Violent incidents have declined 28 percent this year in Thailand’s predominantly Muslim deep South thanks to the army’s “hearts and minds campaign” in the troubled area bordering Malaysia, the region’s army commander claimed. “In 2008, there were 700 incidents of violence but this year there have been only 500 incidents,” Lieutenant general Pichet Wisaijorn, told the Foreign Correspondent Club of Thailand Wednesday night.
Since becoming 4th Army Regional Commander in October 2008, Pichet has pursued a policy of winning the “hearts and minds” of the people in Thailand’s three southernmost provinces – Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala – where an estimated 3,500 people have died in clashes, bombings, revenge killings and beheadings over the past six years.
Pichet, an advocate of King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s “sufficiency economy” policies, said he has been promoting organic farming, fish farming, environmental cleanups and job creation projects with positive results.
“As a result of our efforts people are more satisfied. Come down and see for yourself,” he said.
Residents in the deep South have yet to pass judgement on the general’s success in the region, where a separatist movement against Thailand’s predominantly Buddhist, Bangkok-based regimes has simmered for two centuries.
“We still haven’t seen a real improvement to the economy, although thing haven’t gotten worse either,” said Nimu Makajae, deputy leader of the Yala Islamic Centre.
While the army’s efforts to improve agriculture have increased production in the region where some 90 percent of people are still farmers, it has not improved prices for farm goods.
“There are not enough traders any more, so the ones that remain offer farmers very low prices for their crops,” Nimu told the German Press Agency dpa.
About 80 percent of the region’s 2 million people are Muslims. Of the 300,000 Thai Buddhists who lived in the region, some 70,000 have reportedly left their homes over the past six years.
Pichet estimated that there were only 8,100 hardcore separatists in the three-province region, of whom only 2,000 were armed.
“But we will never be able to eliminate these 8,000 people,” Pichet said. “We cannot get rid of them all, but if we use justice the situation can improve.”
Some 30,000 Thai troops are stationed in the deep South, attempting to maintain security in the region’s 2,000 villages.
Pichet claimed that many of the violent incidents in the region were actually attributable to personal conflicts, love affairs and political disputes, but were blamed of terrorists.
“Most of our figures show that only 26 percent of the incidents of violence are due to terrorists, but the local people tend to see all of these as security problems because they get compensation for deaths caused by insurgents,” he said.
Violence started to pick up in the region in January 2004, after Muslim militants raided an army depot and stole weapons.
The brash act sparked a military crackdown that resulted in several bloody clashes including an attack on the a centuries old mosque, leaving 34 Thai Muslims dead, and the Tak Bai incident in which 78 protestors were smothered to death after being loaded on army trucks.
The military’s tough tactics further antagonised the local population against the government.
Recent administrations have taken a more development-oriented approach to solving the region’s security problems, which may have decreased but have not disappeared.
“The violence may have decreased a bit this year, but if the army dares to brag about it there will be an increase in attacks,” Nimu said. Although the region, which centuries ago was the independent Islamic sultanate of Pattani, was conquered by Bangkok about 200 years ago, it has never wholly submitted to Thai rule.
Analysts said the region’s Muslim population, the majority of whom speak a Malay dialect and follow Malay customs, feels alienated from the predominantly Buddhist Thai state.