Thursday, February 11, 2010

Can the Canadian model offer a solution for southern Thailand?

CANADA'S decentralist and multiculturalist policies have helped it deal with its own "South".

While violence has reached new levels since the turn of the century, long-standing demands for autonomy and special administration for the former Patani sultanate in Thailand's deep South have remained unanswered. Several potential models to ease strenuous relations between the Patani Malays and the Thai State have been proposed, and subsequently rejected. However, the key to a less violent future in southern Thailand might be found in an unlikely model: Canada.

Canada has also been dealing with a region's autonomous aspirations: Quebec.
Integrated into Canada upon its formation following French deafeat to the British, French-speaking Quebecers are prone to defend their language and culture first and foremost. Hence, adhesion to the Canadian State has been fragile over time. In spite of this, Canada has been relatively successful in dealing with its own "South". This success rests mainly on two policies: decentralisation and multiculturalism.

Seen as one of the foundations of Canadian society, multiculturalism is a sociological fact as well as a quasi State ideology. The ideals of cultural and religious pluralism and the negation of the primacy of any one belief, remain a central priority in the government's decision-making process. While not institutionalized as in Canada's case - where multiculturalism is a de jure concept - Thailand's own "Nation, Religion and Monarchy", which cements the majority Therevada Buddhist faith as the State religion, is in diametrical opposition to the Islamic culture of the Patani Muslims of the south. This makes it hard for some of them to feel wholly part of the Thai "nation".

Canada's multiculturalist approach to nationhood, among other factors, led the central government to pass a motion recognizing that Quebecers formed a nation within a united Canada. A head-scratching concept for many, this recognition was completely empty in legal terms. What it did though, as a symbolic gesture, was to render powerless one of the minority's enduring cheval de bataille.

While the factions promoting autonomy, in both countries, have legitimate and defendable objectives, they also love to use the central governments' refusal to recognize claims of historical and cultural distinctiveness as a political weapon. But what happens when these parties and their partisans lose one of their key arguments? It satisfies a stratum of the population whose claims or demands can be accommodated. While there are certainly radical believers who will never be reconciled by anything less than complete separation, governments must focus on how to accommodate the majority, usually moderate believers.

Because the Thai authorities have a hard time finding southern representatives to deal with, and because different factions' objectives range from simple recognition to complete independence, knowing how to properly accommodate these southern citizens is an arduous task in the absence of clear demands. However, it seems that a similar, symbolic rather than legal, recognition of Patani Malays' distinct cultural identity as being an essential part of the Thai state would go a long way in easing resentment towards the State.

Canada's decentralisation enables provinces to have control over important areas such as education and culture. While all provinces have such powers, this enables Quebec to promote the French language in education, as well as its own cultural productions, within Canada and abroad. Despite using a different language in most institutions, Quebec's education system remains compatible with Canada's.

Lacking such powers, and with the Kingdom-wide Thai curriculum - often seen as a betrayal to their culture - the Patani Malays have created a quasi-parallel Islamic schooling system, the pondoks. Because students graduating from these Islamic schools are sometimes not well-equipped to integrate into the wider Thai economy, the government needs to allow the region to develop a local curriculum that is compatible with the mainstream education system. Autonomy in crucial areas like education could help prevent Patani Malays from feeling that all matters are controlled by a government some consider insensitive to their collective identity.

Such ideas have already been proposed, notably by former Prime Minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, a few months ago, when he stated that the three southernmost provinces should have an administration unique to the region. Unfortunately, such ideas are often misinterpreted as promoting separation from the State, and are quickly rejected with scant debate. But as it stands, the provincial, tambon and municipal administrations, which the South shares with all other Thai provinces, are clearly insufficient for this region.

The Canadian model does have its flaws. Critics say it weakens central government and erodes the predominant culture. The nature of the issue in Canada also plays a huge part in the possibility of implementing such measures because unending yet pacific argument undoubtedly provides more common ground than tragic violence.
Still, what this model suggests is that, while it may ruffle the feathers of the majority, letting one group drift away from the nation's inherent principles, however real or mythical they may be, might be the government's best option to prevent it from collapsing altogether.

There are many obstacles blocking any form of autonomy for Thailnd's South, the foremost of which is the very definition of autonomy itself, and its potential delimitations. It is unlikely that any solution will be found soon, be it with this model or not. The government, ironically the party most popular among southerners, has to deal with more pressing issues in the near future, notably its own uncertain survival. Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban recently stated that nobody can deliver autonomy to the South, as the country's elite will not countenance it, and so it is hard not to look at the situation with pessimism. However, as lives are lost daily, there is an increasingly urgent need to reach a compromise - for the sake of every Thai citizen. By PIER-LUC GAGNON for The Nation, Bangkok

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