to the recent reports from the Bangkok Post, nearly 6000 people have been killed and close to 10,000 people injured since 2004. And the violence has showed no sign of slowing down. According to the region's Internal Security Operations Command, there were 320 bombings in the four border provinces between January and December 2013. This is up from 276 reported bombings in 2012. And already in 2014 there have been attacks that have killed and wounded several police officers, including four dead in the week of the elections.
Beneath the surface, however, this problem is layered and very complex. While it's easy to label these separatist groups as "terrorists", one can't ignore the role the Thai government has played in this evolving conflict. Since 2005, three pieces of special legislation have been in place throughout the region at various times, though often concurrently: Martial Law, the Internal Security Act, and the Emergency Decree (which is the same piece of legislation recently invoked in Bangkok). Used alone, or in tandem, these measures provide security and law enforcement officers with extraordinary powers to make arrests without warrants and to detain suspects in secret locations for periods of up to 37 days.
These laws have allowed for human rights violations such as torture, forced confessions, disappearances and extrajudicial killings. One example is the 2004 forced disappearance of Muslim lawyer and human rights activist Somchai Neelapaijit, presumed by many to be dead. The laws have also raised doubts about the fairness and impartiality of the justice system. Specific cases of injustices have been highlighted in reports by nonprofit organisations such as the Thailand Union for Civil Liberties, the Cross Cultural Foundation and the Muslim Attorney Council, which provides legal assistance to southern Muslims suspected of insurgency. In many of the terrorist cases, which are punishable by death, these doubts over court impartiality are very concerning indeed.
What makes it all the more surprising that international media hasn't paid more attention to the south during the recent Bangkok protests is the role played by former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the polarising figure at the centre of the country's political chaos, pitting "red shirts" against "yellow shirts". Shinawatra may have cemented his party's stranglehold on power with his favour in the populous northern provinces, but in the deep south, he has played a fundamental role in exacerbating tensions.
After his rise to power in 2001, Shinawatra dismantled the Border Administrative Centre, which served as a liaison to Muslim leaders. Shinawatra's now infamous war on drugs, which claimed the lives of more than 2,800 Thais, including many Malay Muslims, provoked even more tension in the region. Arbitrary arrests and police brutality, along with the constant threat of cultural erosion, are considered, by many, to be significant catalysts leading to the current conflict, which erupted with three separate incidents in 2004.
While two of these incidents involved insurgent attacks, the third saw government forces crack down on a protest outside a police station. More than 80 protesters died, many of suffocation while being transported to a military base, in which they were restrained and stacked upon each other in trucks, five or six deep. After the incident, known as the Tak Bai Protest, Shinawatra enraged Muslims and drew international criticism when he blamed the Ramadan fast for weakening the deceased.
The current administration of Yingluck Shinawatra came into power with grand visions of providing greater economic autonomy to the region, but little in the way of concrete reform has been realised, and nothing has been done to quell the violence.
Election Day has come and gone, but the political saga is far from over. More protests are expected in the coming weeks as by-elections are held, votes are slowly tallied, and protesters hope to nullify the results. And on the ground, there are concerns among Thais that more violence will materialise if the current administration is toppled, either by the courts or the military.
But with all eyes turned to Bangkok, it's important to remember that unrest in Thailand isn't confined to its largest city. Serious human rights abuses and deep-seated social problems continue to plague this fragile country, which many tourists have come to associate, quite simply, with tranquil island beaches. One thing is certain: It will take concerted political effort and considerable legal reform to have any chance at finding a solution to the disastrous situation in the country's south.