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305In search of the right solution

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  • CHAN Beng Seng
    Feb 8, 2007
      In search of the right solution

      Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi's highly expected show of close and sincere cooperation with Thailand during his three-day visit this week is a needed impetus for solving the southern violence


      Improved Thai-Malaysian ties would be a very positive development for the two countries, but better ties alone would not solve Thailand's problem with insurgency in the deep South, according to academics. ''We have to clean up our own house, set our agenda and priorities before calling for assistance,'' says Surachart Bamrungsuk, Chulalongkorn University lecturer on political science.

      In a speech in Bangkok on Tuesday, Malaysia's former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim suggested that Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi express solidarity with General Surayud Chulanont's government in encouraging Muslims in the South to give peace a chance.

      He urged Kuala Lumpur to take the opportunity of this government's dovish approach to clear the long-standing ignorance of, and exploitation by, the Thai authorities against Malay-Muslim Thais in the three southernmost provinces bordering Malaysia.

      The meeting between Mr Abdullah and then premier Thaksin Shinawatra in early 2004, three months after Mr Abdullah was sworn in as prime minister in October 2003, failed to clear the sour atmosphere in bilateral relations, which had seen a war of words being exchanged at almost every level.

      With Gen Surayud now at the helm of the government, things are expected to change for the better between Thailand and Malaysia.

      Surapong Jayanama, the PM's deputy secretary-general on security issues, says it is in Malaysia's national interest to see the southern issue managed quickly and peacefully.

      ''We should not look at the [Malaysian] positive gesture as an act of assistance. It is a cooperation that will eventually contribute to the development of the poverty-plagued region in both southern Thailand and northern Malaysia,'' he said.

      With such cooperation, several issues would be accelerated, including efforts to sort out the problem of dual citizenship to enable authorities to monitor the movements of criminals criss-crossing the common border, he said.

      However, Mr Surapong does not expect the extradition of militants or insurgents from Malaysia to the Thai authorities any time soon. Even after cooperation resumes, he said, it would be carried out in a more discreet manner.

      Francesca Lawe-Davies, a Southeast Asia analyst for International Crisis Group (ICG), says that the interim government has indeed tried to pursue a more conciliatory approach than Mr Thaksin.

      Gen Surayud's apology and the measures to ensure justice which he announced last November have been welcomed by southern Muslims.

      However, translating the government's good intentions into concrete changes have been difficult, Ms Lawe-Davies said.

      There have been some improvements, notably a significant decrease in arbitrary arrests since the government announced an end to blacklists, she noted.

      Still, concern about abuses by officers in the field persist and accountability of the security forces remains a major problem.

      There has been no progress in providing justice for past abuses, including the well-documented use of excessive force at Krue Se and Tak Bai in 2004, and the potential for abuse under the Emergency Decree remains high, she said.

      The local Muslims' wrath over these issues is unavoidable and understandable as they see those authorities being amnestied while their compatriots were not.

      Therefore, among the remaining actions to be taken by the government to with back the people's hearts is the granting of an amnesty to those who were either forced or were willing to support the insurgents.

      According to Ms Lawe-Davies, another disturbing situation on the ground is the inter-agency rivalry, which continues to hamper efforts to tackle the insurgency. The rearrangement of security structures and chain of command has done little to improve inter-force cooperation, and in some cases has exacerbated tensions, she said.

      Panitan Wattanayakorn, associate professor of political science at Chulalongkorn University and an ad-hoc adviser to the interim government, agrees that operational restructuring was not yet complete.

      ''The process of unifying the structure of forces is still in the making. Certainly, it's an urgent matter but shifting the chain of command and budget is inevitably a lengthy procedure. But the government needs and hopes to have it in place within this year,'' he said.

      The government, he said, has spent the past three months re-introducing the once workable mechanism of the Southern Border Provinces Administration Centre (SBPAC).

      It is now imperative to have NGOs and Islamic civil society take part in the reconciliatory efforts as well.

