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Thawil saga reveals Bangkok not serious about peace in South

The court has reinstated the security chief, but his removal in the first place has caused much damage

The conflict in Thailand's southernmost provinces has always been held hostage to Bangkok politics. The ongoing fiasco involving reappointed National Security Council chief Thawil Pliensri and the Yingluck administration is a case in point.

Thawil was originally removed from his post because Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra needed to shuffle officials to make room at police headquarters for her brother-in-law, Pol General Priewphan Damapong.

Thawil and his deputy, Somkiart Boonchoo, were moved to inactive posts. Since then, Somkiart has been asked to serve as an adviser in government peace talks with the insurgents in the South.

Humiliated, Thawil took his case to court and won. The Administrative Court deemed his transfer unlawful and ordered him reinstated. He has five months left before retirement.

In a way, justice has been restored. The verdict was not only a victory for Thawil but also a warning to this and any future government about their dealings with bureaucrats, especially when it comes to transfers.

Nevertheless, there is no denying that the Thawil saga inflicted damage on the country, especially the deep South, where an ongoing insurgency has claimed more than 5,000 lives since January 2004.

When Yingluck came to power in 2011, she and her brother Thaksin were determined to put together a peace process for the South and turned to Kuala Lumpur to help facilitate talks.

Yet they chose to ignore the fact that Thawil and Somkiart had, since 2005, been working behind the scenes on peace talks overseen by a European mediator. Yingluck and her brother scrapped those efforts and began a new process, with Kuala Lumpur as broker and trusted individuals such as then-National Security chief Lt- General Paradon Pattanatabut and Pol Colonel Thawee Sodsong, head of the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Centre, in key positions.

Unfortunately, these individuals were appointed more for their loyalty than their experience, a practice long followed by Thai governments and one that denies our bureaucrats the opportunities to develop deeper knowledge and capability.

Who is to say that Thawil and Somkiart would have not done a better job as peacemakers than Thawee and Paradon?

Were the safety and wellbeing of southerners at the forefront of the Yingluck government's calculations when it appointed Thawee and Paradon, two of the ruling Pheu Thai Party's most trusted men, to lead the peace talks?

Thawil says his mission, before he retires in September, will be to review policy on the conflict in the South and on the peace process. No one is sure what kind of contribution he can make, given that peace talks have hit a brick wall.

One thing he could do is to push for more self-critical reflection among Thai officials - especially the security and intelligence community - over how to achieve peace with the Malays of Patani.

It's no secret that there is a lack of unity among the various state agencies working in the South. Meanwhile the actions of government delegates at peace talks over the past 12 months suggest they are, at best, indifferent to the task at hand. For instance, they rarely bother to gather for preparatory meetings before showing up at the negotiating table in Kuala Lumpur.

The residents of the deep South, as well as those sent to work there, deserve better.


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