Twelve years and more than Bt260 billion in taxpayers’ money since the current effort to settle the conflict in the southernmost provinces, distressingly little has changed. This year – based on the dreadful fact that the insurgency continues – the government vastly increased its conflict-resolution budget. The Cabinet is now mulling whether to authorise Deputy Defence Minister Udomdej Sitabutr to oversee the financing of “special projects” aimed at quelling the uprising. He’s in charge of a 13-member delegation dubbed the “forward cabinet” to determine where the money should be spent.
The trouble that has gripped Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala through all these years and occasionally extends into provinces further north requires the attention of all government ministries, not just Defence or Interior. The Muslim-majority region continues to fall behind the rest of the country as measured by virtually every development benchmark.
Udomdej’s forward cabinet has been touted as a link between government agencies in the South and the actual Cabinet in Bangkok, thus
assuring” people there that the state is keeping in touch directly. Most of its members are former Army commanders with experience in the far South, the Fourth Army Area. That they accomplished nothing of worth during their service there sours hopes for the delegation’s effectiveness. In fairness to them, however, the decisions have always been made in far-away Bangkok.
Governments have always thrown money at the region in the interest of development and national security, of “winning hearts and minds”, and yet not only does the insurgency continue, its armed militants have shown they can strike government troops almost at will.
Hiring residents for clerical jobs and minor security tasks might suggest the locals are on board, but in fact relations between the state and the southern public remain strained and mutual trust is meagre at best. Young men are rarely seen due to the harassment they face from state security officials. Many move elsewhere for work, including to Malaysia. Among government ideas to bolster the regional economy, the notion of establishing a Halal supply industry has withered for lack of anything that might reassure investors in the face of violence that has claimed nearly 7,000 lives since the beginning of 2004.
Panu Utairat, a member of the forward cabinet who was formerly secretary-general of the Southern Border Provinces Administration Centre, is optimistic that the delegation can make a difference. “Our duty is to speed things up, make things easier, and make what never happened before happen,” he has said. A subcommittee will seek ways to make Pattani and Narathiwat an “economic triangle of security, prosperity and sustainability”, he added.
Talk of yet another “growth triangle” is not encouraging – it’s long been a favoured approach in Southeast Asia, but the only triangle that’s ever prospered is the infamous Golden Triangle in our North, still a bustling hub of heroin and amphetamine production.
Nor has the 13-member delegation to the South shown itself to be ready with fresh approaches. On its initial group visit to the region several weeks ago, each of the 13 men took turns
lecturing local community leaders about what needs to be done for peace to prevail. The impression they left was that senior military commanders had parachuted in from Bangkok to inspect the troops at the front, there not to
listen but to give orders.
The lack of development was never the fundamental reason why the Muslim Malays of the region they call Patani took up arms in the first place. Development, delivered efficiently and earnestly, can certainly be part of the solution, but it will not work unless other issues are addressed simultaneously. Social mobility, justice and equality are every bit as essential, and this is where government resources should be directed.
Published : December 27, 2016
By : The Nation