A lesson for Thailand from the Philippines

opinion October 10, 2012 00:00

By The Nation

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Bangkok must overcome its fear of foreign peace brokers if it wants to end the violence in the deep South


After 15 years of negotiation, on Sunday the Philippines government finally reached agreement with the Muslim rebels in the country’s southern region to end a 40-year conflict that has killed more than 120,000 people. This is good news for the Philippines and for Asean.
Of course there is still more work to be done, but credit must be given to those who were involved in a peace process that has travelled a long and troubled road before reaching this crucial stage. 
At the outset, few believed they would eventually reach a framework within which both sides could work to establish enduring peace and stability. After years of talk and negotiations that sought to close the gap between seemingly entrenched positions, there emerged a political will to find common ground. That was the foundation for success.
Sunday’s agreed-upon peace framework builds on key decision points made this past April. The agreement forged a roadmap to create a new autonomous region in the south of the mainly Roman Catholic country before the end of President Beningno Aquino’s term in 2016, giving the Muslim-dominated area greater political powers and more control over resources.
But by announcing the framework deal now, the two sides have made their intentions clear. Both sides want to convey to the world that they have reached a landmark in the peace talks. Certainly, in the months to come, they have much work to do on pivotal issues such as sharing power and wealth, as well as the borders of the proposed new autonomous political territory to be called Bangsamoro. This new area will replace the current autonomous region known as Muslim Mindanao.
Thailand, in its own struggle with insurgency, can learn important lessons from the Philippines peace process. One is that outside assistance at the beginning is pivotal to success. Our government and the insurgents lack the mutual trust that is a fundamental prerequisite to launching a peace process. They lack the mindsets that would permit them to “think outside of the box” and go beyond their zero-sum-game mentality. 
These entrenched positions govern the deadlock in southern Thailand, where many countries have played important roles as international contacts, including Japan, Saudi Arabia and the United Kingdom, as well as quite a few international non-governmental organisations such as the Asia Foundation, Humanitarian Dialogue Centre and the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation.
The Yingluck government, however, is keen to begin a peace process with limited involvement from outsiders. Thailand is sensitive about this because it fears outsiders would collude to harm the national interest. One fear is that outsiders would follow the example of East Timor and help give the citizens of the deep South a referendum to decide their own fate. At the same time, Bangkok officials will swear up and down that the Malays there remain loyal to the country and would never support an independent state. 
This opinion ignores the deep psychological scars in the South’s Muslim population stemming from their forebears’ efforts to combat foreign invaders and colonisers. Unfortunately, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has no grasp of the real situation in the South. Her brother Thaksin is the real decision-maker. He still wants a quick fix and refuses to give up the maverick style of governance that turned the South upside down in the first place. 
In March he made a failed attempt in Kuala Lumpur to negotiate with the leaders of the long-standing separatist groups. He forgot that there is a new generation of militants on the ground. Their response to the March meeting was a triple car-bomb attack in Yala, as well as one in the basement of a Hat Yai hotel.
It is obvious that without an inclusive and holistic solution for the troubles of the South, peace will not be achieved there. The authorities responsible for the peace process need to take stock of the achievements in the Philippines. At the moment, the government is still dithering between positions without a sense of direction. It is time to make a positive move.