Bangkok merely paying lip service to deep South autonomy

opinion December 27, 2018 01:00

By The Nation

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Government’s refusal to recognise legitimate separate ethnic identity of southern Malays is main obstacle to peace 



During his recent visit to Thailand, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed suggested Thai authorities should offer the ethnic Malays of the southernmost provinces some form of autonomy to undermine separatist ideology.

General Udomchai Thamsarorat, Bangkok’s recently appointed chief negotiator for peace talks in the far South, was quick to remind the public that Thailand has the final say in the matter.

However, Udomchai granted that the issue could be broached at the next round of talks, to get a better understanding of the idea.

Udomchai said the government would like to hear what the rebels think about Thailand’s so-called decentralisation policy and what kind of administrative challenges they foresee.

The talk of autonomy is nothing new, but like everything, the devil is in the details. Thailand has never wanted to go down this route. 

The administration of Abhisit Vejjajiva rejected similar suggestions from the Malaysian PM at the time, Najib Razak, that autonomy be granted to the Malays in the far South.

The two leaders agreed that the word “decentralisation” was more appropriate for the region.

But this ignores the facts on the ground. Armed insurgency surfaced in the South because local Malays protested a rigid Thai policy of assimilation they said came at the expense of their religious-ethnic identity.

Crudely put, the state tried to turn the Malays into something they are not, a move that was rejected with violence.

At the core of the deep South conflict is a lack of respect for the local Patani identity and historical narrative. For many of us, especially our leaders and policymakers, giving the Malays this respect is too much to ask.

We would rather send young men to this historically contested region to fight against an enemy they can’t see, in a war they don’t understand.

Bangkok can pay endless lip service with words like “autonomy” and “decentralisation”, but no progress will be made until it acknowledges  that its policy of assimilation has been a failure.

It is time to think outside of the box. Too many lives have been lost in the southern violence – about 7,000 so far – and the end is still nowhere in sight.

When the current wave of insurgency surfaced over 14 years ago, Bangkok thought development was the solution. The government poured money into the region, although not much of it trickled down to the grassroots level.

When that didn’t work, authorities tried to co-opt the local elite into economic and security projects. That didn’t work either. 

The Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), the group that controls virtually all of the insurgent militants, was not interested in making compromises or in come to the negotiating table.

The BRN may not control geographical territory in the region, but one can’t deny that it has succeeded in capturing the mental space – the hearts and minds of the local grassroots community.

The insurgency is essentially an ethno-nationalist conflict, not a religious one. But because the combatants are Muslims, Thai authorities think they can nudge the clerics to issue a fatwah, an Islamic religious ruling, to get the BRN to halt their separatist campaign. If only it were that simple.

What happens when these clerics say the BRN has legitimacy to take up arms against the Thai state, to liberate their historical homeland? What do Thai authorities do then?

But if any clerics did issue a fatwah, declaring separatist militants are violating Islamic principles, what do the authorities think would happen to them? Do they even care?