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Prayut reaches historic crossroads in the deep South

Nov 27. 2014
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By The Nation

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The PM must back pledges of an inclusive peace process with action that shows genuine respect toward the cultural differences of the Malay-speaking provinces
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha is going to Malaysia to introduce himself to his counterpart there, Najib Razak. The ongoing insurgency in Thailand’s southernmost provinces will be high on their discussion agenda. 
Kuala Lumpur is expected to reiterate its commitment to helping Thailand find a suitable solution to this longstanding conflict, which Prayut himself concedes is more than a century old. 
Keeping Malaysia on board is wise, because it suggests that policymakers in Bangkok realise they are no longer dealing with a bunch of “sparrow bandits”, as then-premier Thaksin Shinawatra called the insurgents a decade ago. It also shows that Thailand is willing to use political means to solve the crisis. 
But words must be backed with action. Prayut can’t hoodwink the world into believing he is serious about peace merely by saying he wants an inclusive peace process.
He can’t talk peace and inclusiveness just to make himself and Thailand look good, and yet say nothing about what kind of concessions the country is willing to make to the Malays of the deep South. 
Yingluck Shinawatra’s government employed that shallow tactic throughout its peace initiative, launched on February 28, 2013. She thought that putting together peace talks with the insurgency’s most powerful group, the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), and with Malaysia as facilitator, would be enough to draw other insurgents and stakeholders to the table. 
It didn’t take long, though, for observers to see that her effort was something between a hoax and a blind leap of faith. Doing the right thing is fine, but if it’s for the wrong reason, it can come back to haunt you. Sure enough, the process came to a standstill when Hasan Taib – the man Bangkok tasked with winning the trust of holdout insurgents – threw in the towel after it became clear that the BRN and the insurgent combatants wouldn’t support him.
With the military now in the driver’s seat, the buck stops at Prayut’s table. Like Yingluck, he will reach out to Malaysia for help facilitating the talks. It’s their backyard and they want to be part of the solution. Kuala Lumpur could further aid the process by proposing various ideas and governance models for state-minority relations.
History shows that the Malays in Thailand’s three southernmost provinces are willing to live under the Thai state. They did not challenge Siam/Thailand’s sovereignty when the area came under Bangkok’s direct rule a century ago. 
The central government back then understood the sensitivity of relations with the far South and worked hard to establish a comfort level between the Malays of Patani and the Thai state. But that comfort level quickly evaporated when the state tried to shove “kwam pen Thai”, or Thai-ness, down their throats through nationalistic policies that did more harm than good in terms of bridging the historical and cultural gap. 
The strategy might have worked with immigrants to Thailand, but the southernmost provinces are the Malay residents’ historical homeland. 
The challenge for Kuala Lumpur and the rest of the international community is to help Bangkok define the terms of its relationship with its Malay-speaking provinces. We can’t turn the clock back, but we can explore various models and lessons learned about state-minority relations. 
Negotiations with armed insurgent groups and negotiations with the residents of the far South are two different but related processes. Terms like “human dignity”, “equality”, “justice” and “social mobility” must be part of the vocabulary of the peace process, replacing the declarations of “love and happiness” that usually translate to some quirky campaign and payoffs for mistakes our troops commit in the name of counter-insurgency.

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