Thailand: Addressing the southern conflagration

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Tue Jun 13 13:27:50 UTC 2006


Addressing the southern conflagration

The South has long been the victim of political neglect and opportunism.
It is tragic that the political vacuum in Bangkok means the National
Reconciliation Commission's report will not be acted on for some time


After a year of deliberation, last week the National Reconciliation
Commission released its final report on the causes and proposed solutions
to the violence in the southern border provinces of Thailand. The NRC's
report on what is known as the ''fai Tai'' (the southern fire) is a
significant intervention into the policy agenda in Thailand. It envisages
some major changes that harken back to the political reform agenda of the
1990s that focused on participatory democracy, accountability and human
rights. The NRC _ led by former prime minister Anand Panyarachun and
supported by public intellectuals such as Dr Prawes Wasi and Professor
Chaiwat Satha-Anand _ has used the problems in the South as a platform
upon which to note the deterioration of democratic rule in Thailand, even
if it is too polite to say so directly. The commission notes that the
problems that exist in the South also obtain in other regions _ poverty,
abuse of power, flawed judicial processes.

What distinguishes the southern border provinces, and what has thus led to
the present low intensity conflict between the state and unknown
separatist militants, is that these problems play out in a context marked
by religious, language and cultural difference. These provide all the
necessary ingredients for a further deterioration if grievances are not
addressed. And, as the NRC notes, these grievances are also mobilised by
non-ideological forces who use the opportunity provided by the
securitisation of the conflict to continue with criminal forms of
behaviour such as cross-border trade and drug trafficking.

A number of commentators have used events such as the April 2004 uprising
and discovery of the booklet Berjihad ti Patani to suggest the emergence
of a more ideological strain of Islam in the separatist movement.
Interestingly, the NRC reports that in close to half of the so-called
red-zone villages where insurgents are held to be operative, conflict over
resources is an ongoing issue _ suggesting that economic issues continue
to fuel unrest. While accepting the existence of militant networks, the
NRC sees the violence in the South as a consequence of militant, criminal
and state-based actors interacting with structural factors such as forms
of rule that do not respond to local needs. Working out who is behind the
violence is no easy task. The NRC notes the lack of consensus among state
officials. For example, in the first half of 2005, the Thai police were
unable to determine who was responsible for around 80% of the violent
incidents on record. Furthermore, the military claimed that only half of
the violent incidents in the first quarter of 2004 were attributable to

The key recommendation of the NRC is that an Act of Reconciliation be
passed which brings into being three new organisations: the Border
Provinces Area Development Council; the Peaceful Strategic Administrative
Centre for Southern Border Provinces; and a permanent fund to support
reconciliation work. The proposed Border Provinces Area Development
Council, which is seen as a response to more radical calls for autonomy,
sounds good on paper; but as an advisory body only, with no official
power, it fails to address local calls for more substantive reform. That
the NRC fiercely debated the question of autonomy is now well known.
Some NRC members were disaffected that prominent NRC members argued that
concessions to autonomy or even a Bangkok-style form of government would
lead to an ultra-nationalist reaction, making any NRC recommendations

Those fearing a nationalist backlash thus pushed for a minimalist
semi-elected Development Council that provides for non-binding popular
participation in policy formation and monitoring of government. In not
dealing with genuine political re-organisation, tensions on the nature of
political rule in the deep South will continue. The second body, the
Strategic Administrative Centre, essentially recreates the Southern Border
Provinces Administrative Centre (SBPAC) that the Thaksin government
disbanded in 2002. It is not at all clear that re-establishment of that
organisation in all but name will end the crisis.

SBPAC's success was not simply related to its organisational efficiency.
It also embodied a two-decades social compact in the South that
recognised, integrated and legitimised various interests. The last five
years have seen those interests embroiled in conflict, violence and
reconfiguration. The balance of power that held in the SBPAC cannot now be
resurrected by simple administrative decree. The NRC has been more
creative when it comes to questions of peace-building and cultural
understanding. The NRC proposal to deploy unarmed military units is an
attractive one, given that violence breeds violence. The recommendation
flows from a recognition that in the past the presence of weapons has
inflamed tense stand-off situations. The problem remains of how such
unarmed forces would protect themselves in the event of an attack.

The NRC final report also stresses the importance of working towards
increased cultural understanding in the region, including the possible
expansion of Sharia law _ what this means practically will depend on local
Muslim interpretation. The NRC's stress on the importance of understanding
the cultural identity of the region echoes a key demand of political
Muslims who formed the Wadah faction in the 1980s. Wadah also sought to
make Malay a second official language in the region, and the NRC has
endorsed this idea. The significance of such a proposal cannot be
underestimated. Thai for many people in the border provinces is, at best,
a second language. In meetings in Pattani, I have seen state officials
speak Thai to a largely uncomprehending audience.

One Uzstad explained to me that many of his friends did not understand
Thai and so had left one particular meeting early.

This probably happens all the time. The official could probably speak
Malay, but as it was an official gathering, so the medium of communication
was Thai. Culture is lived through language. Devaluing the language spoken
by the majority of the people in the southern border provinces in the name
of promoting national integration, has bred resentment and antagonism,
entrenching a sense of alienation towards the state among some Malay
Muslims in the South. The proposed change in language policy is one of the
most significant advances proposed by the NRC because it has the potential
to have an impact on many other areas, including cultural alienation,
employment in the civil service, and on relations between state officials
and Malay-speaking communities.

Children's first years of state education may well become bilingual,
presenting them with a confidence in their own language that could lead to
confidence in acquiring Thai. The NRC language recommendation has the
potential to provide a long-term solution to the anomic violence that may,
in part, flow from social exclusion. If you can't speak in your own voice,
how can you be a citizen? The introduction of a new language policy would
be an expansion of citizenship rights in Thailand.

The South has long been the victim of political neglect and opportunism.
It is tragic that just as some good ideas have been formulated to redress
legitimate grievances in the South, the political vacuum in Bangkok and
the current struggle for political survival of Thaksin Shinawatra and his
Thai Rak Thai party means that there will be no systemmatic approach to
the National Reconciliation Commission's report for some time.

Michael Connors teaches politics at La Trobe University in Melbourne. He
is the author of ''Democracy and National Identity in Thailand'', NIAS
Press, 2006.

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