PATTANI Thailand (Reuters) - They talked about corruption and politics, about healthcare and women’s rights, about the anxiety of bringing up children in a corner of Thailand where war has killed 6,000 people in the last decade.
Then they fell silent.
For years, Media Selatan was one of the most popular community radio stations in Thailand’s three southernmost provinces, where Muslim separatists have fought government troops since 2004. But when the Thai military seized power in a May 22 coup, it ordered the closure of thousands of independent stations nationwide - Media Selatan among them.
The Malay-language station - its name means “Southern Media” - was more than a public forum for a war-weary people. It had also come to symbolize a flowering of political expression among the south’s Malay-speaking Muslims, who live in a country dominated by Thai-speaking Buddhists, since abortive peace talks last year.
Many southerners now fear the military will use the coup to roll back hard-won freedoms. “It’s like closing the eyes and ears of the people,” said Wanahmad Wankuejik, director of Media Selatan, of his station’s closure.
Civil society groups also voiced concerns that a recent purge of senior officials and the arrival of a hardline military commander could exacerbate what is already one of Southeast Asia’s deadliest unresolved conflicts.
On May 24, a rare series of bombings in Pattani’s provincial capital, also called Pattani, killed three people, wounded dozens and triggered fears that post-coup violence might soar.
Annexed by Thailand a century ago, the south has long simmered under the neglectful rule of distant Bangkok. The latest and most serious violence erupted in the early 2000s, with a thousands-strong network of elusive militants battling at least 60,000 soldiers, police and paramilitary forces.
Reports of gunfights, drive-by shootings, beheadings and bombings are near-daily events. Martial law, declared last month in the rest of Thailand, has been in place in Pattani and neighboring Narathiwat and Yala provinces for almost a decade.
Most governments - and most Thais - have been too preoccupied by political unrest elsewhere in their country to pay much attention to the so-called Deep South.
The military staged its May coup after six months of sometimes deadly street protests, the latest flare-up in a 10-year conflict between the Bangkok-based royalist establishment and mostly rural “red-shirt” supporters of ousted premier Yingluck Shinawatra and her brother Thaksin.
Before the crisis erupted, Yingluck’s government had last year began peace talks with the insurgent group Barisan Revolusi Nasional (National Revolutionary Front, or BRN) in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur.
The talks soon foundered, but not before fostering an increasingly assertive civil society of activists, journalists, students and lawyers. They have spoken out against human rights abuses and pushed for greater recognition for the Malay language, culture and religion.
Since taking power, the military has carried out what one senior police officer described to Reuters as a “systematic purge” of officials considered loyal to Thaksin or Yingluck.
One was Thawee Sodsong, the ex-director of the Southern Border Provinces Administration Centre (SBPAC), which oversees civilian administration in the region. Thawee was popular among Malay Muslims for handing out cash to conflict victims and investigating suspected abuses by Thai security forces.
Just two days after the coup, he was transferred to an inactive post and replaced with Panu Uthairat, a former SBPAC chief with close ties to Thailand’s royalist and military establishment.
Of more concern to civil society groups is Lieutenant General Walit Rojanaphakdee, the new commander of the Fourth Army, which controls southern Thailand. Walit was appointed in a military reshuffle almost two months before the coup.
Like junta chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha, he belongs to the military’s “Eastern Tigers” or Queens Guard faction, which was instrumental in both last month’s coup and the one in 2006 that removed Thaksin.
In 2010, Walit was wounded - and his aide killed - in an April 10 clash with red-shirt protesters in Bangkok. He then commanded the Second Infantry Division, which played a central role in a military crackdown in which more than 90 people were killed.
Walit was likely to “reinforce the military’s current playbook” by boosting intelligence-gathering and launching more frequent raids on insurgent hideouts, said Anthony Davis, a Thailand-based analyst at security consulting firm IHS-Jane’s.
Or he could resurrect “more aggressive counter-insurgency methods” last deployed in 2007 and 2008, said Davis. Back then, hundreds of Malay Muslim suspects were detained in large-scale military operations that fueled local grievances but had little long-term impact on the violence.
“Either way, it will not be business as usual,” said Davis. The junta was highly unlikely to revive peace talks with BRN insurgents in the coming months, he added.
Aggressive methods could escalate the conflict beyond the southern region to tourist areas. Hat Yai, the closest major city to the three southernmost provinces at the heart of the conflict, has already endured many deadly bomb attacks. Police on the resort island of Phuket found and disarmed a car-bomb in December.
“Peace talks are still on our agenda,” said deputy army spokesman Colonel Weerachon Sukondhapatipak, adding the military government was devising a plan to “bring all stakeholders together”.
“We still believe that to solve the problem of the Deep South we must win hearts and minds,” he said.
Even so, many journalists and activists are braced for the worst.
A week after the coup, General Walit summoned journalists to his army base and warned them that publishing “negative” stories about the military carried a two-year jail sentence.
Many actions taken by the coupmakers to suppress political dissent in Thailand are grimly familiar to southern Muslims.
In the past month, hundreds of politicians and activists have been detained without charge at army camps, with some undergoing what the authorities call “attitude adjustment”.
In the past decade, thousands of Malay Muslims have been detained and sometimes tortured by the military for suspected insurgent links, or forced to attend “re-education” programs.
The army’s post-coup campaign to “bring back happiness to the Thai people” by staging festivals elicits groans of recognition in the south, where a bid to win hearts and minds has been undermined by human rights abuses by security forces.
“The military is now using the Pattani model against all Thais,” said a Malay-Muslim reporter who, fearing military harassment, requested anonymity. “My friends in Bangkok tell me, ‘Now we know what it’s like to live there.’”
Editing by Alex Richardson