Dec 5, 2012

Thailand - Despite promises, no progress in Thailand's deep south

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In 2007, the government of Surayud Chulanont signed a joint press statement with the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC).

It said they would work together to enable "the people of the southern border provinces to assume the responsibilities over their domestic affairs through a decentralisation process that allows the people to practise their own cultural and linguistic specificity and manage their natural resources in full respect of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Thailand".

In the view of many stakeholders, it was a bold statement and the right thing to do, since it touched on the heart of the Malay-Muslim insurgency in the three southernmost provinces. Credit should be given to the then-administration for having the courage to acknowledge the historical, cultural and ethno-nationalist nature of the conflict.

The statement also made reference to the ongoing investigation into the disappearance of Muslim lawyer Somchai Neelaphaijit, and noted the dropping of charges against 58 protesters arrested during the Tak Bai massacre in late 2004. That incident ended in the deaths of more than 80 people, 78 of whom suffocated because they were stacked on top of each other in the back of military vehicles.

Like it or not, the 2007 statement will eventually become the guiding principle for bilateral relations between the OIC and Thailand. While it is easy to say that the current government did not itself sign the joint communiqué, it is nevertheless an international norm that governments' successors must abide by agreements it signed, or refute them officially.

The Thai government, it seems, does not have the will to renounce the 2007 statement because it realises it was the right thing to do.

Reneging on promises made to the Malays of the southernmost provinces will cost them little in terms of political capital. But at the recent OIC ministerial meeting in Djibouti, the organisation reminded Thailand that it has not forgotten about the promises made in 2007.

The OIC's complaint is that nothing has changed. And in its final resolution issued from Djibouti, which the Thai delegation tried hard to change, the OIC employed strong language, including phrases such as "meagre progress", to describe Thailand's contribution so far to what Bangkok promised five years ago.

The OIC also "regrets" the use of the Emergency Decree in the region, and notes the "limited progress" in introducing Malay as a language of instruction in public schools. In this regard, locals in the deep south describe the Thai state effort as preparing them for karaoke lessons - using the Thai alphabet in classrooms rather than Jawee (Malay written in Arabic script).

In its latest resolution, the OIC also notes the government's "mounting reliance on undisciplined paramilitary units accused of committing illegal acts", and warns of the consequences of "increasing ethnic and religious polarisation".

In the past, in an effort to bring peace to the troubled region, Thailand sought help from Muslim countries in Asean. But after five years of sounding like a broken record, the time has come for our diplomats to change their tune. The standard line among Thai officials is that the Malay-Muslim separatists and their supporters embrace a wrong version of Islam and teach a distorted version of Thai history.

The authorities don't seem to realise how arrogant that sounds - Buddhists telling Muslims how to practise Islam. Perhaps if our officials paused for thought and encouraged our society to come to terms with the fact that the Malays of Patani embrace an entirely different cultural and historical narrative from the rest of the country, it could be the beginning of a peaceful discourse. Until that happens, one can forget about seeing peace in the Malay-speaking south.

Editorial Desk 

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