The content in this page ("Political Public Sphere - Now and then." by Hara Shintaro) is not produced by Prachatai staff. Prachatai merely provides a platform, and the opinions stated here do not necessarily reflect those of Prachatai.

Political Public Sphere - Now and then.

The second round of the peace process in Patani seems to be following the first round’s suit: ending up in a stalemate. However, even an abortive attempt for a peace process is not at all useless, and is able to create a considerable impact on the political public sphere in the conflict area.
 
Before the coup under the civilian government
 
Since the Patani Peace Process was inaugurated on 28 February 2013, there have been a plenty of new terms coined and used in the discourses related to the process. Party A, referring to the Thai government, and Party B, for “people who have different opinions and ideologies from the state” (which itself is a new phrase too) are among the most popular. The connection between the Party B members who have been directly involved in the peace process and those who are fighting in the field (or, those who are engaged in the military action, or, according to the security forces, the terrorists) has never been clear. In view of the distinguished secretiveness of the most significant and biggest insurgent organization, Barisan Revolusi Nasional (the National Revolutionary Front) which has never issued any statement related to violent operations, there is no scientific way to explain the connection so far. However, the first round of the peace process had a significant effect on the situation in the field. The number of the violent operations visibly decreased, and the operations became more professional, aimed at so called hard targets (government armed forces in uniform) rather than indiscriminate attacks on soft targets (civilians). 
 
Since the signing of the General Consensus on the Peace Dialogue Process, the political public sphere in the region was also drastically widened. The Southern Border Province Administration Centre (SBPAC) under the leadership of then Secretary General, Pol. Col. Thawee Sodsong, who also was a member of the Thai negotiation team for the peace process, played a significant role in creating and then maintaining this entirely new atmosphere. For the first time since the eruption of violence in 2004, local people, activists, academics and journalists were able to talk about topics which had been taboo, such as the form of future governance in the region (devolution, decentralization, autonomy and even independence), Malay ethnicity and the cultural identity of the Malay people, legitimacy of the Malay people’s struggle and so on. Just mentioning the names of the insurgent groups in a public space (other than in an academic meeting) had been almost unthinkable (because doing so the speaker might end up in detention under the special laws), but the peace process had made the name of BRN a common topic of conversation. Criticism against the draconian special laws, especially martial law (which allows the authorities to detain any suspect anywhere without warrant for 7 days) and the emergency decree (which enables the security officers to detain suspects for no more than 30 days through a warrant) became a common practice among human right activists.    
 
The number of public forums, open discussions and talks about the peace process during the period was also extraordinary. One of the series of public forums called “Bicara Patani” (roughly translatable as “Patani Talk”) organized no less than 60 public forums, mostly in villages of Malay Muslims. These kinds of activity were hosted by many organizations, including universities, NGOs/CSOs, government agencies and the security forces. Some big events were attended by thousands of people, including the second round of Bicara Patani in Prince of Songkla University, Pattani Campus, on March 2013 and an international public forum organized by a network of local NGOS, held in the Patani Central Mosque on January 2014. During that period, weekends without this kind of activity were very rare.   
 
The emergence of alternative media in the region is another example of the political public sphere’s new landscape. Local amateur journalists formed media groups to report what was going on in the conflict area, mainly by resorting to social media. Some of the documentary makers successfully upgraded their skills, to the extent they are now asked for their co-operation by the mainstream Thai media (such as Thai PBS, TV 3 and so on). Community radio stations emerged like mushrooms, and some of them gained a large number of listeners. One of the most well-known programmes was called ‘Dunia Hari Ini (The World Today)’ by the community radio station Media Selatan (Southern Media). What made this programme famous was a broadcast of the very first (and so far, only) interview with Ustaz Hassan Taib, the head of the BRN delegation. Before the peace process, it had been unimaginable to broadcast the voice of the armed groups’ leaders, but the changing atmosphere enabled this to happen. Unfortunately, all the community radios were ordered off the air by the NCPO immediately after the coup.   
 
Another visible change was related to the use of Malay in Jawi script in public places which had been practically forbidden in the past for security reasons. A villager told me about what he had witnessed a long ago. A signboard with the name of his village written in Jawi script was set up by someone in the village. Within a few hours, the soldiers came to the village only to take it down. However, since the political atmosphere changed in the region, the script also became acceptable. 
 
