Coups Are Bad, but for Thailand, This Takeover May Be Good

All military coups are distasteful, and Thailand's has set back democracy by 15 years, but it may take conflict resolution in the Muslim south a few steps forward.

With the dissolution of the Parliament and constitution, many Thais are going to be focusing their attention on rebuilding democratic institutions and organizing fresh elections.

But the coup also offers an opportunity to rethink policy on the insurgency that has claimed more than 1,750 lives since January 2004.

Deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was part of the problem.

His rivalry with the military was a major obstacle to working out effective policies for dealing with an increasingly violent insurgency, and his aggressive tactics only alienated the local population.

By contrast, coup leader Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratkalin has stressed the need for strategies to win hearts and minds since he became armed forces commander last October.

Now he has a chance to do just that, and he could start by implementing some of the recommendations of the National Reconciliation Commission that Thaksin, who appointed the body, ignored.

The origins of the violence rest in historical grievances stemming from discrimination and neglect of the local ethnic Malay Muslims, and attempts at forced assimilation by successive governments in Bangkok.

Armed separatists have been active in the region since the 1960s, but political and economic reforms in the 1980s eased tensions and violence dropped off substantially.

When it surged again in January 2004, after a lull of more than a decade, the Thaksin government was ill-equipped to deal with it.

It had dismantled the only institution with a track record in conflict management and refused to acknowledge the political nature of the conflict, dismissing the almost daily attacks as the work of bandits and criminals.

A series of ill-conceived policy initiatives, ranging from bizarre (air dropping millions of origami birds from military aircraft and offering free cable television to disaffected youths) to disastrous (heavy-handed military crackdowns, blacklisting of suspects, widespread arbitrary arrests, and immunity from prosecution for security forces with a history of abusive behavior), only worsened the problem.

Francesca Lawe-Davies is an analyst with the International Crisis Group, www.crisisgroup.org

The almost daily shootings and bombings are perpetrated by a shadowy group of militants who have not yet claimed responsibility for a single attack, let alone articulated clear political demands.

The militants, loosely grouped under the banner of the Barisan Revolusi Nasional -- Coordinate [National Revolutionary Front -- Coordinate faction] are fighting for the restoration of an independent Muslim sultanate.

They enforce their control through fear as well as politics, increasingly targeting Muslim civilians cooperating with the government.

But there are substantial pockets of support for the movement. The combination of historical grievances and government missteps has been effectively manipulated to mobilize young men -- and some women -- against the Thai state.

The National Reconciliation Commission spent more than a year consulting intensively with southern community and religious leaders about how best to address these grievances, and presented its report and recommendations to the government in June.

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