Govt, military must adapt to ensure success of South talks

After checking old news clippings of mine and listening to security officers on the ground, I've come to believe the government has not been very successful in tackling the separatist movement in the far South.

It has failed to gain the upper hand while insurgents have made progress in making their agenda recognised nationally and abroad.

The main stumbling block on the government's part is the rigid upholding of "Thai-ness", which prevents them from adopting more pragmatic approaches.

There are also operational loopholes and bureaucratic flaws that never get addressed or resolved.

The top brass and politicians are too eager to show off their success by parading defectors before the media or by producing arrest statistics.

Some military units try to counter the separatist movement through development programmes and local intelligence.

But indiscreet public relations, namely emphasising the use of villagers as informants, has landed many locals in trouble.

Many security and intelligence officers have privately told me they fear that before long, Thais from other parts of the country may have to carry passports to travel to the deep South.

It is not that there is a lack of good and committed security officers in the deep South. There are many. But many have become disheartened by politics and vested interests, which have destroyed professionalism.

This is especially the case in the army. More often than not, promotion is based on connections, not merit. Many officers who refuse to please the bosses get the boot, or eventually choose to resign.

A case in point is Gen Samrej Srirai, former deputy commander of the 4th Army Region.

He is highly respected for his knowledge of the insurgency movement and his commitment to solving the conflict. Yet he was not promoted to 4th Army Region commander because he is not considered a "native son" of the 4th Army Region.

Meanwhile, the "home-grown" chief of staff, Gen Chamlong Kunsong, was also not promoted to the top regional commander post and eventually opted to resign at the end of last year.

The deep South is also used as a ladder for professional advancement. It is where the sons and brothers of senior military figures are placed for a short period of time _ in safe and comfortable positions _ before being quickly promoted to work elsewhere.

Poor coordination between the army, the police and other state agencies is another factor that makes the situation difficult to control.

After the recent rounds of peace talks, attacks on civilians are declining, but more security and administrative officials are being killed. The scale of the violence is also escalating.

The government claims there are no more "red" districts where insurgents are in control. However, most people still sympathise with the rebels by protecting their identities and sheltering them.

Many Buddhist residents refuse to receive protection from security officers for fear of being labelled informants, which may cost them their lives.

Much of the violence is not easy to understand for outsiders who do not know the ins and outs of the local situation. Authorities, however, are quick to blame almost all of the violence on insurgents, which is not always the case.

Meanwhile, authorities' online smear campaigns linking Muslim activists with drug kingpins and insurgents have created widespread resentment. This online witchhunt has also backfired because _ as in lese majeste cases _ authorities have ended up being condemned for violating people's rights and freedom of expression.

Talking about online strategy, the Barisan Revolusi Nasional's (BRN) online campaigns are more effective and sophisticated than the government's.

The separatist group's demands, which it posted recently on YouTube, caught the Thai authorities off guard.

Many believe the future of the peace talks is under threat. I disagree.Peace talks anywhere in the world take time and lots of negotiating behind the scenes. It takes years, even decades, to build mutual trust to produce agreements that can be later fine-tuned and announced publicly.

BRN's YouTube demands have made the authorities realise they need to adjust their peace talks strategy. And they should.

The divisive former premier Thaksin Shinawatra may have masterminded the peace negotiations for his own political gain. But we cannot deny that sooner or later talks needed to be held.

What is important is to ensure the negotiations involve public input to answer the needs of ordinary citizens, not the elites of rival parties.

If most people in the deep South desire self-rule, we have to accept it. The question is what people really want.

Between now and then, it is the duty of people born and living in the far South to ensure peace solutions do not discriminate against non-Muslims.

The focus must be on solving the plight of the people, not putting top-down power in the hands of BRN elites and their cronies.

Meanwhile, the government must be more open to cultural pluralism. The military must be more professional while avoiding ultra-nationalist outbursts. Thai society also needs to be more tolerant in accommodating the avalanche of ethno-religious conflicts that have long been suppressed.

Ultra-nationalism and hatred based on ethnicity has torn apart many countries. We must learn from their lessons to avoid the same painful mistakes.

Achara Ashayagachat is Senior News Reporter, Bangkok Post.

About the author

Writer: Achara Ashayagachat
Position: Senior Reporter