National divide and deep-South volatility threaten to converge
The seeds of Thailand’s two biggest troubles — the political divide and insurgency in the deep South — were apparently sowed in 2001. That year, national politics went past the point of normalcy with the culmination in the Constitution Court of Thaksin Shinawatra’s “hidden shares” scandal. He survived the grueling scrutiny but, under his government, some big changes were effected in the deep South in the same year that some say would turn a dormant volcano into an active one.
What if Thaksin had been banned from politics that year by the Constitution Court for “hiding” his Shin Corporation shares in servants’ accounts? What if the old security system and practices in the southernmost region had been maintained? Peace lovers can only ask the “If only” questions.
Yet until recently, the two crises unfolded mostly on parallel realms. They occasionally crossed ways — like when terrorist incidents took place outside the insurgency-plagued region and nobody knew for sure who did it and why. However, it’s fair to say that the convergence was generally fleeting.
Not anymore. Increased politicization of a judge’s suicide attempt in Yala and a vociferous controversy stemming from a charter reform forum in Pattani has made Thailand’s divisive politics become deeply intertwined with southern issues, at least for the time being.
The attempted suicide case is related to suspects of terrorism. It has triggered debate divided along ideological lines, with the parliamentary opposition, facing a few legal decisions itself, trying to portray a twisted and unreliable justice system. The other side, of course, is crying foul over what it claims to be a conspiracy to discredit Thai courts.
The issue is snowballing, with a key opposition figure, Future Forward’s secretary-general Piyabutr Sangkanokkul, putting himself on the line by claiming to have received some tell-tale information from the judge’s side and the defense of the suspects he (the judge) acquitted. Information from a judge prior to a ruling is controversial in itself and, while it can damage a few people, can raise serious ethical questions.
The charter reform forum in Pattani featured some bombshell remarks, not by opposition leaders who organized it, but from an academic invited to join the talks, who was apparently not satisfied with a main clause of the existing Constitution. Again, debate and uproar mirror people’s political leanings. How dare you call for a change of a unique Thai political culture, one that has held this country together, one side asks. Going after academics who simply voice their opinions is simply dictatorial, the other camp insists.
To make the situation more intriguing, House Speaker Chuan Leekpai has used the eruption of southern violence to warn those pushing for constitutional changes that they should learn the lesson. His virtual advice to the pro-amendment camp was more or less like this: “If we can’t come up with something that really works better than the old one, we may risk creating more problems like what has happened in the deep South (starting in 2001).”
Chuan did not elaborate on what really went wrong regarding the deep South in 2001, but many believe he was referring to a structuring change that reduced the powers of those more familiar with the situation and increased the authority of those outside the region.
He consequently has become a big opposition target. A war of words has begun between his Democrat Party and politicians on the opposite side.
Nobody knows what the “mix” of national divide and problems in the deep South will create. It’s more apparent that the blend can be dangerous.