PATTANI, Thailand – Far from the idyllic and tourist landscapes of Thailand, the deep south of the country has been mired in a bloody separatist conflict for 15 years, which has remained largely invisible despite resulting in more than 7,000 deaths.
In the city of Pattani, around 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) south of Bangkok, military checkpoints frequently appear on the roads amid posters and campaign meetings for the March 24 national elections.
“I am going to vote for the first time. And I am doing it with hope. I wish to see the conflict end. I want foreign tourists and visitors from other parts of the country to come here, as they used to do earlier,” Salma, a 19-year-old woman, told EFE outside a mosque in Pattani.
The toll from the small but persistent attacks and shootings carried out by a Muslim ethnic separatist insurgency in southern Thailand stands at 7,000 deaths and 20,000 injured – most of them civilians – as the militants intensified their armed struggle from 2004 after decades of relative dormancy.
The Muslim rebels, who allege discrimination by the Buddhist majority in the country, have been demanding greater autonomy or independence for the three southern provinces of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat, which constituted the ancient sultanate of Pattani before it was annexed by Thailand at the beginning of the 20th century.
An armed insurgency largely divorced from international Islamist terrorism despite its deadly results, has been absent from the political narrative in Thailand as well as the headlines in national and international media.
Sunday’s elections are the first in the country since 2014 when a coup led to the government being taken over by the military junta, which has dealt with the conflict with a heavy hand and increased the military presence in the area.
“The military has managed to reduce the conflict’s intensity. During 2017 and 2018, the number of attacks has gone down, but the government has not taken advantage of this and opposition to the military has grown,” Srisompob Jitpironsri, director of the Center for Conflict Studies and Cultural Diversity at the Pattani campus of the Prince of Songkla University, told EFE.
Srisompob said the military pressure is suffocating for the people as 60,000 security forces personnel have been deployed in the region by the junta.
Although the popularity of the insurgents has fallen, sympathy for these groups – which operate multiple cells and under different leaders – continues in around 20-30 percent of the population, according to estimates of Deep South Watch, a conflict-study platform based at the Prince of Songkla University’s Pattani campus.
Worawit Baru – a candidate of the Muslim-dominated Prachachart party which is seen as the favorite to win Sunday’s elections in the region – criticized the secrecy surrounding the peace negotiations being held in Malaysia for more than a decade and said the solution to the armed conflict lies in granting more autonomy to the region.
“The dialogue is not real. They (the insurgents) don’t believe this government. They are waiting for a change, another interlocutor,” said the veteran politician, who maintains contacts in some insurgent groups with 3,000-4,000 active members.
Meanwhile, the young population of the three provinces, where more than 80 percent of the population is Muslim and of Malay ethnicity, seems to be bored of the traditional parties.
“I am going to vote for the Future Forward Party (a recently formed party popular among the youth). The old parties have not done anything. Pattani doesn’t matter to them. One has to try something different and improve the economy for once and for all,” Kamarin, a 27-year-old woman selling fish at a municipal market, told EFE.
The economy is the main concern for many people, who have seen the already poor region suffer due to falling rubber prices along with the rest of southern Thailand.
“The educated young people are tired of violence. They want to open the society, make it more multicultural and less about identity,” Srisompob said.
In his studio opposite a large rice field, renowned local artist Jehabdulloh Jehsorhoh gets ready for his next exhibition. His canvases and installations carry references to the stigma attached to the Muslim identity and the violence produced by the conflict.
In a work titled “My Home at Pattani,” grenades and pistols hang from the branches of a lush green tree in front of a red-colored background.
“It seems like a normal tree, right? It is like the conflict, even though it is not visible at the first glance, the violence is there every day. It is a war,” said the artist, who has appealed to the international community to not turn a blind eye towards the conflict and make attempts to bring peace to the forgotten deep south of Thailand.