Thursday, May 29, 2014

Suddenly, hope for Thailand’s Restive South from an unlikely source

The junta should grab this opportunity to do something decisive and constructive for the conflict-ridden provinces

Hardly a day goes by without a fresh act of violence in Thailand's deep South, but residents there know the crisis has always been held hostage by national politics.

Despite all the lip service paid to the conflict in this historically contested region, no government has shown serious commitment to seeking sustainable peace there. Each has realised that real efforts toward peace would be costly and yet bring no votes from the rest of the country, which is by and large indifferent to the plight of the Malays of the three southernmost provinces.

Thus, successive governments have relied on bureaucratic means to push through a "holding" policy - handouts to win locals' hearts and minds and cash pay-outs to the families of those mistakenly killed by government troops. Meanwhile, the root of the conflict - the Malays' disputed place in the context of the Thai state - remains untouched.

What is needed is a commitment to examine ways and means by which the two sides can coexist peacefully. Yes, there have been peace talks with armed groups in the past, but there is little evidence that any administration was serious about making concessions.

In 2005, at the start of this current wave of insurgency-related conflict, then-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra gave the green light for his top military and National Security Council chiefs to conduct a series of secret meetings with a group of separatist leaders in Langkawi, Malaysia. The initiative was half-baked, pushed through without much preparation by each side or the facilitators.

The same could be said of all the other so-called peace initiatives initiated by Bangkok since the current wave of Malay Muslim separatist insurgents resurfaced in early 2001 and went into full swing in January 2004.

Needless to say, none of these initiatives produced any meaningful outcome or recommendations for the state, buried as they were beneath the colour-coded politic crises that brought the country to its knees and have now resulted in the ousting of the Yingluck Shinawatra government.

When Yingluck came to power, she removed the old team of bureaucrats assigned to the secret peace process. One thing her government did right for the South was to publicly announce that it was entering into peace talks with separatist movements to seek a political solution to the conflict.

While the whole world welcomed the announcement, the actions that followed did nothing to suggest that her government was serious about the process.

Under the facilitator, Malaysia, a motley crew of self-proclaimed Barisan Revolusi Nasional leaders was put together. BRN, the longstanding separatist group boasting the best working relations with the insurgent militia, didn't "buy" the scheme and neither did the militia. The effort sputtered to an ignoble end.

Since the February 28, 2012, announcement of peace talks, hardly a day has gone by without a fresh incident of insurgency-related violence in the South. An end to this conflict is nowhere in sight.

The junta, within days of ousting Yingluck from power, confirmed its faith in the same officials she'd placed in charge of the deep South and quickly put together their team. Government sources say they have low hopes for the new team, which is essentially just new wine in a recycled bottle.

What has been missing so far from the peace initiatives is continuity. Each power shift in Bangkok sees the southern team booted out and replaced with fresh faces.

The generals who seized power last week don't have to worry about opposition in Parliament. They should grab this opportunity and find the political courage to do something decisive and constructive for the deep South, something to show that they truly care about the people of this historically contested region.

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