Decentralise to solve conflicts

Accept it - despite the peace talk efforts, the daily violence in the deep South will not end anytime soon. Accept also that unless the three Muslim-dominated provinces are allowed to operate as a special administrative zone, peace will remain elusive.

Impatience and the unwillingness to ease top-down control, however, seems to be the order of the day, which does not bode well for the future of the country's peace and security.

When the announcement of the peace talks effort earlier this month was followed by a series of bomb blasts, the political breakthrough in the nine-year southern violence represented by the talks agreement was immediately slammed as a failure.

When the secretary-general of the National Security Council (NSC) Paradorn Patanatabut mentioned the Pattani Metropolis idea as a special administrative zone for the three southernmost provinces last week, he was immediately criticised by the military and the opposition. The idea was premature and threatened the country's sovereignty, they said. Lt Gen Paradorn and Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yubamrung had to quickly come out to deny the special zone idea.

That was unfortunate. A Pattani Metropolis special administrative zone would be run along the same lines as Bangkok and Pattaya are now. What is unconstitutional about that? This special zone idea has been floated for years but shot down every time by the military and the Interior Ministry because centralisation is their bread and butter. The Interior Ministry and the opposition defied the special zone idea by asserting the locals want justice, not decentralisation. But justice is not possible when local voices are dismissed.

Community leaders from the deep South told a conference at the Office of the Law Reform Commission this week that civil society has worked out four to five models of administrative decentralisation to propose to the government because they believe people's participation is a crucial factor for the locals to protect their way of life and their environment, and to ensure justice.

They are now exercising their constitutional rights by collecting local signatures to submit a Pattani special zone law for parliamentary deliberation. They also called for civil society input in the peace talk efforts.

The call for decentralisation is not specific to the deep South. At the same conference, community leaders from other parts of the country also voiced the same demand and the need for a new law to enable the process. Understandably, the Interior Ministry has always opposed the move, arguing that decentralisation is already the current system at work with local bodies such as tambon and provincial administrative organisations in charge of local affairs.

But the fact is these local organisations operate mainly as tools to deliver Interior Ministry policies. Major decisions that adversely affect the communities' environment and way of life are still made by the central government. The use of local budgets is dictated by the government. The new models of decentralisation seek to empower not only local bodies so they can have a bigger say over the use of their natural resources, but also to ensure transparency and accountability by increasing people's participation in the local decision-making process.

Decentralisation is not just the only solution for the deep South, it is also for the rest of the country. It is the main solution of the Political Reform Committee, led by former premier Anand Panyarachun, to defuse the political crisis. As long as the proposal goes unheeded, Thailand will continue to be ridden with violent conflicts.