ON THE evening of May 20th, just as it was growing dark, a series of explosions blasted banks, cash machines and electricity poles at more than a dozen locations across southern Thailand. Just three people were hurt by the bombings, which took place when most locals in the Muslim-majority region would have been breaking their Ramadan fast, and were thus safely indoors. Rather than killing bystanders, the attacks were meant “to serve as a reminder of militant capabilities”, reckons Matthew Wheeler of Crisis Group, a watchdog. Despite a recent period of relative calm, the violence that has by turns simmered and flared in the region since 2004 shows no signs of abating.
The provinces of Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala, as well as nearby parts of Songkhla, once formed an independent sultanate until Siam—as Thailand used to be known—overran it in the late 18th century. About 3m people live in the area, and most are ethnically Malay and Muslim. They bridle at policies imposed from Bangkok, which include sending civil servants from elsewhere in Thailand to run the local administration and a refusal to accord the local variant of the Malay language any official status, although it is the most common means of communication. Rebels have targeted anyone associated with the Thai state, sometimes killing teachers and Buddhist monks. Almost 7,000 people have died since 2004. Official brutality has fuelled unrest: extra-judicial killings and torture are commonplace.
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A succession of Thai governments has agreed to negotiations with the insurgents, with little to show for it. One big problem is that the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), the most powerful armed group, has spurned talks. Nonetheless, the head of Thailand’s military junta claimed last month that “major headway” had been made. There have been some small steps forward: international NGOs and civil-society organisations have been permitted to work with BRN, educating its members on matters of law and governance. Discussions about creating a violence-free “safety zone”, however, remain mired in technicalities. The generals seem preoccupied with national elections they have promised to hold next year; the problems of the South get little attention.
For years Malaysia has helped mediate peace talks through Zamzamin Hashim, an associate of former prime minister Najib Razak. But Mr Najib lost power in an election earlier this month. Mr Zamzamin is likely to be replaced, too. Rebel leaders, many of whom live in northern Malaysia, may be wary of any mediator appointed by the new government. The new prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, had two insurgent leaders arrested and extradited to Thailand during a previous stint as prime minister. If the past 14 years of fighting have proven anything, it is that tough tactics appear to prolong the violence, not prevent it.