Scholars: Time ticking on South

Time is running out for the government to make some concrete policy moves to resolve the protracted conflict in southern Thailand, say experts.

While the government may be understandably preoccupied with national issues, it needs to do some real work soon to show it is serious about alleviating southern grievances, a Chulalongkorn University seminar heard on Friday.

Some issues were being neglected because "the Thaksin issue sucks the oxygen out of Thailand", said one scholar in reference to the endless preoccupation with exiled former premier Thaksin Shinawatra.

Restoring peace in the Muslim-majority South of Thailand will be a daunting task, if the experience of the Philippines with its Islamist insurgency is any guide.

The peace agreement reached this year between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the Manila government was the culmination of 15 years of negotiations, said Steven Rood, the Asia Foundation country representative for the Philippines and an insider in the talks.

The accord aims to end a half-century conflict that has claimed at least 150,000 lives, and also aims to resolve the larger question of the rights of the Muslim populace in a country where Catholics are now in the majority.

International players such as the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC), Indonesia, and Malaysia (to a lesser extent) were involved along the way in mediating the conflicts, said Mr Rood.

Local and international civil society organisations, he said, were also involved with different players on the ground during the turbulent years.

Since 2009, the so-called International Contact Group comprising regional and local organisations such as his was also involved in the "communications".

The peace agreement reached by the Aquino government is still fragile although the Framework Agreement on Bangsamoro (Moro Nation) has made progress on aspects including power sharing and taxation.

"The Executive Council was just formed on Monday (Dec 17) so there is the challenge of how to run a government, not an armed movement," said Mr Rood.

Civil society groups inside and outside Mindanao were keen to design a structure for autonomy, despite disagreement by the Muslim Islamic Liberation Front, he said.

Designating areas to be included in the autonomy structure was controversial and the deal the Aquino government got with the militants remained a constitutional debate, but at least something was on the plate, the scholar said.

Mr Rood this week briefed civilian and uniformed security officials at the Thai Foreign Ministry on how the Philippine model has been doing.

Thai authorities were keen to learn about the Malaysian involvement, how autonomy has been perceived and designed, the post-armed conflict role and status of the armed forces.

Chaiwat Satha-arnand, a Thammasat University peace advocate, cautioned against comparing the Thai and Philippine experiences too closely.

He said Thailand was a Buddhist unitary state that had resolutely ignored autonomy. The Buddhist Sangha Council also did not also play a conducive or supportive role in the way that the Roman Catholic Church in the Philippines did in accommodating the autonomy deal.

The Thai scholar noted that in the Mindanao peace negotiations, there were civil society organisations on the ground to help calm negative sentiment and defuse troublesome situations.

In Thailand, there are some NGOs but more should be allowed and accommodated more to work hand in hand with the local people, said Mr Chaiwat.

The political scientist attributed the chronic violence in the Deep South to the failure of the Thai state, Thai people, and the insurgents themselves.

Violence in the South has become an "insecurity industry", and deadly conflicts generate profit for some.

Southern issues are seen only from the perspective of security officials, with self-delusion about peace, he said.

While people on the ground look at their own history and territory as domestic colonisation, Buddhist pacifists consider the deep South issue like "a thorn near the heart", said Mr Chaiwat.

"Insurgents, meanwhile, become victims of their own violence; they become mesmerised by the violence so much so that they could not be political."

Matthew Wheeler of the International Crisis Group said conditions have been quite challenging as there are new circumstances on the ground: a new central government, more energetic civil society movement, and militants who prove to be quite adaptable to government countermeasures.

"Thailand is now facing a clandestine movement, but responses remain quite reactive and defensive and lacking imagination of a workable policy after 10 years of conflict," said the ICG researcher.

Mr Wheeler said there had yet to be a genuine attempt from the policy level, such as engaging civil society in a more participatory fashion. Even when there is talk about decentralisation, there are no concrete areas to work on.

But Mr Wheeler noted some positive developments, such as the new National Security Council policy for security and development that acknowledges the need for a political solution.

"Implementing policies is always difficult due to inter-agency rivalries, but more importantly resources and attention were given to the national level as the Thaksin issue sucks the oxygen out of Thailand," said Mr Wheeler.

He noted that now the national politics seemed to have settled down a bit and Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has tried to appoint the right people in the right places.

"We need to give the promising NSC policies some time. ... The government needs time to implement those policies," he said.

But he noted that there was no time for complacency; though cases of human rights abuses seemed to be fewer, concerns about the presence of rangers in the rural and urban South would remain a problem.

Mr Chaiwat noted that while the attitude in official Bangkok tended toward denial or compartmentalisation, the southern unrest had gradually become a national problem in the mind of the public at large.

"The fact that we cannot identify the insurgents does not mean they cannot hear the proposals. So it's better to have multiple channels to come up with (proposals)," he said.

About the author

Writer: Achara Ashayagachat
Position: Senior Reporter