Want to win the hearts and minds of the Malay Muslims in the restive South? Stop thinking about using military force. Think instead of how to give them back their region's once abundant food.
Here's where to start: Get tough with the trawlers. I'm not joking.
Much has been said about the locals' deep resentment rooted in the history of the old Patani kingdom being annexed by force by Bangkok. Who can deny the southern Muslims' simmering pain when they are treated like second-class citizens? But what made it explode into violence?
A large number of the southern Muslims are fisherfolk who live a simple, traditional way of life that allows them to practise their faith. They need a healthy ecosystem, however, if they are to sustain this seemingly uncomplicated life. For the fisherfolk, this means an abundant sea long enjoyed by their ancestors.
Then came the trawlers.
The law says trawlers cannot use destructive fishing equipment nor enter the protected 3km zone from the shore. Yet trawlers have been doing just that for decades with impunity, leaving the locals with an empty sea and fiery anger.
Who owns the trawlers? Outsiders? Yes. Rich, influential and corrupt? Yes. Buddhists? Yes.
Who are the officials who refuse to enforce the law? Outsiders? Yes. Powerful and corrupt? Yes. Buddhists? Yes.
For the locals, this is not only ruthless exploitation of their sea, it's also abuse of power, and the oppression of powerless southern Muslims by the Buddhist state.
Despite their plight, the authorities have always sided with the trawlers. When illegal trawlers face boycott threats from the European Union, the fisheries authorities rescue them by registering them so they are legalised.
This plundering of the sea coincided with the Fisheries Department's aggressive promotion of prawn farming, resulting in the devastation of mangroves forests, which are the nurseries of young marine lives.
What ensued were poverty, hunger and the breakdown of local communities. Young men leave home to find work while young women head for local seafood factories owned by the people who destroy their livelihoods. Outsiders? Yes. Rich and powerful? Yes. Buddhists? Yes.
Meanwhile, similar oppression occurs on the lush green mountains. The locals' forest-like rubber holdings and fruit orchards face confiscation by forest authorities who label the locals as encroachers.
Who are the forest officials? Outsiders? Yes. Powerful and corrupt? Yes. Buddhists? Yes.
You can argue that these people are not Buddhists, only worshippers of money. But when the state ideology identifies itself with Buddhism, it is hard for ethnic Malay Muslims to think otherwise. It is why the insurgents resort heavily to their own religious teachings to legitimise their mission.
When injustice is caused by abuse of power, the solution can't come from what allows more abuse of power. The state of emergency decree does so. As does the Internal Security Act, which the military plans to put into force.
Ultimately, decentralisation is the answer for the Muslim-dominated South. Why, then, have I proposed the government get tough with trawlers first and foremost?
Easy answer. Because this blatant exploitation is happening every day in broad daylight. If the government cannot stop trawlers' destructive and illegal activities, there is no point in talking about the rule of law, trust-building and justice.
Also, trawlers hurt not only the southern Muslim fisherfolk, but the whole country. According to the Fisheries Department, when trawlers started their damaging operations in 1961, they caught nearly 300kg of fish per hour. The catch declined drastically to 49kg per hour in 1982 and 22kg in 1991. A study in 2009 showed the catch per hour was only 14kg. It also showed that only 30 % of the catch had economic value. The rest were too young or too small, caught by very fine nets and sold as cheap animal feed.
The rule of law is no abstract idea. It means the coastal sea is protected, regenerated and the locals' livelihoods restored. It means families can live together once again. Only when that happens can we start hoping for trust and peace in the restive South.
Sanitsuda Ekachai is Editorial Pages Editor, Bangkok Post
About the author
- Writer: Sanitsuda Ekachai
Position: Assistant Editor