Bridging the divide

Hara Shintaro is making sure both sides are being heard in the deep South

When peace talks between the Thai government and the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) began last February, residents in the deep South were upbeat as a glimmer of hope was visible. The process hasn't been easy, and adding to the complication is the political crisis in Bangkok, which has suspended most other affairs in the country over the past three months.

Hara Shintaro

And yet, the South hasn't been forgotten. During the few rounds of peace talks and every time BRN surprised authorities by posting their demands on YouTube, one person often in the news was Japanese scholar and translator, Hara Shintaro.

Shintaro is a well-versed lecturer in Thai, Malay and English at the Prince of Songkla University, Pattani Campus (PSU), and his fluency in all three languages has provided quick translations of the insurgents' statements. So enthusiastically and passionately is his service that he was sometimes dubbed pro-insurgent by certain security quarters.

That suspicion came from Shintaro's use of strong language when translating from Malay into Thai. In transcribing a controversial statement from the BRN, Shintaro used the term "Siamese Imperialist", which was considered too harsh and incorrect in the eyes of the authorities and a few traditional Muslims.

The power of Shintaro's words came across as he was trying to convey the strong sentiments of the separatists against the Thai Buddhist state, and the concern was raised by those who saw him as fuelling more fire to the southern unrest, which has already seen over 7,000 casualties in the past decade.

Shintaro's fame, or notoriety to some, does not stop just at the southern issues. His comments on Bangkok politics, often posted on his Facebook page, are equally sharp. His "hold no prisoners" stance has grown more frequent as the Yingluck Shinawatra government is being challenged by a group of "reformists" under the banner of the People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC).

His endless enthusiasm and abrupt comments or feedback can be at odds in the eyes of Thai conservatives, who are used to praise rather than flak by foreign observers of the local situation. Shintaro is even unique because he is not a Westerner, but a Japanese in Malay garb residing in Pattani.

Shintaro studied policy management at Keio University and obtained his MA in Malay language from Akademi Pengajian Melayu, University of Malaya. Shintaro has expanded his interest in the region since he began researching socio-linguistics in 2002, comparing the standard Malay in Malaysia and the local dialect in Pattani. He got a job as a PSU lecturer of Malay in 2006 and became active — and well-liked — in social media a year ago.

Shintaro started off by giving pro-bono translation services on his blogs and websites on the subjects of the BRN, and others relating to the decentralisation of democracy.

"There was no one to explain what's going on in the minds of the other sides of the conflicts," said the 41-year-old.

He was caught in the national spotlight after his quick translation of the BRN testimonies via YouTube right after the third meeting between the National Security Council-led delegation and the BRN liaison team in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. That piece of translation, quoted by most newspapers, has swept Shintaro, according to some, to the side of the insurgents.

It also sparked interest in the sensitivity of languages, which to Shintaro was a blessing. After his translation, well-established Malay and Bahasa experts emerged to present their versions of the Thai translation to the public. The military has also become more responsive to the incidents by providing their own version to reporters whenever Malay-written banners were hung on the bridge.

He argued that he is not a spokesman of the BRN, but his dissemination of the BRN messages should help educate and update knowledge of information, if not understanding, of the long-time separatist movement to Thai society.

"If you don't know your enemy well, how can you get involved in the negotiation?" said Shintaro, who has grown to become an accidental hero to many young peace-aspiring Malay youth in the deep South. Certainly, he got more stones than flowers. Some in the form of online threats, others in public postings in his Facebook page, and the rest as face-to-face shouting or accusations.

"Initially I was frustrated. Not scared, but discouraged. Then I got solidarity from people I did not know before, such as Kaisan Tejapira and Khamphaka [both outspoken critics], so I feel supported," said Shintaro.

Though he's got ideological backup, he still affirmed that he did not play a key role in making society understand the movement. "I humbly hope that I could help strengthen the sensibility among the stakeholders so that reasoning is not sidelined by the violence expedited by all sides."

Indeed, his enhanced engagement with all sides of the conflicts has led him to appear in many forums that are being held as the deep South was commemorating the first year of the peace dialogue.

"I hope discussions on aspects of the peace process will not be monopolised, but meaningfully engaged by people from all walks of life," said Mr Shintaro.

He noted that the BRN itself was a diverse and competitive movement. Some factions have been trying to come up with common ground and those appear at the table with the Thai counterparts want to negotiate, not walk away.

This is the same with the southern civil society on the ground, he said. There are nuances in their aspirations and means, but the more people are given space to talk, the less chance of a violent monopoly.

As a liberal, Shintaro felt subdued when protesters laid siege in the Thai capital with the claim that the "good people" would wipe out the "evil government" and the Shinawatra clan.

"In my opinion, the peace process is something that exists in a much wider context than the political crunch-match in Bangkok. But I feel disappointed and disturbed that Suthep Thaugsuban and the Democrats have not provided something rational and helpful in addressing the southern situations," said Mr Shintaro who emphasised that he has also been criticising the Yingluck administration on the issue, too.

Shintaro said: "It occurred to me that the Malay fighters shared with the red shirts a justifiable bitterness over unfair treatment at the hands of the ruling elite".

"As far as I can observe from the endless stage shows and speeches, the condition to judge if you're a 'good person' is strong hatred toward the Shinawatra clan. When you have that, you can practically say

anything irrational and will be zealously w elcomed by the audience," he said.

"I would love Suthep if only he offered positive, feasible and practical ways to solve the southern problem. I'm afraid that if his side takes over the management of the country it could mean the stalemate of the peace process. What I'm doing is supporting those who want to defend their rights under democracy," he said.

No wonder Shintaro has become a person of paradox and controversy. But he doesn't let that bother him.

"Deeply, I'm perhaps an anarchist rather than idealist as I don't like to see any form of controlling or dictating one another. Everyone should be an equal owner of their life and their society," he said.

About the author

Writer: Achara Ashayagachat
Position: Senior reporter on socio-political issues