      Ms Lawe-Davies is concerned that the government's commitment to peaceful means is also being tested by the insurgent groups. Violence surged immediately after the announcement of the new policy, in an apparent attempt to undermine the conciliatory approach and provoke a crackdown.

      With the mounting violence, pressure from Thais outside the South to pursue a more aggressive stance is also growing, she said.

      She warns, however, that any reversion to heavy-handedness would be a backward step.

      She suggests that careful law enforcement, addressing past injustices and persevering with attempts at dialogue would be much more effective in the long term. Pursuing this strategy requires patience, and effective communications strategies to explain the need for this approach will also be critical.

      Concerning the government's effort to strike a deal with insurgent groups, Ms Lawe-Davies believes the Langkawi process, which was brokered by former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, was doomed from the start and had stalled even before this government came into office.

      Mr Anwar, who was both promoted and sacked by Dr Mahathir, said he did not see any problem with Dr Mahathir's handling of that attempt, but that any sort of engagement must involve all factions _ the Thai authorities, Thai military, Pulo or ex-Pulo _ otherwise it would not work. The Malaysian government would have to come out more forcefully to support the peace process, but not necessarily to broker the talks themselves, he said.

      In Ms Lawe-Davies' view, the Langkawi process failed because none of the participants were able to represent, let alone control, the militants carrying out the day-to-day attacks on the ground.

      Some of the Malaysia-based exiles had links with the new generation of insurgents, and may have been able to play some sort of intermediary role, she said.

      However, rather than serving as an open dialogue aimed at reaching out to the more radical groups with the hope of eventually brokering some sort of compromise, the series of meetings appeared to be an attempt to extract a politically acceptable statement from the exiled separatist leaders to present to the Thai government, she noted.

      Many of the participants only attended the meeting under pressure from Dr Mahathir, and had been reluctant to sign the ''Joint Peace and Development Plan for Southern Thailand'' in which they renounced any aspiration for independence or even autonomy, thereby alienating the hardline groups in Thailand, she said.

      Fortunately other, more meaningful channels for dialogue remain open, although serious obstacles remain. First, it is not clear that the insurgent groups (to the extent that they are organised groups) are able to represent a unified position on their demands, or whether a majority of the active groups is indeed inclined to negotiate at all, she said.

      On the Thai government's side, it is not clear if the willingness is there to seriously consider the idea of genuine negotiations with the possibility of granting some concessions, Ms Lawe-Davies said.

      Mr Surapong agrees that talks are the final end of the violence problem, but they cannot begin without a conducive environment in place.

      ''What we need now is to stabilise the situation on the ground, turn the war zones into political battlefields. Then can come talks and negotiations, which by then we should know with whom,'' said the former diplomat.

      But he emphasised that a backlash must not be allowed once the situation becomes more stable, otherwise dialogue would not be a sustainable solution. ''Once we can have certain peace, we need to talk and need to take into account grievances of the people and bring justice to them. Otherwise the cycle of violence will return,'' he warned.

      A two-star general who has been working in the deep South says, however, that hopes for peace returning to the deep South were still far off.

      ''[The perpetrators'] objective and their means have never changed. Torching schools, killing teachers, monks and government informants _ all this has been happening for a long time. But the security forces are looking at the problem as if it only first started on Jan 4, 2003,'' the army officer said.

      That was the day when a group of insurgents raided an army camp in Narathiwat. Four soldiers were killed and weapons were looted.

      Considering the widely different stances of the authorities and separatist groups _ the former insists on assimilation into the That state while the latter holds out for nothing less than autonomy _ the general doubts whether peace negotiations are possible at all.

      ''We have to prepare something in between: allowing a certain level of self-administration that respects the Malay ethnicity with Islam being their religion under a centrally-controlled, mainly Buddhist government; or a semi-autonomous state that is able to manage their own resources and maintain their identity,'' he said.

      Ms Lawe-Davies concludes: ''Continuing along the path of dialogue and confidence-building may help to bring both sides closer to genuine negotiation. But until there is movement on these critical issues, little progress can be expected.''