Thursday, July 15, 2010

Death Toll in Thailand’s Restive South reaches 4,000

Thai govt should swallow its pride and call in mediators to arrange talks with Malay Muslim insurgents

Thailand has never been comfortable with the idea of talking to the enemy, especially the Malay Muslim separatists in the deep South. And so when one of the long-standing groups broke their silence about a unilateral, unannounced ceasefire they had carried out, though with limited success, the government dismissed the report with extreme caution.

Perhaps the most sensible response to this sticky issue came from government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn, who was quoted as saying the government does not recognise the insurgent groups but added that this administration "does not oppose any means that will mitigate the violence. We regard them as a good initiative".
Internal Security Operations Command spokesman Colonel Banpot Poonpien, on the other hand, was lost for words, and decided to play it safe by dismissing the entire thing, probably because his outfit weren't in the know, as always.

For the record, no Thai government has ever officially recognised any of the separatist groups, many of whom surfaced in the late 1960s and fought the Thai military bitterly in the 1970s and 80s until a blanket amnesty crippled their militant wings on the ground.

But the absence of official recognition does not mean the insurgents do not exist. The daily killings and attacks against government troops should be testimony that there is such a thing as an insurgency. Or perhaps the authorities are still clinging to the outdated explanation that these attackers are drug-crazed young men lured by false history and Islamic extremism.

Coming to terms with reality hasn't been easy for security people with inflated egos. And therefore young men who can't buy their way out of the Army draft take the bullet for it.
Moreover, the absence of official recognition does not mean the two sides can't talk. The British government and the Irish Republican Army negotiated secretly for a decade before it was "officially acknowledged" that they had been talking.

Back in 2005, the government of Thaksin Shinawatra dispatched two top security officers, the then Armed Forces' Security Centre chief Lt-General Vaipot Srinuan, and General Winai Pathiyakul of the National Security Council, to Langkawi, Malaysia to attend a series of meetings with separatist leaders. The event was organised by the former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad.

Towards the end of his term, then prime minister Surayud Chulanont met personally with representatives from the Patani United Liberation Organisation during a stopover in Bahrain in late 2007.

After more than 4,000 deaths over the past six years, perhaps it's time for all stakeholders, especially the government, to think outside the box. The recently concluded unilateral ceasefire was implemented in Rangae, Yi-ngor and Joh I-Rong districts of Narathiwat province. Under the initiative, there were to be no "organised attacks" against government targets during that period in the three designated districts. It wasn't perfect, but it was something different. Did it qualify as something totally new? Not really, because there have been cases in which local military commanders, with the help of community leaders, cut deals with local insurgent cells to establish rules of engagement.

Similar arrangements have also been carried out in various pockets in which security units agreed to back off from certain areas in exchange for some form of guarantee that soft targets would not be hit. Naturally, these were arranged through local community leaders respected on both sides of the conflict, and were not part of a comprehensive policy.

Indeed, some of the local leaders who have quietly stepped in to "mediate" between the security units and militants include former foot soldiers of some of the Patani Malay Muslim separatist groups that roamed the hills and back roads two decades ago. Unlike the top brass, who let their egos get the better of them, these community leaders probably felt they had a moral obligation to do something for their communities. At the least, they pushed for some sort of rules in order to lessen the collateral damage.

Because there is no policy from central government, commanders on the ground are left to deal with the situation as they see fit.

Perhaps now is the time for the government to take a good look at the deep South and come up with a sound policy on the issue of a peace process.

Various proposals for talks - like the Langkawi and Bahrain meetings - have come and gone, but few, if any, have gained any real traction. Either the participants are barking up the wrong trees or the policy-makers can't find it in them to come to talk to the enemy.

But one thing is clear. No ethno-nationalist conflict of this nature can be solved without dialogue. A good facilitator and/or mediator is needed simply because the separatists and the state do not trust each other. Editorial, The Nation, Bangkok

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