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Autonomy Op-ed

The issue of autonomy has been steadily gaining interest and is now a serious consideration as a means of mitigating the long-running conflict in the southern border provinces. This is a positive step towards finding a political solution to the conflict because, short of a Carthaginian Peace, there is no military option for a solving an armed insurgency which rejects the legitimacy of the state. Yet autonomy is not a magical political solution to the complex problems fuelling unrest. Autonomy is subject to a number of complicated problems which could either derail the process or result in an autonomy agreement so watered down that any final agreement is void of any meaningful political powers. Such complications raise the spectre of autonomy failing to address core grievances of unrest and could further strain relations between Bangkok and the southern border provinces. While concerns don’t totally negate autonomy, issues such as national political conflict, sovereignty, the lack of understanding of the political leanings of the Malay-Muslim community, the role of the international community, a weak judicial system, and the future of Thai-Buddhist community are all issues which must be addressed should autonomy help bring a lasting peace to Thailand’s troubled deep south. 

The most pressing issue, and indeed most soul-searching for the Thai nation, is whether the conflict in the southern border provinces is a unique issue specific to the region or a symptom of a broader political ailment afflicting Thailand. The ethnic and religious cleavages in the Malay-Muslim provinces might be complicating factors but at the heart of the problem is a broken relationship between those who are ruling and those who are ruled. While a more extreme symptom in the border provinces, the same problematic relationship between those who are ruling and those who are ruled is reflected in national political conflict. The struggle, simplified by the color-coded street protests, might be fuelled by a myriad of factors but at the heart of the struggle is the problematic issue of legitimacy for those in power. How this relates to the autonomy debate in the south rests upon the fundamental distinction of how to address the root cause of conflict. If the apparently disparate conflicts in the southern border provinces and national political turmoil are indeed symptoms of a broader political ailment afflicting the nation then a special autonomy agreement fails to address the larger national illness while superficially treating the symptoms in the southern border provinces. This is obviously a complex issue but it is a consideration that must decide between a special autonomy arrangement for the symptoms in the southern border provinces or the treatment of the political illness afflicting the nation. A final consideration in this equation is the fact that national political conflict has drawn Bangkok’s focus away from addressing the southern crisis which means that peace in Bangkok is a likely prerequisite for peace in the Deep South. 

The next issue will be for autonomy to disassociate itself from the sensitive issue of sovereignty. Autonomy is not synonymous with independence. Autonomy is only a political devise that allows a distinct ethnic or social group to exercise political control over affairs of special concern to them while maintain the unity of the state and allowing the state to maintain political control over issues of common/national interest. But, as just demonstrated, autonomy has a clumsy definition and the distinction between autonomy and independence is often lost or purposely obfuscated by powerful opponents of autonomy. Royal Thai Army Commander-in-chief Anupong Paojinda recently did this in November 2009 [Link: when responding to Puea Thai chairman Gen Chavalit Yongchaiyudh’s suggestion of autonomy in the deep south by saying "the insurgents want to separate our land and set up an autonomous area". For autonomy to gain more political momentum it is essential that the Thai nation not only understand what autonomy is but also understand why it is necessary, how it has potential to address local grievances, and most importantly, how it does not threaten Thailand’s sovereignty.

Another pressing issue is the lack of understanding of the political leanings of the Malay-Muslim population. Due to the history of separatist struggle and the authority’s subsequent heavy-handed reaction to the separatist challenge, there is a distinct lack of political voice emanating out of the southern border provinces. Essentially, the distinction between legitimate political expression and violent separatism has been lost, which has prevented locals from openly expressing political opinions and airing their grievances for fear of being labeled a separatist. While the gagging of political voice is a barrier for transforming violent struggle into legitimate non-violent political participation, a lack of political voice also complicates the drive towards autonomy because there are only a limited number of elites which claim to be the voice of the large and diverse community. This could result in an elite-driven autonomy agreement that might serve the few Malay-Muslim leaders who stand to be the primary beneficiaries of increased political devolution but could fail to serve the majority of southern residents. The distinct problem is that an elite-driven process could result in an agreement that divides the state’s resources and position of political power amongst elites but fails to address local grievances and governance preferences which would undermine the long-term peace that advocates of autonomy are hoping for. While an elite driven process is the more likely scenario, this process should also be accompanied by a detailed public opinion survey designed to reveal the political inclinations of southern citizens, to understand their concerns and grievances, and to infuse those issues into the details of an autonomy agreement. 

Another consideration in the autonomy question will be the role of the international community. International assistance in helping Thailand resolve the southern insurgency has been fiercely resisted by both the government and the military. Yet the role of the international community should be reevaluated. The first stage in reevaluating the role of the international community is to understand that a large intervention is not being called for. The type of international assistance that is more likely would be technical and academic and designed to use shared experiences with utilizing autonomy arrangements to address ethno-religious conflicts while maintaining a state’s unity. Countries like Canada, Spain, and the United Kingdom have similar experiences with creating autonomy-based solutions to separatist challenges and could provide considerable technical insight into process and design issues which would directly correlate with the durability and success of an autonomy agreement. Additionally, such countries also share the experience of being constitutional monarchies and understand how these institutions need not be negatively reflected upon. Finally, the international community can provide assistance as a non-partisan negotiation facilitator that can provide considerable value in helping get stakeholders to the table and build an equitable accommodation designed to address the diverse communities and address the multifaceted grievances fueling unrest. 

Thailand’s judicial system will be a problematic area for the future of an autonomy agreement. While Thailand does have functioning judicial system there is concern that issues of partisanship could complicate a future agreement. Autonomy agreements are complex and require frequent negotiation between the center and the autonomous zone. These negotiations can largely be adjudicated through the legal system should all parties have faith in the impartiality of the courts. Yet, since the resurgence of violence in 2004, there has not been a single prosecution of security forces for human rights abuses. The lack of prosecution has been raised by some in the border provinces as an example of judicial inequality. The problem that this raises for the prospect of a future autonomy agreement is that the court’s adjudication process is not understood by some stakeholders as a nonpartisan venue for negotiating the adjustments needed between the center and the autonomous zone. This raises the specter of extra-judicial negotiations taking place in either non-transparent elite negotiations or through a return to violence. Those designing an agreement need to be cognizant of the challenges posed by the country’s democratic and legal systems. Importantly, the details of autonomy would need to be clear, have considerable support of the wide range of stakeholders, and would need to include guidelines for resolving conflicts and providing adjustments between Bangkok and the autonomous zone. 

The issue of Thai-Buddhist citizens in the southern border provinces needs specific care in an autonomy agreement. This will not be easy but every effort must be made to accommodate their interests, ensure their democratic rights, and specifically ensure their safety. Tensions along ethno-religious lines have already resulted in a migration of Thai-Buddhists out of the three southern border provinces and, in some instances, Thai-Buddhists have been violently driven out in what amounts to ethnic cleansing. While human rights and safety issues are paramount, from the perspective of autonomy and the hope of establishing peace, their concerns need to be answered and included in the process of establishing peace through autonomy. 

Ultimately, while autonomy is a complex process subject to a number of major pitfalls, the fact that autonomy is gaining increased interest is a positive step in the search for a much needed political solution to the southern insurgency. While it will be a major challenge for autonomy to gain the required support from national stakeholders, the larger challenge will be to construct a durable autonomy agreement that can strike a balance between the state and the complicated grievances fueling unrest in the southern border provinces. This is not an impossible task, but it will require parties to be cognizant of the challenges, willing to compromise, and prepared to construct a highly detailed agreement.