Southern discomfort — Voranai Vanijaka
AUG 5 — The mantra is “cover your behind, secure the budget and never mind the truth”. According to Deep South Watch, since 2004 and as of June 2012, there have been 11,754 violent incidents in the three southernmost provinces of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat, and counting. Casualties are at 14,343, with 5,206 people dead, and counting.
However, Deep South Watch stresses that the quantity of violence has been decreasing, while the quality is on the increase. This means that the attacks are better planned, the targets more specific and the results more successful, from the perpetrators’ viewpoint. It speaks of the insurgents becoming more organised, more professional.
In the eight years of violence, the government has poured in some 180,000 million baht, and counting. This is to address the conflict and develop the devastated provinces, though it does not include the military budget. Due to the volume of funding and the ongoing military operations, the economy of the three provinces is growing at an average of two per cent annually, still well below what it was before the conflict started.
The report also puts the number of people under arms at 150,3990, with soldiers/policemen accounting for 27 per cent, paramilitary personnel 17 per cent and civilians 56 per cent.
Deep South Watch says the majority of civilians distrust the power of the military authorities. In fact, according to a survey by the organisation, police and the military rank as the bottom two on the trust scale with scores of 2.94 and 2.78 out of 5 respectively. Those most trusted are the imams, or religious teachers, who scored at 3.95. Sandwiched in the middle are medical workers, NGOs, the media, and people from other state agencies.
A car bomb was detonated last Tuesday near a hotel in Pattani town in this, the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. Last Thursday, three men were killed in separate incidents. A curfew is being debated; the Yingluck Shinawatra government wants it, while the commander of the Fourth Army Region disagrees. This comes as the government proposes setting up a new permanent command centre for handling problems in the deep South.
There are many problems in the handling of the southern situation, most important of which is who should be in charge, the civilian government or the military. In theory, it ought to be the civilian government. In reality, the military calls the shots.
The civilian government and the military organisation are each designed for specific purposes. The civilian government brings peace, the military makes war. This is said not to condemn the military, just to state its function.
If it is our purpose to annihilate the insurgents, bring the three southern provinces to heel, cowed and submissive, then it is the job of the military to do it. However, it is safe to say that for the past eight years the military has failed spectacularly. The statistics presented by Deep South Watch do not lie. On the other hand, if the purpose is to bring peace to the South in the most humane way possible, then the civilian government should be in charge.
On my trip through the South last year to report on the bombing in Sungai Kolok in Narathiwat province, I was accompanied by a local policeman 20 years on the job. I learned five things. Bear in mind, this is just one man’s take on the situation, and it is a generalisation.
First, the situation is a mess. Not even the local police and the military trust each other and work together. There’s animosity and jealousy, in terms of budget allocation, exercise of authority and understanding of the local situation. The local police would argue that the military has no understanding because the majority of military personnel, including the generals, are from other regions of the country.
Second, through almost 10 years of constant fighting, there is a feeling of contempt between the authorities and the locals. The Buddhist authorities are disdainful of the culture and practices of the Muslim locals. This was displayed by my police guide and also a police general I talked to.
Third, the southern provinces are being run like a warlord’s enclave, not a proper state. Think of the generals as conquering warlords, strutting about, travelling in motorcades from one leisure destination to another, while the locals scurry out of the way, cowed but full of resentment.
Fourth, the same big problem that exists throughout the country is present here — institutional dysfunction — but the symptoms are more prominent in the war-ravaged deep South.
From petty officials up the line through the bureaucracy, whether civilian, police or military, the mantra is “cover your behind, secure the budget and never mind the truth”. By the time a report gets to the desk of the prime minister, regardless of who has held power over the past eight years, that report becomes more fiction than fact. Again, this is a situation not unlike anywhere else in Thailand.
Lastly, through the years, the struggles of the insurgency have become about more than just freedom and autonomy. This is now also a story of the narcotics trade and gang rivalries between insurgent groups. It has become about finding money to perpetuate the struggle, to maintain the lifestyles and expand the organisations of the insurgents.
Looking at the above five factors, the situation seems pretty hopeless - unless is viewed it from the perspective that it is ideal for securing the budget and the power to build and maintain a warlord’s enclave, a feudal playground.
Ahead of the July 3, 2011 general elections, the Pheu Thai Party campaigned in the South on the platform of a Pattani Metropolitan Administration, where the three southernmost provinces would be autonomous and self-governing, not unlike Pattaya. Many critics were against it, perhaps because they were against Pheu Thai in general rather than the policy itself. Many didn’t believe that Pheu Thai would actually deliver, since it was Thaksin Shinawatra who in July 2005 assumed full emergency power to wield his authority in the South and thereby escalated the conflict.
In the end, the three southernmost provinces gave their votes to the Democrats and not Pheu Thai, as they are still entrenched in the Democrats’ patronage network.
The southern situation carries a huge amount of political baggage. But if we can agree that the purpose is to first and foremost bring peace to Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat, then we must set aside that baggage - whether it comes in yellow or red and whether it is carried by the military, local police, Buddhists or Muslims. To bring peace is to win the hearts and minds of the people. To win the hearts and minds of the people is to give them the freedom, the respect and the dignity that all people deserve.
Thailand is not a homogenous nation. We are a collection of different peoples, cultures and religions put together in a pot through military conquests and dubious British treaties. Certain regions assimilate better than others because the people and the cultures are more similar. The Deep South is a place apart, ethnically, culturally and religiously. But southerners are still Thais — more important than that, they are people.
If Pattaya can be awarded the self-determination to become a red-light town for Europeans and Middle Easterners, then Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat deserve to determine their own fate as part of the Kingdom of Thailand.
Committees, command centres and dialogues do not solve anything. They just waste time and budgets. Or perhaps that’s the point. It is the freedom, the respect and the dignity that they need, and we do that by action and implementation, not just discussion. Pull back the military. Let them determine their own fate. For better or worse, life is a matter of choice.
But of course, as long as we allow the mantra of “cover your behind, secure the budget and never mind the truth” to remain in force, and national colour politics and divisions take precedence over human lives, then the provinces of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat will remain torn by war, and we will have no one to blame but ourselves. — Bangkok Post
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.