Monday, July 27, 2009

Thailand’s Restive South - Border Fence Or A Fence-Off?

The idea of a security wall to protect the South and end the violence is so strange that it borders on the desperate. It is even more strange that only a bare majority of Thais voted against it in a poll.

When nearly 49 per cent of the country seems to think that a wall between Thailand and Malaysia could save the South, it's clear that the long-running separatist campaign has become frustrating. It also seems clear that the lack of initiative by the government has created strong letdowns, both in the troubled region itself, and in the rest of the country. Six months ago, there were at least muted hopes than freshman Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva would turn his attention to the South.
The region poses the greatest existing security threat to the lives of the people in the four southernmost provinces. It also is the worst threat to the security of the country itself.

The suicide attacks on Jakarta hotels earlier this month were a reminder of the regional terrorist gangs trying to get their hooks into the southern insurgency. But the long war itself has taken thousands of lives and cost the provinces involved hundreds of billions of baht in potential business and prosperity. Instead, Mr Abhisit has effectively ignored the deep South. His Democrat Party, once the hope for peace in the South, has been conspicuously silent on the problem.

The premier and cabinet have effectively dropped the festering situation in the South on the army. Some think this is a bad idea on the face of it, since the military is unlikely ever to bring peace to the four provinces. Many southerners resent the military's presence, and believe - or spread propaganda, which has the same effect - that the army is actually behind some of the violence and much of the crime in the region.

Last week, Philippines President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo decided that the status quo in her country's war against Islamic separatists was not working. She ordered the military to cease fire. This surprising step is meant to encourage the Moro Islamic Liberation Front to agree to peace talks.

The Philippines is not Thailand, and the MILF is a more organised and diverse group than the unnamed gangs terrorising the South of Thailand. But the will to talk is necessary if ever there is to be peace in the murderous campaign under way in the South. It is certainly troubling that Mr Abhisit has thrown the pacification campaign, and now a new economic project, in the lap of the military, virtually without oversight.

The government is about to give the army 63 billion baht meant as an economic stimulus in the South over the next three years. It is close to impossible to imagine the military running a successful economic programme. One might consider it unfair, except that the army has in no way protested this project. The government needs to kickstart economic activity in the South. But it needs first to re-activate its own interest in the region. Mr Abhisit gives the impression that he is already fighting the next election. He should be more deeply involved in the troubles of the country, particularly in the South.

Unless the government manages the stimulus package for the deep South, the investment of 63 billion baht is likely to be a waste.
Bangkok Post Editorial

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