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The Problems of Deep South

                             Gothom Arya

 

          There are roughly three groups of actors in Deep South: government officials, Buddhist Thais and Melayu Muslim Thais. The main antagonism is vertical that is between officials and Muslims. But the conflict is basically identity conflict between the two populations.

          By ‘identity', I mean ethnic identity as identified by language, religion and culture. Two ethnic groups can live along side without hostility but rarely without tension or low-intensity conflict. The conflict can become intense or even violent if members of one group feel that their identity is being threatened, for instance, the teaching of their language is being restricted, their religious practice hampered in certain aspects, or their culture is devalued or being invaded by an alien culture. On the other hand, the group that is the minority of the two usually feels insecure in maintaining both its identity and community among a larger population. The identity conflict in the three southernmost provinces has a long history of confrontation, so in a way the present conflict is an inheritance.

          By ‘inheritance', I mean different narratives that two co-existing ethnic groups inherited from the past that are used to justify the attitude and behaviours in the present. The more divergent are the narratives, the greater the chance is that they will feed into the negative attitude and behaviours. In the case of the Deep South, the official and Buddhists' narrative is that this part of the country has been in the Siamese sphere of influence since the times of Sukhothai and Ayuddhaya. More recently during the Chakri dynasty, the land has become part of the kingdom and since Rama V, part of Siamese state. The events in the past century have been marred by treasons, insubordination and revolts that caused a lot of trouble to the state. In short, the land belongs to us and bad elements of the other community who were unhappy or were trouble makers would do better to go away without taking with them the land. However, in the Melayu narrative, these ‘trouble makers' were simply fighters for freedom and justice. The events were interpreted as violent suppression of legitimate demands for respect of identity and for justice. We have been children of the land since time immemorial and certainly before the time of Sukhothai. The land is now under occupation and we should not be the ones to go away. This is an inheritance that has a strong bearing on the present. The mutual accusation of historical distortion is not helpful. Without truth and reconciliation of the two narratives, it is difficult to make a therapy of the past for the benefit of a more harmonious future.

          There are many reasons why Satul, another southernmost province, has always been more peaceful than the other three. One of them, worth mentioning here, is that it has been under the competent and understanding governorship (1914-1932) of Phya Samantarathburin. The policy directive of King Rama VI issued on 6 July 1923 reflected his awareness of the problem of officials' incompetence. The said directive insisted, inter alias, that officials to be sent to the South should respect the practice of Islam and should not look down on local population nor cover up the wrong doings of officials against them.  The officials should be selected on the basis of their honesty and self-control and in any case bad officials should not be sent there as a kind of punishment. In short, good and competent officials would help alleviate the problems but unfortunately we have not always heeded King Rama VI's directive.

          Not all the political leaders had the same foresight as King Rama VI on this matter, and many formulated an assimilation policy that is perceived as identity threat by Melayu Thai population. Misguided policy and incompetent officials represent a recipe for injustice, may it be administrative, social or economic. Indeed, widespread perception of injustice resulted in non-cooperation or at time open revolt whose suppression nurtures the deep-rooted sense of mistrust against the authority.

          Although misguided policy and officials' shortcomings still persist but these may not be enough to explain why there is a surge of violence nowadays. My view is that we are living in a modern time that has arrived too fast for so many who feel alienated. There are social and economic malaises within and between nations. Our value system is being challenged by globalized values. One's reaction is to go back to ‘proven' values of the past. This partly accounts for the resurgence of religiosity seen in many places. This calls for the return to the basics, to original texts and to the practices in founders' times. Moreover, religious ideology is developed to challenge secular ideology and has strong appeal to new generations who feel alienated from the world dominated by crude materialism. In the deep South, Melayu Thais are not only proud of their past but also of their adherence to religious practice. Although religion is not at the core of the conflict for most feel that they enjoy the freedom of faith as guaranteed in the constitution, but popular religious belief can easily be used to rally a lot of people behind the present insurgency.

          Violent actions of insurgents look like the repeat of the cycle of violence that took place many a time. But this time it seems that they succeed in creating the sense of insecurity and spread the mistrust not only between officials and Melayu Thais but also between officials and Buddhists on the one hand and Melayu Thais on the other. This development is worrisome as the conflict can lead to violence among the two communities that would be very difficult to control.

          In summary, the identity conflict leads to the inheritance of hurts and harms as well as two divergent narratives. Officials' incompetence and misguided policy resulted into the perceived sense of injustice. The present insurgency uses this background as well as popular religiosity of modern time to renew the present violence. The result is the widespread feeling of insecurity that could well spill over to violent animosity among communities. These are the six ‘I's of our problems.

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