Wednesday, July 27, 2011

A desperate plea from the Thailand’s Restive South

"When people here say it's business as usual, nothing has changed, they mean people still get killed and bombs continue to explode every day…"

A senior Buddhist monk made this off-the-cuff comment in a radio programme all the way from the southernmost district of Sugei Golok on the first day of Buddhist Lent last week.

A day earlier, I heard a veteran teacher in Pattani tell another radio programme:
"Not a day passes without people here being killed or maimed by violence from the insurgents… it's the kind of norm that is not acceptable."

Boontom Thongsriplai, chairman of the Federation of Teachers in the Three Southernmost Provinces, is an eloquent speaker. But he was stuck for words on how to explain the continuous trouble in the three Muslim-dominated provinces in the South.
Now that the election is over and a Pheu Thai-led government is taking shape, the desperate teacher's passionate plea to the new administration is simply to take the issue seriously.

"I would like to ask the new government to place the Southern issue on top of its list of priorities. It's getting worse every day," Boontom says.

Of course, he realises that Pheu Thai, despite its overwhelming majority in the House, doesn't have even one MP from the South which, true to tradition, placed its trust through the ballot box in the Democrat Party.

Thaksin Shinawatra's record as prime minister and Thai Rak Thai Party chief strategist on the Southern issue left much to be desired. His highly offensive statement - "If you want your province to be looked after by the government, you have to vote for my party" - still sends chills down the spine of a lot of southern voters. But even if the southerners saw a major Pheu Thai Party victory coming, they didn't waver. The Democrats gained even more seats this time.
However, the Democrats' performance in dealing with the deep South's problems wasn't that satisfactory either, although they claimed to have a deeper understanding of the area. But "understanding" didn't translate into any concrete solutions.

Thaksin's handling of the "Krue Se Incident", and the extra-judicial killings of more than 2,000 people in the then government's anti-narcotics campaign, remain vivid in the collective memory of southerners.

The ex-premier may have recently expressed his "regrets" for those "unfortunate incidents" but it's what the incoming Yingluck government does in the deep South that will determine whether saying sorry will be translated into real actions to not only make amends for the past but also contribute concrete, positive solutions in the country's most violence-plagued area.

Boontom says that past governments have committed the "honest mistake" of dispatching soldiers from regions all around the country to fight insurgents in the three southernmost provinces.

"But it's a misguided policy because most of the soldiers sent from Regions 1, 2 and 3 aren't familiar with the local people, culture and terrain. They become sitting ducks for the terrorists who become emboldened by being able to kill our military personnel," the teacher says.

Things are more complicated down south than most Bangkok-based policymakers think. "The southern mess is a mixture of politics, smuggling, drugs and, of course, corruption lies at the heart of the whole scenario," Boontom explains.

And the victims of such a complicated situation in the South have been treated as "guinea pigs" by one government after another.

"Various solutions have been tried on us. None has worked. Most officials don't even know who is really behind the ongoing violence. So, they set up one agency, scrapped it, and then proposed a new administration system which didn't even have time to prove its worth before another government introduced a new idea…"

The Democrats re-introduced the "joint agency" concept, putting the military, police and civilian personnel to work together under one roof after the previous government had disbanded it.

During the election campaign, certain Pheu Thai candidates proposed the implementation of a "Special Administration Zone" for the South if they were elected.
But since none of those candidates won a seat in the new House, it remains unclear how the new government will run the deep South.

"Teachers in the South welcome the new government. We don't care which party runs the country as long as the new government pays sufficient attention to this deteriorating situation in the South…"

Southern voters may have rejected Pheu Thai's "special administration zone" concept. But they also expect the new government to get down to work to get a deeper understanding of the root causes of the southern problems and to work with the local people in seeking real short-term and long-range solutions.

For Pheu Thai to show its humility in election victory, the new government will have to be very humble, and eager both to learn from past mistakes and to cultivate the crucial level of trust down south.

The South contains perhaps the most critical lesson for Pheu Thai to learn - as much as the Northeast does for the Democrats. The Nation, Bangkok

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