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Straight to the Point : Only autonomy can resolve southern conflict

There is no end in sight for the chronic violence which has made life miserable and very insecure for communities living in the southern border provinces of our country, Muslims and Buddhists alike, ever since the armed raid on the army camp in January 2004. The situation was handled in the worst possible manner by the Thaksin Shinawatra government, which conducted a policy of using military rather than political means to deal with the conflict.

Outside police and military units were sent into the region. Illegal kidnappings and interrogation methods were used against Muslim communities in attempts to get information. Killings by Muslim militants were matched with killings by state-hired assassins.

Incidents such as the Krue Se, Saba Yoi and Tak Bai massacres caused widespread resentment (dare I say hatred?) of the State within Muslim communities.

This is the situation that remains today. On the one hand you have the Muslim militants, an anonymous younger generation to the traditional community leaders, who are waging an ideological war against the Thai State.

They are getting more and more support from Muslim youths living in conditions of high unemployment and low educational opportunities.

The militants are terrorising even their own communities in order to disrupt any forms of cooperation with the authorities.

On the other hand you have the state apparatus, using emergency rule and martial law to round up hundreds of young suspects, sending them to vocational training camps outside the border region, and preventing them from returning to their communities, even though no charges have been made against them.

Governments never seem to learn that you can never overcome armed insurgency without winning the hearts and the trust of the communities involved, or without seeking a negotiated settlement.

The situation now seems clearly irreversible and in stalemate.

There is no way that the Muslim militants are going to achieve a separate Muslim state. Neither Thailand nor Malaysia would tolerate that, and there would be no support globally.

Yet there is no way that military force, emergency rule and martial law can curb the violence or bring peace.

The only real way out of this chronic illness of our country is to ''de-colonise'' the region through negotiations with local community leaders of all races and religions.

We have to accept some form of self-government or autonomy in which local culture and traditions are allowed to prevail, and in which the area is governed by its own local leaders, not by governors appointed from Bangkok.

Peace would be enforced by local police and military units, while outside forces would be withdrawn. I am not advocating separation from the Thai State, which is impossible.

I am only advocating a high degree of political, social and cultural autonomy for the southern border communities within the Thai State, on the lines of models in other countries such as Quebec within Canada.

I actually believe this would enrich rather than weaken Thailand as a nation.

The problem, of course, is the mindset of the Thai bureaucracy, which is not open to this kind of thinking.

But some time or other, this only solution will become more and more apparent.

Let's hope that a discussion of ''the unthinkable'' can be started on the Thai political scene within the near future.


Jon Ungphakorn is a former elected senator for Bangkok and at present the Chairman of the Thai NGO Coordinating Committee on Development.


First Published in Bangkok Post



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