Decentralise to desensitise in rural South

They wanted to help. That was why a group of rice farmers from Sing Buri and Suphan Buri ignored their fears and travelled to the restive South to help their southern Muslim peers revive their long-abandoned rice fields.

But their worst fears were realised last Friday.

A gun attack by a group of insurgents killed two Sing Buri farmers and injured 10 others while they were travelling by van back to a temple shelter in tambon Bo Loy, in Pattani's Yaring district.

This followed a long day's work with the southern Muslim farmers to level the rugged fields full of bushes and weeds after their long abandonment.

Such violence must be condemned. Since the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Centre, which initiated the programme to revive the rice fields, has insisted that the show must go on, it must ask itself seriously what it can do to safeguard the lives of the volunteers and the local farmers.

According to the military, Friday's gun attack happened because the van carrying the farmers was not chaperoned by soldiers.

If this is their only explanation, then it shows that their espoused trust-winning strategies that cost us taxpayers dearly are simply not working.

There are many questions that we should ask about this paddy fields programme. Why were the fields abandoned in the first place? Are there no local farmers who know how to revive the paddy fields without having to bring in outsiders and risk their lives? Are there ways to support the locals to improve their livelihoods and simultaneously empower them instead of trapping them in dependency?

No, the paddy fields were not abandoned because of the southern violence. They were left because farming has for many become unviable because of the high costs of agricultural chemicals promoted by officials, and due to irrigation projects that took water management out of people's hands.

Dating back two decades, these abandoned rice fields attest to the failure of top-down policies. In the deep South, there are nearly 150,000 rai of rice fields left overgrown by weeds. More than a third of these are in Pattani.

The 15,000-baht rice pledging policy has made many southern farmers want to till the land again. They know they have to do it quick before the programme is over, so they happily welcome the authorities' offer to help with tractors and tips on how to improve rice yields from the Central Plain farmers.

Will these work in different topography? Can rice farming there remain financially profitable when external aid runs out?

We don't know yet. We do know, however, that the speed of the project and the fanfare involved may have caused misunderstanding and conflicts of interests on the ground, hence the violence.

Can things be done differently?

A group of Ban Klang farmers in Pattani's Panare district are rejuvenating their ricefields by using sludge from fish-processing plants. It is a simple technique discovered by Roseh, a farmer there, to revitalise dead and acidic soil damaged by long periods of agricultural chemicals use and ill-advised irrigation projects. The technique also helps increase yields at relatively little cost.

In short, it works. But the process is much slower. It also requires farmers to overcome obstacles on their own with no outside support. Working together this way, however, helps strengthen camaraderie which in turn helps solve other community problems. Shouldn't we aim for this kind of self-reliance in all development projects?

The main problem in the restive South is not poverty, it's hardship and anger over the loss of dignity caused by top-down development and political centralisation. When the Bangkok-based government refuses to release its grip, any projects in the Muslim-dominated South can be interpreted by sceptics as efforts to tighten central control.

We need to establish trust by allowing decentralisation. Good intentions alone are not enough. When executed in an environment of deep distrust or even hatred, the best intentions can go awry or even lead to tragedy, as seen in Pattani last week.

Sanitsuda Ekachai is Editorial Pages Editor, Bangkok Post.

About the author

Writer: Sanitsuda Ekachai
Position: Assistant Editor