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Exit strategies for southern Thailand PDF Print E-mail
REGIONAL PERSPECTIVE

Exit strategies for southern Thailand

By Kavi Chongkittavorn
The Nation
Published on February 22, 2010

DOES THAILAND have grand exit strategies in southern Thailand, where 4068 people have been killed (as of January 2009) since 2004? The answer is affirmative - but they would require serious and sustained policy implementations for any successful outcome within three years.

Eliminating ongoing grievances, expanding space for Malay cultural identity, improving quality of education and increasing employment, increasing local ownership and engaging community-based and civil society organisations as well as increasing diplomatic support, are key elements to end the violence and bring about the much needed national reconciliation in Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala.

Prepared by the Foreign Ministry in early January and given the green light by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, these strategies would serve as common guidelines for the government and concerned agencies, including security forces working there. Without tangible and continued improvement, the Foreign Ministry realised, the country's image would be forever held hostage by the conflict in the South, which in turn would be highlighted continuously in international forums, especially in the Organisation of Islamic Conference. Positive perception among the global Muslim community is of utmost importance and can only be achieved through concrete improvements--seeing is believing.

The rule of law, administration of justice and protecting citizen's rights are major components that the government has been citing for all relevant policies to promote justice and safety of the people living in the South. Abhisit and Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya are under the world's microscope partly because of their own enthusiasm and outward looking--not to mention the effort and budgets that have been invested in the troubled areas.

One year has elapsed and the government has not fulfilled its pledge completely to take up grievances by settling pending cases, such as the killing of Muslim lawyer Somchai Neerapaichit, and the death of Imam Yapa Kaseng under the military's detention, among others. While some progress has been made, it is still small and slow. The prime minister has to take the bull by the horns to ensure that these investigations wrap up and justice is done soon.

Obviously, Abhisit's power has its limits when it comes to implementation on the ground level, especially some of the judicial process, which can have an opposite effect in the South. In fact, it has become a huge impediment to end mutual suspicion and reduce violence. Quite frequently, the long and tedious judicial process has further generated deep resentment among families and friends of jailed suspected insurgents.

Since it came to power, the government has revoked martial law for four districts of Songkhla province and replaced it with the Internal Security Act (ISC). The Emergency Decree in the deep South has been renewed every three-months about a dozen times. With lesser violence, there could be a possibility of replacing the decree with the ISC in the near future. As part of human rights education, the Foreign Ministry has also provided four-training sessions on human rights for security leaders in the South. Those who strictly observe the law would be given a "soldier's proper conduct card." Unfortunately, the cases of human rights abuse have yet to improve substantially.

Adding salt to the wounds, the armed villager groups - such as the Village Safety Protection Unit (chut raksa kham plod phai moo baan), the Safety Protection Volunteers (asa samak raksa kham plod phai) and the Ruam Thai Group - are becoming sources of tension and violence. The government must quickly come up with stringent measures to discipline these unregulated armed villagers. If possible, their numbers must be dramatically cut down as the government is vigorously implementing human security-related policies. Truth be told, these armed men and women lack proper training in the use of firearms which has seriously heightened tension and mutual mistrust among local communities, especially the Muslims and Buddhists. In addition, to increase the confidence of the Muslims down there, the so-called preventive detention must also stop. At least 500-600 suspects are jailed and suffer greatly from such practice.

Efforts to recognise and widen local cultural identity have increased significantly under the current government. But tangible progress is still marginal. Abhisit needs to engage strong-minded bureaucrats and security forces, reminding them without respect for local cultural identity, the trouble in the South will not end. For instance, the use of the Malay language in all public offices including hospitals, land registration offices in all districts of the three provinces must be implemented speedily.

With the Bt6.3 billion development package for the next three years (2010-12) approved by the "mini-cabinet for the South" recently - to improve the livelihood of people living in southern provinces - there is an urgent need to allocate these funds to community-based and civil society organisations with a bottom up approach. Past practices of providing funds directly to various ministries, which often led to corruption, are no longer working. Other stakeholders must take part in community decision making at the earliest date possible.

Education for the southern provinces - the country's lowest standard - must be further improved. In the long run, better education of disenchanted youth would turn them into productive work forces in society. Muslim youths have suffered from high unemployment. From 2007-09, the government allocated Bt90 million to fund Muslim students for their higher education and study aboard. This year's Bt27-million budget will focus on job development programmes, internships and other cultural-related activities.

As part of ongoing efforts to promote international understanding of and support for the South, Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya led a dozen ambassadors and diplomats from Peru, Argentina, South Africa, Chile, Canada, Switzerland, France, Russia, Kenya, India, Ukraine, Mexico to Pattani and Yala over the weekend. The aim was to showcase what the Abhisit government has been doing to resolve the ongoing violence.

The group, which represents the fourth batch from the diplomatic corps, visited the Sufficiency Economy Learning Centre run by the Internal Security Operations Command Fourth Region and the Tambon Peace Council of Ban Piyamumang in Pattani. The two projects gave different impressions and feelings.

At the learning centre, the Fourth Army Region top brass and senior officials were in battle uniforms and some were fully armed with automatic rifles. Diplomats saw them in various activities teaching the Muslim community leaders and villagers all aspects of civilian life including chicken and fish farming, making organic fertiliser, among others. The centre, established in October 2008, is now serving as a place where Muslims can meet and connect with each other; and at the same time learn new skills to earn their living or live in sustainable ways.

The overwhelming presence of army officers at the centre generated an eerie feeling among the diplomats, not used to such strict monitoring or guarding. The Thai armed forces have taken developmental roles seriously and they are very proud. The time has come, however, when they must learn how to take a back seat more readily, otherwise all the good outcomes could easily be jeopardised.

At the Tambon Peace Council of Ban Piyamumang, a more friendly and relax atmosphere prevailed. Less military presence in uniform has brightened up the meeting at Ban Piyamumang - demonstrating the efforts and capacity by local leaders and communities to sort things out by themselves with little or no official meddling.

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