We could get even more from our close allies in Manila 

opinion March 26, 2017 01:00

By The Nation

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The Prayut regime should study how the Philippines has dealt with Muslim separatists in the south of their country

The Thai and Philippine governments have agreed to forge closer cooperation on terrorism and transnational crime. 

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha agreed that the two governments will move quickly on intelligence exchanges. The revelation came during the three-day official visit by the Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte this past week.

The move should be welcome as both countries face great security challenges, from both conventional and non-traditional threats. Thailand has been hit with a second wave of insurgency in the far South by militants seeking to carve out a separate homeland. 

Nearly 7,000 people have been killed, mostly ethnic Malay Muslims, after this conflict flared again in January 2004.

Similar ethno-nationalist movements have existed for several decades in the southern part of the Philippines but Manila and the “Moros” have decided to negotiate to seek a peaceful way out of their conflict. 

The same could not be said about the Abu Sayyaf terrorist group, however, who are more interested in making money from kidnapping than a genuine autonomy or independence for their people. In short, they are a bunch of criminals whose agenda does not reflect the needs and desire of the people of the region.

Then there is the Communists, the so-called New People’s Army, who have engaged in an off-and-on dialogue with the government in Manila. 

In their joint statement, Prayut and Duterte pointed to “the growing security challenges from the spread of terrorism and extremism as well as transnational crimes such as drug trafficking, human trafficking, piracy and cyber security with a shared view that cooperation at the bilateral, regional and international levels, are required in dealing with these challenges.”

“In this regard, the two leaders agreed to enhance cooperation in the exchange of information and intelligence among security agencies of both sides at the bilateral, Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) and Interpol frameworks to increase efficiency in addressing these challenges,” the statement said.

Indeed, when it comes to conflict resolution, there are many lessons that Thailand can learn from the Philippines. The ongoing peace talks with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) that could serve as a good lesson for Thailand. 

In this regard, Manila has decided to call a spade a spade and admitted to themselves that the Moros embrace a different cultural and historical narrative from that of the state. Once that’s out of the way, they can focus on autonomy for the region. 

And like everything else, the devil is in the details. In short, political will is needed. Unfortunately, such political will is not available in Thailand. We pay lip service to the idea that the conflict and insurgency in the far South is a national priority. 

But in real terms, it is very much a local issue. People in Bangkok don’t feel disturbed by it. And the government does very little to set the record straight. They continue to distort the true nature of the southern conflict. Often, they blame the violence on a group of drug-crazed young men who embrace a “wrong” version of Islam and a history that is also “taught wrong”. Moreover, these young men prone to violence are ungrateful about all the goods the state has provided them.

For the insurgents, Thais are colonial masters. Bangkok thinks it can send “good” civil servants to the region and win hearts and minds. But from the local perspective, a benevolent colonial master is still a colonial master. 

Thai policy-makers need to do more in terms of picking the brains of their Filipino counterparts, especially how they came to terms with the need to get to the historical root causes and grievances of the conflict in their southern region. We should also ask them what went through their minds when they opened the doors to the international community and invited them to help resolve the conflict.

Sadly, in Thailand, we are still fooling ourselves into believing that there is nothing wrong with our policy.