In Thailand's restive deep south, election stirs rare enthusiasm

By Panu Wongcha-um
Supporters hold campaign posters at a pro-government Palang Pracharat Party rally in Narathiwat province in Thailand's Deep South region, Thailand, March 17, 2019. Picture taken March 17, 2019. REUTERS/Panu Wongcha-um

By Panu Wongcha-um

YALA, Thailand (Reuters) - Pateemoh Poh-itaeda-oh, 39, has lost four family members to violence in Thailand's deep south, where a Muslim separatist movement has fought against rule from Bangkok for 15 years.

Now, she is running for a parliamentary seat in a general election on Sunday, hoping to have a hand in making government policies for the restive region.

Sunday's vote is broadly seen as a battle between allies of the military junta leader seeking to stay in power and supporters of ousted ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra, a former telecommunication tycoon whose loyalists have won every general election since 2001.

But that divide has a different dynamic in the three southern border provinces of Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat, which are 80 percent Muslim, while the rest of Thailand is overwhelmingly Buddhist.

A separatist insurgency has dragged on since 2004, killing more than 6,900 people. In January, two Buddhist monks were shot dead in a suspected insurgent attack.

In previous elections, the deep south was not much courted by politicians seeking national power. But the arrival of several new parties on the political scene, along with stalled peace talks, have stirred interest in the campaign in the south - and enthusiasm to participate among newly minted candidates.

Pateemoh, a Muslim who is a candidate for the pro-junta Action Coalition for Thailand party (ACT), said she got involved because she felt for the first time there was a chance for the concerns of the south to be heard and - possibly - bring an end to the conflict.

"For a long time many Thais have looked at problems in the deep south as a marginal border issue, but this election I have seen changes," she told Reuters at her party headquarters in Yala province.

Ending the insurgency is deeply personal to her. Three of her brothers and one sister have been shot dead since 2004 in suspected attacks by insurgents, who often target teachers and local officials for working with central government.

"I really want to be a voice in forming policy and solving the conflict issue in the deep south, and people have to remember that women's voices need to matter in this process," she said.

SELF-DETERMINATION

The three provinces, and a small part of neighboring Songkhla, were historically part of a Malay Muslim sultanate annexed by Thailand in 1909. Separatist tensions have simmered ever since.

A peace process between the Thai government and insurgent groups has made little headway, with violence still occurring even though the military has been directly in charge of security in the region for 15 years.

In February, Mara Patani, an umbrella organization representing many insurgent groups, said it has suspended all dialogue with Bangkok until after the election.

For decades, the deep south's small tally of seats - 11 out of 350 being contested in this election - were seen as a reliable bloc for the Democrat Party, the country's oldest political party that is officially non-aligned in the campaign but could prove crucial in post-vote coalition-building.

But the fresh attention being paid to the region by new parties has stoked pent-up desire for a say among both the pro-government and pro-autonomy camps there, said Samart Thongfhua, a political analyst at Prince of Songkla University in Pattani.

"Generally, people in the deep south are enthusiastic from all sides because they will feel that they can gain justice through democracy," he said.

RELIGIOUS TENSIONS

This is the first election that a Malay Muslim from the deep south, Wan Muhamad Noor Matha, 74, is a prime ministerial candidate.

Matha, a former house speaker and the leader of Prachachart Party, is a key ally to Thaksin who could help capture votes for the "democratic front" of anti-junta parties in the deep south. Pro-Thaksin parties have in the past performed badly in the region, where he was widely blamed for exacerbating the conflict with harsh tactics when he was in power from 2001 to 2006.

Prachachart has been campaigning greater people's participation in the region's governance and peace process.

Analysts predict that no single party will dominate the region, with the Democrats, ACT, Bhumjaithai Party, and two anti-junta parties, Prachachart and Future Forward, all seen as competitive.

All are campaigning for greater autonomy to a varying degree for the restive region, a sensitive issue for the Thai military.

Even talking about greater autonomy alarms the region's Buddhist minority, and coincides with the emergence on the national stage of the Buddhist nationalist Pandin Dharma Party.

"There is a sentiment that Buddhism is under threat and this has been appealing to many Buddhists here," Ruckchart Suwan, 54, of the Buddhist Network for Peace told Reuters.

Muslim politicians say more needs to be done to improve relationship between Buddhists and Muslims.

"It is good to hear real grievances from the Buddhists so we can address it properly," said Worawit Baru, 67, a candidate for Prachachart Party in Pattani province.

"The security forces have brought Buddhists and Muslims together over meals many times and say this represent successful reconciliation," Worawit said. "These window-dressing approaches must stop and we need the people to speak up."

(Reporting by Panu Wongcha-um; Additional reporting by Panarat Thepgumpanat; Editing by Kay Johnson and Alex Richardson)