Friday, May 27, 2011

Thailand’s Politicians should talk about real issues in the South

Instead of rhetoric about possible autonomy, people in the South want to hear about genuine future prospects from election candidates

With at least seven political parties running for parliamentary seats in the violence-plagued three southernmost provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat, one would think that the platforms would be much more interesting and innovative than the rhetoric and speculation that has been circulating.

There has been a lot of hot air from the various parties over the proposed semi-autonomous region dubbed the "Pattani Metropolitan Administration". The idea was tossed out last year by Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, then chairman of the Pheu Thai Party, who has now left both his post and the party.

To begin with, the veteran former prime minister, who always claimed to have a good working relationship with the Malay-speaking region, no longer has the needed political capital to push such an idea through. This will not happen with his backing now, nor would it have done when he threw out the idea during his tenure as Pheu Thai chairman. Others picked up on the proposal, but it simply didn't gain much traction. In the end it became a political slogan, a sales pitch for interested policy-makers and national leaders, without much real thought given as to how it could ever be accomplished.

There is no need to remind the public how important the issue of Southern autonomy is, and how seriously the ongoing conflict has affected the livelihood of the region's people and officials, regardless of their ethnicity or religion.

The idea of autonomy is not a bad one in itself, but it has to be understood in the national context. Any form of decentralisation, for any region of the country, should be carried out in a context of understanding. For too long, too much emphasis and responsibility has been placed on the central government. It's high time we empowered local communities and seriously considered the proposals made by the now-defunct National Reform Committee under the leadership of former prime minister Anand Panyarachun.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has repeatedly said over this past year that he is open to ideas on autonomy for the deep South, and that such a notion should not be confined to political or administrative entities. In this respect, the idea of greater cultural space for the Malays of the deep South should not be overlooked. After all, research after research supports the argument that the conflict is ethno-nationalist in nature because the Malays in the southernmost provinces do not embrace the state-constructed identity that Thailand has tried to impose on them for more than a century.

If history is any indication, the Malays of the deep South are willing to be part of Thailand, but it has to be on their terms - not the terms dictated by the state.
But it's far too hard for Thai politicians to address this sticky issue - that the Malays question the legitimacy of the Thai state in the region, and reject the state-constructed identity - because they know that it would be too hard a sell to their constituencies. And so they stick to the ambiguous rhetoric, hoping this will get them elected to Parliament.

In some strange way, many politicians even have the audacity to promote the idea of autonomy. Many were around and in power during the Tak Bai massacre in 2004, and none made any critical comments about the brutal treatment of the unarmed demonstrators at the hands of the military.

Instead of shouting slogans about autonomy, why not talk about real issues such as equality and justice? People in the deep South - both Malay Muslims and Thai Buddhists - want to know about the future prospects for their children. They want to know about social mobility and equality for themselves and their children.

The Malays who challenge the Thai identity want to know how the nation will treat their cultural heritage, their historical narrative and their different outlook. If these key issues are not addressed, the anger that fuels the resentment and has driven many young men to take up arms against the state will produce the next generation of militants. We owe it to future generations to get out of this vicious cycle. The Nation, Bangkok

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