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Justice, cultural respect: ideas to help lift the far South

Country's new leaders don't need to reinvent the wheel, Anand and others have pointed out paths to heal strife-torn region

Late last week a group of politicians from various parties came together in Pattani to brainstorm about what needs to be done to tackle the conflict in the Muslim-majority southernmost provinces.

The discussion was led by Mahidol University's Research Centre for Peace Building. It was the 19th forum that the Centre had put together over the past two years. The aim was to get politicians from the Malay-speaking region to come together and share ideas and step up efforts to make the area conducive for peace and a peace process.

Participants included people from Pheu Thai Party, Chat Thai Pattana Party, Bhumjai Thai Party and Damrong Thai Party. A number of ideas and suggestions proposed were sound and should be taken seriously by the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), the military junta who seized power two months ago.

These ideas include respecting locals' culture and their way of life, being sensible when carrying out security duties in the area, respecting human and civil rights of the local people, and permitting local residents to voice their concerns and grievances without fear of retribution.

While such forums and discussion should be welcome, it is fair to ask why these folks weren't as forthcoming when they were in power - when they had a chance to push through sound policies and creative ideas.

Instead, as developments since the Tak Bai massacre have shown, politicians took the easy way out and hid behind the banner of their respective parties instead of reflecting the frustrations of their constituency.

Sadly, the idea of local politicians crossing their party line to form a non-partisan caucus to represent the desire of local people does not appear to have stuck in their minds.

For Pheu Thai Party, or the Thai Rak Thai Party at the time, their moment of truth came after the Tak Bai massacre. None of them have ever been reelected by their respective constituents since then. As for the Democrat Party, the buck stops in Songkhla. Instead of permitting local politicians in the three southernmost provinces to have a voice, the future of this contested region lies with the party's big wigs in Songkhla.

Even issues, such as autonomy, never gain traction because the political parties never want to acknowledge that they have something in common. In the 2011 election, 11 out of 12 seats went to the Democrats - the party that didn't campaign on autonomy. Yingluck Shinawatra, who promised during her campaign to grant the region a special administrative zone if Pheu Thai Party won power, opted to renege on the campaign promise.

Instead of going after some grand design for the region, perhaps local representatives and politicians should think about ideas that are do-able and within reach. Many of these ideas were mentioned in the National Reconciliation Commission that was headed by former prime minister Anand Panyarachun.

NRC talked about greater cultural space, such as making Malay a working language alongside the official Thai, justice and equality. There is no reason to reinvent the wheel.

The current leaders, as well as the NCPO, should examine the NRC proposals and build on them and pick up on issues such as social mobility for the Malays of Patani so they have a greater stake in the country - so they don't feel like colonial subjects. The Asean Economic Community is around the corner and political borders will become less significant. People all along the country's borders share a great deal of cultural similarities with those in neighbouring countries. The deep South, for example, is very much a part of the Malay civilisation. Their Thai citizenship should not have to come at the expense of membership of a cultural sphere that stretches from southern Thailand all the way to the south of the Philippines.


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