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Political will lacking to deal with south problem PDF Print E-mail

Political will lacking to deal with south problem

For the past three decades, old man Fadel has met and talked with Thai security officials about what seems to be a never ending dispute between the Malay historical homeland of Patani and the Thai state.


Not much has changed over the years. If anything, the situation seems to be getting worse if one takes into consideration the level of violence in the southernmost border provinces where more than 3,200 have died since January 2004.
Fadel (not his real name) is a key leader from one of the longstanding separatist groups that emerged in the late 1960s to carve out a separate homeland for Malays in Thailand's southernmost border provinces. Like many Patani exiles, Fadel lives a quiet life in Malaysia under the watchful eyes of the state security and intelligence agencies. Kuala Lumpur has been working quietly with Bangkok to facilitate some of these meetings that Fadel said hasn't made much progress. He blamed the lack of sincerity and the absence of mandate on his Thai counterparts.

Since his last interview to The Nation, early last year, Fadel has lost a tooth and his hair has greyed more. But his stance remains unchanged.

Like other leaders of long standing groups - Patani United Liberation Organisation, Barisan Revolusi Nasional - Congress, Gerekan Mujahidin Islam Patani (GMIP), Barisan Islam Pembangunan Patani (BIPP) - Fadel has dropped the demand for an independent Patani.

Echoing other old guards from these long standing groups, Fadel maintained that before true and lasting peace can be achieved, Thailand must first recognise the historical fact that the Malayspeaking region was once an independent sultanate. Moreover, the use of Malay must be permitted as a "working language" alongside the "official" Thai.

"This is not about separating Patani from Thailand. It's about the dignity of the Malays of Patani," explained Fadel.

Thai security officials have said rewriting history and having all sides come to terms with the past will not go well with conservative elements who see the current nationstate boundary as something next to divine revelation. But the demands from the old guards can be met as long as the will is there from the political leaders, they said.

Like everything else, it seems, the devil is in the details.

In recent months, Fadel has been watching with some discomfort the various initiatives by key Thai political and regional leaders to broker a peace deal with groups who claimed to be representing the people of Patani.

These key Thai political leaders include Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, Chettha Thanajaro, Surayud Chulanont and last but not the least, Indonesian Vice President Yusuf Kalla. Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim has also expressed concern and interest in working towards peace as well.

But good intentions are not necessarily good policy. Many stakeholders have questioned the true intention of these socalled mediators and the merit of their action. In fact, some of these recent initiatives were billed as, at best, bad planning, and at worst, a hoax.

Two months ago Chavalit publicly said an everlasting peace would be achieved by December 5 this year. He has less than two weeks left. Before that Chettha announced an end to the centuryold resistance. Kalla, on the other hand, was left high and dry when the Thai government said it was not aware of his initiative.

While these dialogue tracks continue to attract the attention of the exiled leaders, there is a growing consensus among concerned parties that in spite of these talks, Thailand and Patani separatist groups are as far apart as ever.

"I have got to the point that these discussions, dialogue or negotiations have become pointless. This is because the Thai side has always sent men, usually soldiers, who have no real mandate," said another exiled leader, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Malaysian officials who helped facilitate some of these meetings echoed the same sentiment, saying there is no continuity from the Thai side and the participants see these meetings as an intelligence gathering exercise rather than as part of an effort to come up with a sound policy.

This is not to say that the Thai government has never been in constructive dialogue before. In December 2007, then prime minister Surayud met secretly with a top PULO official during a stopover in Bahrain.

But the foundation that Surayud laid was not built on. "Everything at the official level is more or less at a standstill at the moment," said the Malaysian officer.

Well, not exactly. Surayud's effort was replaced by individual initiatives from various camps, namely Kalla, Chetta and Chavalit. All reached out to the old guards but so far, nothing meaningful has come out of their efforts.

While no one doubted the historical role of these old guards, the biggest question that is eating up the Thai side is what kind of influence the exiled leaders have over the new generation of militants operating on the ground.

Old guards said they have regular dialogue with the new generation and maintain that they can bring them to the negotiating table if and when a formal negotiation is kicked off.

Others in the exiled community are quietly singling out the Barisan Revolusi Nasional - Coordinate as the one long standing group that has any real influence on the new generation operating on the ground. Locally, the new generation of militants is referred to as the juwae, which means fighter in local Malay dialect.

For the time being, Bangkok's official position is to deny any involvement with these "private initiatives" in spite of financing some of them. The Thai government is also keeping the international community away from what they have consistently billed as a domestic issue.

Observers and frustrated officials on the ground say Thai security agencies have too much to hide - the torture, a culture of impunity, corruption and the use of government death squad. Certainly, they can do without the headache from the international community, much less the debate on the legitimacy of the Thai state in the Malays' historical homeland.

Unless there is political will from Bangkok to push for real change in the deep South, said old man Fadel, violence will continue unabated.

"We don't mind being part of Thailand," Fadel said. "But it has to be on our own terms."
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