Thursday, October 7, 2010

To go forward in the South Thais must first go backwards

Talk of development is all very well, but it does nothing to address the deeper historical wounds in the region

It was billed as sound advice from a Muslim leader who wants to see peace and reconciliation in the southernmost provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat.

Kariya Kijarak, chairman of the Confederation for the 14th Southern Islamic Committee, suggested his advice could help end the ongoing violence in the Malay-speaking South, where more than 4,200 people have been killed since January 2004.
He said the government should withdraw all troops from the three southernmost provinces, saying that a military solution could not bring peace.

Judging from news reports, it isn't clear whether Kariya was trying to blame the violence exclusively on the security forces. Nevertheless, he was correct to say the problem cannot be solved by military means.

His idea is to have the local Malay Muslims take over security duties. He said that if violence subsequently continued in the restive region then the authorities could safely claim that the killings were among the Malay Muslims themselves. One wonders what point he is trying to prove. Moreover, he left out the concerns of Buddhist residents, also a very important part of the local social fabric.

The idea of declaring Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat as cities for cultural and religious tourism has merit, but for such a project to have any success the Thai state must also acknowledge that the deep South is the historic homeland of the Malays. To promote an area's distinctiveness, the state must respect the residents for who they are rather than something it wants them to be. Unfortunately, the state can't make, or won't make, the distinction between "Thai Muslims" and "Malay Muslims".

The idea of giving the region some degree of autonomy is not a bad one, but more important is the issue of justice and equality. Structural reform usually means changing one set of leaders for another set. It doesn't always translate into the betterment of people's lives.

Regarding job creation, much has been said about the proposed Halal industry over the year. Yet we can't even agree on tax incentives for the companies that want to go down to the deep South. Furthermore, no one has ever explained how such an industry is going to benefit the local residents, other than provide some with manual labour on a meagre wage.

And aside from the industry, the poor condition of much of the livestock - with skinny cattle, goats and chickens - shows that we need to talk about feed and farms in the region.

Yes, the security forces have been blamed for being part of the problem rather than the solution. But the insurgents are no angels, either. Could the local residents - who would presumably form as pro-government militia units made up of Muslim residents - guarantee the protection of local Buddhist's lives and property?

To say that all the violence has its source in state-generated activity is to deny the very existence of the Malay Muslim insurgents. Such thinking is one-sided and counter-productive. The truth is that a lot of blood has been spilled and everybody has got some on their hands.

Given this fact, the word "human dignity" needs to take priority in any recommendation for the South. Food security and development are important but they are not the root cause of the problem that pitted the Malays of Patani against the Thai state. That root cause has more to do with the nature of Thailand's nation-building and the failed national policy of assimilation that comes at the expense of the Malay's political consciousness and historical narratives.

It's easy to talk about development and employment because it allows us to feel good about ourselves. But we require more than a sticking plaster for such deep wounds. What is needed is a serious rethink among the country's leaders, people and institutions as to why generation after generation of Malay Muslim insurgents continue to surface and take up arms in spite of the fact that the region came under Bangkok's rule over a century ago.

Furthermore, it's bad enough that we live in a country that is indifferent to the plight of the Malays of Patani. It doesn't help that we have leaders who think they are trying to do good but are in fact missing the point entirely or just simply getting it wrong. The Nation, Bangkok

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