Autonomy is not the only solution for the deep South
Policies that offer justice, equal opportunities and a sense of inclusion are more important to people in the troubled region than handouts and other short-term schemes
Over the past few years, structural reform for the three southernmost, Malay-speaking provinces has popped up in discussion every now and then, but never in a serious, meaningful manner. It has been consistently argued that, if people in the deep South can handle their own affairs, the ongoing insurgency would die a natural death.
But the situation in the three provinces is too complicated for a simple textbook solution. Of late, the National Security Council (NSC) has been fretting that any government policies or initiatives for the Malay-speaking South could be seen elsewhere as coming at the expense of the rest of Thailand's citizens.
In other words, the government is concerned with the general public's zero-sum mentality toward the deep South, and is worried that any policy perceived as overly favourable to the region may cost it political capital.
The Democrat Party, while in government, suggested that reform might not necessarily have to take the form of bureaucratic and administrative restructuring, since economic and cultural autonomy as a concept should not be overlooked.
During the election in mid-2011, the Democrats - the only party that did not campaign on autonomy for the region - won all but one seat in the deep South. One reading of this outcome was that local residents, the vast majority of whom are Malay-Muslims, are more concerned with justice and equality than autonomy. The problem is that autonomy is a vague concept and could translate into more bureaucratic positions going to local Malay-Muslims, as opposed to Buddhists from other parts of the country.
While decentralisation and empowerment of local communities in the South and across the country are good concepts worthy of further study, a system that is based on quotas could be harmful if it attracts unqualified candidates who are appointed because of race, religion or origin.
This is not to say that the government should not explore the idea of enhancing social mobility for the Malay-Muslims as part of a long-term strategy to help them integrate into the national system.
Such a policy must be sound, or else we risk irking the rest of Thailand, since the initiative could very well come at their expense.
The so-called "3,000-nurse project" launched in 2007 is a good example of what not to do. The 25 nursing colleges could only produce 2,500 nurses each year, but then-health minister Mongkhol na Songkhla insisted on pushing through 3,000 nurses, all from the deep South, in one go. No one understood the logic. Surely it was not based on the needs of the region, because only 300 nurses were needed to fill vacancies at the time. Many were left to assume that the government simply wanted to show how it was assisting the Malay-Muslims with social mobility.
The idea might have been good in principle, but the way the government went about it was wrong. It created too much resentment in other parts of the country. Of course, there is no perfect system that can please all the people all the time, especially if one's aim is to uplift the social standing of a particular group of people, a minority in this case.
Instead of "3,000 nurses" in one push, perhaps the government should consider a much smaller figure and apply the strategy to other occupations in the region.
Handouts are not empowerment, and good intention is not always good policy. Uplifting the social mobility of people in the deep South so they can be on a par with the rest of the country, while pleasing the rest of the country at the same time, is a fine line to walk. Nevertheless, it needs to be done if we are to give the Malay-Muslims a share in ownership of the country.
The region has been neglected for too long and no one-off initiative will solve the problem.