Referendum Graffiti Puzzles Deep South Observers

A graffiti found Monday morning in Narathiwat province

BANGKOK — People in the three southern border provinces woke Monday to signposts and roads spraypainted with graffiti apparently denouncing the proposed constitution at stake in the upcoming referendum.

Experts and authorities are divided over whether they were a message addressed to the Thai state by local Muslim separatists, who rarely address national politics throughout a dozen years of their insurgency.

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For Zahari Chelong, editor of an online news agency that has extensively reported on the insurrection, the unsigned graffiti bears the militants’ fingerprints.

“Looking at the circumstances and the way they [the graffiti] was done, it’s clear that this is a message from the movement,” Zahari of the Wartani news website said by telephone. “This is an expression of their stance. They don’t accept the constitution.”

Hara Shintaro, a Pattani-based scholar and writer, gave the same assessment. He said it’s natural that the militants, who have fought to restore the once-independent state of Patani, would reject any Thai constitution because of clauses forbidding secession.

“They don’t acknowledge Thai constitution which prohibits separation. I mean, any version,” Hara wrote. “They deny Thai constitution, whatever the shape is.”

X Marks the What?

The works of graffiti were spotted in the provinces of Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala on Monday morning, sprayed on roads, signs and at least one administrative building in a manner consistent with typical insurgent messaging.

The messages themselves were terse. They only consist of the words “constitution” and “referendum” in Thai, with X marks.

A graffiti found Monday morning in Narathiwat province
A graffiti found Monday morning in Narathiwat province

The minimalist style of the messages is what prevented Srisomphop Jitpiromsri, director of the Deep South Watch news agency, from saying outright it was the militants’ work.

“I can’t say for sure what they even are trying to convey, because the messages don’t tell us anything. They may even mean they want to tick an X for the constitution in the referendum!” Srisomphop said, laughing.

But on a more serious note, the expert said he knew of no other group which goes out before dawn to spraypaint messages for the authorities.

“It’s a tactic that the movement has been using again and again,” he said.

On the other hand, regional police chief Chalermpan Achalaboon ruled out the separatists, and blamed local student activists opposed to the military regime and the constitution.

“It could be the students and activists who campaign in a nonviolent method,” said Maj. Gen. Chalermpan, who commands the police force in the three southern provinces. “It has nothing to do with the separatist movement. They stay where they are; they have always separated themselves from this kind of issue.”

Elusive Warriors

Even scholars who believe the graffiti is a message from the secessionists say they’re puzzled why the militants would break their usual silence to weigh in on an issue that they’ve never touched before.

The insurgents, the experts said, only have one goal – to secede the three provinces and form an independent state of Patani – and national politics in Bangkok have not been a matter of interest for them.

“This is the first time I knew of them speaking out [about the constitution],” Zahari said. “It’s really a strange situation, a strange signal … Usually, they don’t care. They just want to build a new country, they want Patani as a country, so they don’t care.”

Although Srisomphop said the militants rarely address national politics – and never constitutional referendums – they might feel compelled to speak out against the current draft being put before voters Sunday.

“This constitution can be linked to the Deep South, too, because clauses on decentralization, autonomy and self-determination have been mostly cut from the previous draft,” Srisomphop said. “So it does affect their movement.”

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