More meaningless PR in the deep South

opinion February 07, 2018 01:00

By The Nation

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The Army never seems to tire of playing games with Muslim families 

A few days ago there were reports that the Thai Army was on the verge of getting some 2,000 former Patani Malay separatist militants residing abroad, including in faraway places in Europe, to return to Thailand under a “Bring People Back Home” amnesty programme.

This past week, nearly 300 men were paraded in front of the public and the media as they lined up to receive handguns and a small amount of cash as gestures of goodwill from the military. Local residents and observers, on the other hand, were shaking their heads, amazed at the audacity of the Army’s unabashed public-relations exercise.

The project is called “Bring People Back Home”, but officers of the Fourth Army Area have, for as long as anyone can remember, been doing something like this for a very long time. 

The idea is to convince the public that the military is on the right track and to justify its enormous budget for the region. 

Never mind that such orchestrated “surrenders” are meaningless. Few people outside the South understand that. All they see is a bunch of Malay Muslims lining up for cash and a handshake and they assume it must be a good arrangement for everyone. 

Thais tend to be blindly patriotic, and few would take the time to question the Army’s counter-insurgency operations in the conflict-afflicted South, where Patani Malay separatist movements are testing the predominant notions of Thainess and the nation-state. 

A decade ago, during the peak of violence in the far South, the Army was using friendly non-governmental organisations as go-betweens. The parents of young men on the military blacklist were asked to take part in a boot-stomping ceremony to demonstrate that they did not support the separatist movements. In exchange, their sons’ names would be taken off the blacklist. 

Being on the list, in the context of the far South, can result in death at the hands of a government or a pro-government death squad, so it’s understandable that parents would do whatever they could to get their sons de-listed.

Those left on the list are suspected of having some link with insurgent cells, even if they don’t take part in ambushes or other operations against security forces. Often, young men are blacklisted just because of their association with someone who is actively militant.

Fourth Army commanders occasionally repeat this episode, going through the same bogus motions to enhance their standing in the eyes of citizens outside the South. 

Citizens of the South, both Muslims and Buddhists, are all too familiar with these PR events and somewhat indifferent to the ceremonies and to claims that they are effective.

Amnesty is not a bad concept when the goal is national reconciliation, but its success depends on how it’s handled.

For the Army, amnesty means requiring Patani Malays to crawl before the authorities and beg forgiveness. 

Pride must be swallowed. Dignity is not even considered. 

Sadly, after 15 years of fighting and 7,000 deaths, the authorities are still barking up the same old tree. They cling to the nation’s flag and shout about patriotism, but continue with their same old PR tricks, which win applause from certain uninformed quarters but do nothing to alter harsh reality.