Thailand: On Trial - Competing Interpretations of Violence in the South of Thailand


Michael Connors

Against the background of continuing violence in the South of Thailand, the trial of former Thai Rak Thai MP Najmuddin Umar began in early October.

Charges against the defendant include treason, helping to plan the gun seizure raid on an army camp in January 2004 the event that marked the beginning of the current troubles as well as membership of the separatist group BESARTU.

Najmuddin, a member of the Muslim Wadah (Unity) faction of TRT, joined TRT when former Premier Chavalit Yongchaiyudh's now defunct party, New Aspiration, merged with TRT after the 2001 election. He is currently involved in the PUSAKA foundation, an education network that some analysts claim is connected with the 'insurgency', although in the past it received funding from the Social Welfare Department.

The Court heard that Najmuddin was among those implicated by an informant, who confessed to involvement in the January raid after being tortured. The defendant's lawyer stated that there were sufficient inconsistencies in police evidence that the prosecution's case was unsustainable. A number of cases related to violence in the South brought by police to court have already fallen through.

Najmuddin has previously claimed that a police plot to frame him is underway, and that the violence is a consequence of certain elements wanting to destabilize the Thaksin government. He has also claimed that international intelligence agencies (the CIA), working with senior officials in Thailand are interested in fomenting sectarian violence as a pretext for consolidation of the US's position in Southeast Asia. These allegations have been made more forcefully elsewhere by southern Senator and defence witness Senator Den Toemeena. In his statement to the Court, Den denied that Wadah and its associates supported separatism. Deputy Prime Minister, Wan Muhammad Noor Matha, a witness for the defence, offered moral support saying it was impossible that Najmuddin could support separatism. The case was adjourned.

Given the centrality of this case to competing interpretations of what is happening in the South, it is surprising that it attracted only modest media coverage.

The prosecution case converges with the general argument put by elements in the security apparatus. They argue that a coordinated insurgency is underway, involving a network of Islamic schools, connected to politicians and revived separatist groups. Recently, military intelligence has claimed that there are over 400 'red-zone' villages existing in the deep South (those where core members of the insurgency are said to be present).

Other analysts remain convinced that the so-called insurgency remains fueled by rivalry of competing networks in the context of decentralization, but that Southern history gives the conflict an ethnic and religious tone.

In the latter perspective what is at stake is not who can control the South in terms of political sovereignty (secessionism or autonomy) but in terms of predatory extraction and political control. Once that question is settled, in whatever form, the so-called insurgency is likely to settle down.

Currently, the repressive nature of the state's response to the Southern crisis may well have created the groundswell for active popular resistance against the Thai state.

The case, should it return to court, may shed some light on these competing interpretations.

WATCHPOINT: Will pressure build to abort the trial if it threatens to undermine attempts to build peace and reconciliation?


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