Before talks can succeed, the authorities must accept that the southern insurgency is not about religion but deep historical and socio-cultural differences
Last Saturday more than 6,000 residents of the three southernmost provinces showed up at Prince of Songkhla University’s Pattani campus to take part in a seminar that became more of a political rally. The participants vented their frustration at the state’s handling of the ongoing insurgency and almost daily violence in the Malay-speaking deep South.
At the rally, a song was sung for the late Mahrosu Jantarawadee, head of a Malay-Muslim militant cell in Narathiwat’s Bacho district, who was killed in a gunfight with security forces on February 13. Youths in the South have printed T-shirts to commemorate Mahrosu. Eulogising him in song is an indication of how strong feelings are running in the region.
Video footage of Mahrosu’s funeral has been circulating on the Internet. Needless to say, the film has irked political leaders and the security agencies because it contradicts their statements that generally paint the young men involved in the insurgency as a bunch of drug-crazed criminals who embrace a “wrong” version of Islam and a distorted national history.
For many people in the South, Mahrosu was a hero, and he was buried as a martyr, in line with Islamic tradition.
Attempts have been made by the Thai authorities to get clerics in the deep South to say Mahrosu was not a shahid, or martyr, but no one will dare to, partly because they don’t want to go against public sentiment. There is also the probability that many clerics in the region see the separatist militants taking up arms for a just cause.
But the national authorities have always tried to use the religious card in spite of the general acknowledgement that the conflict is ethno-nationalist in nature.
There is an old saying: be careful what you wish for, because you might just get it. This conflict is not about religion, so the authorities should not try to make it appear as if it is. The authorities’ handling of the Patani Malay nationalist separatists has been bad enough so far. Just imagine if they were confronted by groups of armed Muslim fanatics.
The event last Saturday and the excitement it generated came as the Thai authorities are encouraging, publicly anyway, more space for public discussion about the root cause of the conflict. This is not to mention the fact that Bangkok has been billing the recent “agreement” between the government and a group of men who claim to be representing a long-standing separatist group – the Barisan Revolusi Nasional-Coordinate – as a big breakthrough.
Moreover, the National Security Council, in its national plan released last year, also called for greater discussion between the state agencies and those with opposing views.
However, the authorities remain frustrated because the ongoing discourse doesn’t fit into the officially constructed narrative. This is not to say that public space shouldn’t be opened up in an attempt to resolve the conflict. The bottom line is that the Thai authorities must prepare for what’s ahead. It’s so hard for those in power to understand why many of the Malay-Muslims in the region share the same sentiment as the insurgents, although most polls show that they do not support or agree with the violence.
How the authorities handle this affair will have a direct impact on whether peace can be achieved anytime soon. Asking news outlets not to run the video footage is not the answer. The cat is already out of the bag. Now the government and its agencies have to deal with it.