Tuesday, February 25, 2020

For the South, civility first, even amid conflict

Jan 22. 2019
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By Artef Sohko
Special to The Nation

The attack last Friday against Buddhist monks at a temple in Sungai Padi district in Narathiwat province, which resulted in two deaths and two injuries, should be condemned in the strongest terms.

The three southern border provinces are together known locally as Patani, the historical homeland of the Malay people, whose feel their history, identity and narrative have been hijacked by the Thai state.

Local activists and civil society organisations (CSOs) tend to believe the latest spike in violence is due to three factors: 

* The alleged torture of Muslim detainees in Thai military camps around the region.

* Relentless pressure from Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur on the leaders of the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), the only Patani secessionist group with control of the armed militants, to meet General Udomchai Thamsarorat, recently appointed to lead peace negotiations.

* The gangland-style murders of three imams in the past recent months, killings that received little attention from the general Thai public and media and no acknowledgement from the government. 

Dozens of southerners have been summoned for questioning by security officials, while others endure constant harassment.

Silence from the state and the public reflects the indifference of Thai society towards the plight of the Malays of Patani, the Melayu. The indifference stems from the fact that the Melayu view differs from that of the wider Thai society regarding the history that brought their region to such a sorry state today.

According to various reports and academic research, the BRN is an organisation run by a secretive ruling council of elders with strong religious credentials. The council is referred to as the Dewan Pimpinan Parti (DPP).

From the DPP elders to the individual cells of combatants at the village level, every command is passed down in secrecy on a need-to-know basis, a structure of confidentiality deemed crucial to the movement’s survival and that of its members. 

The politicians in Bangkok refuse to acknowledge the political nature of the southern conflict, fearing the legitimacy that would lend to the BRN and other secessionist groups. They refuse to even use the name of the group that has long been involved in peace talks, the umbrella organisation MARA Patani, referring to it instead as “Party B”, again to deny it legitimacy. 

The group I chair – The Patani, a political-action group that promotes rights to self-determination in the Malay homeland – strives to maintain a semblance of civility in the conflict, but it’s an ongoing challenge. 

In our view, both warring sides need to understand and appreciate international humanitarian norms and principles. Besides enhancing their respective status as state and non-state actors, these principles will help give southerners some degree of certainty until a political solution can be achieved.

Both sides need to know there is no military solution to this conflict and the only way to move forward is through negotiation.

The Thai side has consistently painted the BRN as unreasonable, spurning talks and understanding only violence. But the government must be asked what concessions it is willing to make to get the BRN to the table so talks can begin.

Thai authorities have shown little interest in giving the people of Patani, much less the BRN, the respect and dignity to which they have a right. And when the state employs violence, it is only natural that retaliation will follow.

While it would be unrealistic to expect the BRN to disarm at this juncture, it is not unreasonable to demand that both it and the Thai military respect certain rules of engagement and international humanitarian law. If the two sides are going to keep fighting, they should at least embrace some degree of civility.

A political solution will require the government to recognise the political nature of the conflict rather than casting it as a crime wave requiring harsh repression. For too long the government has peered at the insurgents through the narrow lens of security and decided the only way forward is to hunt them down and kill them.

If it adopted a non-military approach, it would have work towards a political solution.

A meaningful start to this would be appointing a ministerial-level, non-military agency to handle the peace process. The Army has amply demonstrated its inability to develop policy regarding minority populations. 

Moreover, the state should allow more space for debate about the fate of Patani as a region, even if some of the debate centred on contentious issues such as rights to self-determination and independence. Allowing people to talk about independence is not the same thing as granting them independence.

 We as Muslims are told that all human beings are created equal. Yet in the situation confronting the Patani Malays, this doesn’t hold true. We are not equal in each other’s eyes, as demonstrated by the outpouring of sympathy for the murdered monks while the killing of the imams went almost unnoticed.

Until we come to an understanding that all lives matter, that the lives of Melayu are just as precious as those of Buddhists, justice in the truest sense of the word is still a long way off. 

Artef Sohko is chair of The Patani, a political-action group that promotes the right to self-determination in the Malays’ historical homeland that today constitutes the southern border provinces.

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