Thailand’s Gains Against Insurgency Remain Fragile

Thailand’s Gains Against Insurgency Remain Fragile

When Thailand's new prime minister, Somchai Wongsawat, paid his first visit to the country's insurgency-wracked southern provinces last month, he was cautiously optimistic, commenting at the time, "I have been briefed by regional bodies and I consider the situation has improved, but we still cannot be complacent."

Somchai was wise to strike a note that balanced satisfaction with concern. Even skeptics grudgingly acknowledge that the Thai government is making progress in its fight against the insurgency in the restive Malay-Muslim provinces, annexed by the predominantly Buddhist country in 1902. Violence has plummeted by a jaw-dropping 50 percent compared to last year. More security checkpoints have been erected, with most of them now manned. (Only one in three or four were in 2007.) And nascent programs that emphasize local governance and economic development indicate that a non-military element is at least present -- if barely -- in the government's strategy, as opposed to being totally absent as it was when the violence broke out in 2004.

Accounting for the progress is the Thai government's ability to learn, largely through previous failures, that long-term "hearts and minds" approaches will not work unless they are preceded by short term military gains. This learning process began in 2004, when the violence broke out and Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra adopted a heavy-handed strategy that led to gross human rights abuses and the abolishment of key conflict-management institutions. The resulting spike in violence, with an accompanying wave of popular support for the insurgency, doomed the strategy to failure.

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