Worldwide Locations

Worldwide Locations

Thailand's Two Conflicts

Thai "Red Shirt" anti-government protesters react as their leaders announce their surrender inside the protesters' camp in downtown Bangkok on May 19, 2010. Protest leaders told thousands of "Red Shirt" supporters to end their weeks-long rally after an army assault on their fortified encampment left at least five people dead. (Nicolas Asfouri/AFP/Getty Images)

Thai "Red Shirt" anti-government protesters react as their leaders announce their surrender inside the protesters' camp in downtown Bangkok on May 19, 2010. Protest leaders told thousands of "Red Shirt" supporters to end their weeks-long rally after an army assault on their fortified encampment left at least five people dead. (Nicolas Asfouri/AFP/Getty Images)

By Duncan McCargo

This article is drawn from a longer commentary in the Aug.-Sept. 2010 issue of the IISS journal Survival.

One country, two conflicts: a simmering insurgency on the southern border, and several rounds of violent clashes in the capital city, a thousand kilometers away. But Thailand's two conflicts may have more in common than meets the eye. Both reflect the unraveling of Siam's 19th-century form of rule—the domination of royal Bangkok over the untamed hinterlands, and the substitution of internal colonialism for European empire.

The small Malay state of Patani, today wracked by insurgency, was formally incorporated into Siam only in 1909, and relations with Bangkok have been troubled ever since. Since 2004, more than 4,200 people have died in Southern Thailand, the world's third-most intensive insurgency after Iraq and Afghanistan. But an expensive security response—including the deployment of around 40,000 troops from all over the country to the region—has failed to quell the violence, and serious attacks are now back on the rise.

Trained in conventional warfare and with little history of combat, the Royal Thai Army has struggled to respond effectively to the violence. Successive governments have tried to address the conflict through parallel talk of "reconciliation" (samanachan), a term first popularized by the 2005–06 National Reconciliation Commission. The central problem with the reconciliation discourse is its blindness to politics. In the South, talk of reconciliation involves ignoring the political aspirations of the Malay Muslim population. Thailand has 76 provinces: one of them, Bangkok, has an elected governor, while the rest have appointed governors who are rotated and assigned by the Ministry of the Interior.

The southern border provinces elect fewer than a dozen members of the national parliament, and will never be able to speak with a loud enough voice to effect any substantive changes. Hailing from a peripheral region of Thailand, Malay Muslims are expected to kowtow to Bangkok. In place of political representation, participation, and control, Bangkok pays lip-service to the rhetoric of justice. Where flagrant abuses have been committed, as in the case of 78 unarmed Tak Bai protestors who perished mainly from suffocation while in military custody on the night of October 25, 2004, justice has yet to be done. In May 2009 a Songkla court concluded security officials involved had simply been carrying out their duties and had not intended to kill anyone.

The recent Bangkok protests are both similar and different. On the one side the ruling Democrat Party, the military and the monarchical network, and Peoples’ Alliance for Democracy (PAD)—the yellow-shirted protestors who occupied Government House and eventually closed down Bangkok’s airports in late 2008. On the other side are former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra (2001-06), his political allies, and the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) red-shirt movement. The UDD disrupted the April 2009 ASEAN summit in Pattaya, and occupied central parts of Bangkok between March and May 2010. Clashes between the security forces, tens of thousands of red-shirts and their allies involved nearly 90 deaths, thousands of injuries, and a spate of grenade and arson attacks on buildings in central parts of the city.

Next: "The two conflicts illustrate the limits of military force."