By The Nation
A couple of decades ago, when Malaysia was thinking about building a wall long along parts of the common border, Bangkok reacted negatively.
The word psychological barrier was employed to describe the plan. Back then there were no Islamic State or the massive human-trafficking problem. Moreover, Patani Malay separatist movements in the southernmost border had subsided along with the communist insurgency.
Times have changed, indeed, and the two countries are turning to one another to strengthen ties and cooperation because of security concerns. A number of Malaysian citizens have joined IS and it was wise of Kuala Lumpur to have sought Bangkok’s assurance that they will lend a helping hand. After all, the two countries share a porous border.
But Thailand and Malaysia should know that there is no one size fits all solution for every security problem.
Extremism that feeds into the IS phenomenon is a global one while the insurgency in the southernmost provinces is rooted in the Patani-Malay ethno-nationalist sentiment that needs to be addressed differently from the global war on terrorism.
The conflict in the deep South must be understood in the context of Thai nation-state construct and the
long-standing policy that denies the Malays in the far South their cultural and historical narrative.
By painting an ethno-national conflict as something that is no different from the global Islamic terrorism, Thailand and Thai security planners/policymakers could be inviting foreign extremist groups to intrude in our affairs.
In recent months, Thai security forces have been humiliated by some vicious attacks by Patani Malay separatist militants because the group that commands them – the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) – does not support the ongoing peace talks facilitated by Malaysia.
Nevertheless, Thailand is clinging to its peace initiative with MARA Patani, an umbrella of longstanding separatist organisations that hardly control any combatants on the ground – at least they have yet to demonstrate that they do so.
Bangkok is keen to talk only to people who can influence the course of violence in the deep South and the Thai generals know that betting on MARA Patani is a long shot. But instead of going back to the drawing board, Bangkok stubbornly clings on to this hope that MARA Patani can bring the militants on the ground and their BRN leaders to the table.
But time and again, BRN has violently demonstrated its disapproval of the initiative that ignores key demands. After all, why would an armed group capable of inflicting injuries and discrediting the Thai security forces come to the table when it sees no gains from doing so?
Perhaps this very point hasn’t sunk in. But if and when it does, Thailand should reconsider its approach. Betting on the same losing horse won’t change results.
One thing the government needs to consider is its campaign to win the hearts and minds of the local Patani Malays who continue to provide moral and logistical support to the insurgents. This is because they share the same historical sentiment and distrust of the Thai state.
Bangkok has consistently maintained that the local residents are on their side. But the reality on the ground speaks for itself. If the Thai government wants to win the local people over, they must get to the root cause of the conflict. They must be able to demonstrate to the local residents that they can provide the goods and services to the locals. More importantly, they must do it in such a way that the people can maintain their dignity.
Successive governments have come up with livelihood projects that included providing goats, chicken and catfish to the locals thinking they had actually planted a seed for the future. But after a while, the government realises that this conflict is not rooted in development issues. And yet, they are unable to come up with new and improved ways of doing thing.