How long can we ignore the deep South?
- EDITORIALMilitary solutions will never work in a region that does not recongize the Thai State
How long can we ignore the deep South?Whoever forms the next government must not treat the ongoing insurgency in Thailand's South in the same manner as the two previous administrations. The governments of Samak Sundaravej and Somchai Wongsawat failed to impress anybody with their handling of the ongoing violence in the Malay-speaking deep South, which has claimed more than 3,300 lives since January 2004.
Instead of picking up from where the Surayud Chulanont administration left off, the two previous leaders left the deep South in limbo and diverted much of their energy to defending initiatives to pave the way for the return of fugitive Thaksin Shinawatra.
The Surayud administration could have used its 16 months in office to push for a meaningful platform, such as substantive decentralisation. But Surayud did at least make a heartfelt apology for the past mistreatment of Malay Muslims in region, specifically the massacre at Tak Bai, and for this he should be commended.
With Malaysia's facilitation, Surayud reconnected with long-standing separatist groups and even met secretly with a senior Patani United Liberation Organisation (Pulo) member in December 2007 during a stopover in Bahrain. But none of his initiatives were carried over by the new administrations. The then-newly appointed Army chief, General Anupong Paochinda, got cold feet, telling people that he couldn't move because the Samak government was too unstable and could not provide a proper mandate for the deep South.
In place of Surayud came opportunists looking for quick political points. They presented themselves as negotiators on the verge of bringing permanent peace to the region. But in the end, Chavalit Yongchaiyudh and Chetta Thanajaro, both former Army chiefs, made complete fools out of themselves. The tragedy is that these men could not see how their actions caused a great deal of damage to future efforts to bring peace to the South.
The incoming administration could do better than letting top brass-turned-political flunkies run around inflicting further damage on this delicate process.
It is high time that our military and policy-makers came to terms with the fact that a military solution in the South will not work. Thailand is fighting an ideological separatist movement that questions the legitimacy of the Thai State in the historical Malay homeland. What this conflict needs is a political solution, not a military one. This is a job for political scientists and sociologists, not generals with self-inflated egos who fail to see that their tactics have done little more than dig graves for young men who are unable to bribe their way out of the Army draft.
Unfortunately, the attitude in some quarters in the security community is that brute force is the way to go. But what we have learned, if anything, from wave after wave of violent incidents is that if you take down one militant cell, another will pop up; beat one unfriendly imam to death and another will fill his shoes; force one generation of militants to fade away into the villages and a new one will take its place the following decade.
Some thought they could repeat the "success" of the early 1990s, when they forced the armed wings of the long-standing separatist groups to go under. But what they overlooked was the fact that these armed separatists were organised in camps in the highlands along the Thai-Malaysian border. Today, these insurgents don't have to give anything up. One minute they are setting off a roadside bomb and the next they are back tapping rubber trees or feeding their chickens. Bullets are not wasted in lengthy gunfights and there are no signs that local civilians are turning against the insurgents.
For too long our policy-makers have opted to stay on safe ground and repeat the same line, simply calling on all sides to let go of differences and work towards a common goal.