Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Thailand’s shadow dance of the South: A drama that no one understands

The dancers are invisible, their shadows are thrown on the screen and that's all the audience sees. No, this is not a definition of a shadow dance, it's a description of the armed conflict in the deep South of Thailand.

Did he or did he not do it? The purported attempt by ousted former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra to broker a ceasefire deal with BRN (Malay-Muslim separatist) leaders living in Malaysia earlier this year remains under a cloud of mystery. It is a classic case of "he said, she said" or "those who know don't talk, those who talk don't know".

However, even if the former prime minister did actually try, it may not be such a horrific thing. If one life can be saved in the ongoing insurgency, it's perhaps worth it. A more interesting question pertaining to the alleged meeting should be what was offered for the possibility of a truce. According to intelligence reports, it was not anything malicious, just monetary.

The supposed follow-up visit in February by Police Colonel Thavee Sodsong, secretary-general of the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Centre, to the "Tom Yum Kung" restaurants district in Malaysia - known as one of the main gathering spots for separatist leaders - is now in the public domain. Photographs of him at one of the restaurants there have been widely shown in the media. In those images, little or no public attention was paid to a member of the Pattani, Narathiwat, Yala, Stoon faction (PNYS) comprised of young and educated activists, brimming with ideals, who do not necessarily see eye to eye with the older generation of separatists, whom they perceive as being out of touch with the movement.

Complex questions emerge when it comes to the real power behind the never-ending deadly attacks on the authorities as well as civilians in the troubled region. Who is in charge? What exactly is the rationale behind the insurgency and the attacks?
Certain facts can be established though. The older BRN members are not well regarded by the modern rebel cells as being relevant to the cause. They are far removed from the combat zones and live a relatively comfortable life outside of Thailand.

There are many armed insurgent cells; each has its own leaders, agenda, modus operandi and funding sources. These cells are distinct and independent. They are known to be more competitive than cooperative. Little can be ascertained as to what they have accomplished in terms of pursuing their goals, and how ideological they are in terms of their aspirations. Some are more ideologue, some less, and some are just separate aberration groups acting out of revenge. Some are "created" for reasons other than ideology, identity or religious belief. There is no unity between and among them at any level in their operations.

Some would say that the independence of each cell is a strategic design to make it extremely hard for the authorities and security forces to know who the enemies are and what they are doing. Some would say that such separation is in the nature of rebels who do not share the same aspirations.

On the government side, the picture is not much tidier or prettier. It is destructive chaos.

The regional armed forces have their own command and intelligence structure, as do the police forces and the government's civilian task forces. One of the Army's strategies is to win back the hearts and minds of local people, so they hold weekly sports days, carry out career training and "Good Samaritan" projects. One thing the Army does not do well is search and patrol during nighttime. So there have been incidents of insurgents raiding Army's caches and using stolen weapons on their uniformed prey.

The regional police forces do not follow the military command, and vice versa. The civilian task forces are rudderless because no one in the command position has a clue about the fundamental issues or a strategy to deal with them in an effective and sustained way.

There was one incident after the 2007 coup that spoke loudly of how spineless our conflict management is. It was a briefing for diplomatic officers on the situation in the South. The commander of the regional forces spoke first and painted one picture. Then the head of the armed forces spoke, and the situation he described bore absolutely no resemblance to the brief given earlier by the first commander.

There is no need to describe the hollow impression with which those diplomatic officers went home.

If one was to ask an impartial observer what is the underlying problem the central government has when it comes to solving the armed conflict in the South, the answer will be the lack of political will and the inability to understand the conflict in its totality.

The best analogy for the official responses to the southern conflict is the story of the blind men and the elephant. It originated in India and was made famous in the West by the poet John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887).

It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.
And so these men of Hindustan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right
And all were in the wrong.
So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has been or seen!
The way everything is going, on both sides of the conflict in the deep South, the shadow dance will continue, and the blind men will continue to say the elephant is a wall, a rope, a spear, a snake, a rope, a tree, a hand fan, and so on
The Nation, Bangkok

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