The SBPAC initiated a programme to add the proper names for the names of Malay villages which so far had been written in improper ways. As an example, there’s a village called ‘Kayomati’. Those who knows standard Malay might imagine that this name comes from ‘kayu mati (dead log), and no one could have imagined that the actual name in Malay is ‘gajah mati’ (dead elephant).  Another example is ‘Pi-Dor’ Village. This name has been deemed the worst example of how the Thai authorities dealt with Malay names. According to research conducted by a group of local historians, the actual name of the village was ‘Belida’, the name for a kind of freshwater fish. However, the Thai name ‘Pi-Dor’, which might be caused by the slovenliness of the officer(s) who documented the name, is an extremely upsetting mixture of two words: ‘pi’ and ‘dor’. ‘Pi’ is a word used in the local Malay dialect spoken in Patani to refer to the female genitals, whereas ‘dor’ is a colloquial (and rude) term for the male genitals. Needless to say, this name is well known in the region. This misleading way of writing the village names caused a great deal of dissatisfaction among the local Malay Muslims. Therefore, tackling this problem can also be seen as a positive effort to reduce the conditions behind the conflict. 
 
Many (though not all) government agencies also put up signboards in Jawi script. The significance of this step shouldn’t be missed. Officially Thailand has only one ethnicity, that is ‘Thai’. Certainly this is grotesquely at variance with the very simple fact that this country hosts a variety of ethnicity. This ‘one nation, one people’ concept clearly reflects the extent of the ultra-nationalism in state policies. The set of policies called ‘ratthaniyom’ (cultural mandates) during the Phibunsongkhram era were the embodiment of this tendency: enforced assimilation of all races into official ‘Thai’ culture. For this reason, anything contradicting this policy was regarded as a threat to national security. Naturally, the Malay language spoken by the Malay Muslims in the southernmost provinces was seen in this way too. Those who were born before the 1980s experienced the ban on the use of Malay in government schools. Many of them told me about the fines they had to pay for speaking Malay in schools: one baht per one Malay word. This practice, which obviously violates basic linguistic rights, was taken for granted. Considering the attitude of the authorities against the Malay language, the decision to put up the government agency signboards in Malay implies a significant shift in perception. The state (to be more precise, the SBPAC under Thawee’s leadership) acknowledged the significance of the cultural issue in solving the conflict for the first time.      
 
As was mentioned above, whether or not the drastic changes mentioned above have any impact on the violence is extremely difficult to prove. However, the combination of the peace process and the opened-up public sphere in the region was certainly one of the key reasons for the reduction of violence. For the first time the insurgents were given political channels to express their demands, and these demands were widely and very freely discussed in the conflict area. Therefore, the decrease in the number of the violent actions or military operations should be interpreted as the readiness of the insurgents to control their military forces as long as they are provided with another channel of struggle rather the military operations. 
 
I was very hopeful about the first round of the peace process because it might be able to transform the struggle of the Patani Malay people into a political one. I was apparently too naive and optimistic about this matter, but the fact remains that the political solution is far more effective than the military strategy in solving the problem in the conflict area. Therefore, the civilian government under Yingluck Shinawatra opened a new political atmosphere in the conflict area. Unfortunately, it was short-lived. 
 
Though the period was extremely short (from 28 February 2013 to 22 May 2014), the newly opened up political atmosphere did allow the local people, especially Malay Muslims who speak the Patani dialect of Malay as their daily language, to closely follow the peace process via the numerous public forums and discussions, radio broadcasts and information shared on social media. During this period, a number of local people expressed their dissatisfaction with the peace process for always going over their heads. Such opinions were exactly the evidence that the local people could judge their exact position in the place: they were not yet involved practically the process. This is totally different from the atmosphere after the coup, in which the majority of local people don’t have even the vaguest idea about the second round of the peace process resumed by the junta. 
 
After the coup 
 
In the political turmoil caused by the PDRC, it was clear that the government was too busy in dealing with the mob to be bothered by the peace process. Yingluck should be given credit for opening the process, but she never showed any positive political will to be actively engaged in the process, as if vouching for the fact that the process had actually been initiated her exiled brother. She appointed her deputy, Chalerm Yubamrung, in charge of dealing with the problems in the south, but he only came to the south once, heavily guarded by security. It was not surprising that faced with such big trouble in the capital, the Yingluck government no longer showed any interest in the process. 
 
Given the fact that conditions in the southernmost provinces had certainly been exacerbated (though not created) by Thaksin Shinawatra, the junta which ousted his sister had to deal with this specific problem in order to gain legitimacy for their seizure of power. Some observers said that as the military was the real political power in the country, must be much easier for a junta to pursue a peace process than a civilian government which will inevitably be disturbed by the military. Structurally speaking, this statement is true, but the reality is not as simple as that.  
 
The second round of the peace process seems to have already come to a stalemate. Even a relatively simple matter like the Terms of Reference (ToR) for the dialogue, which in the previous round had been agreed smoothly without serious problems, has become an excuse so as not to push forward the process. Compared to the first round, the current round seems far less smooth, and at this moment, after the dismissal of the lead negotiator, Lt. Gen. Nakrob Boonbuathong and the stumble over the ToR, there is hardly any positive indicator of progress. 
 
At the same time, the extent of the political public sphere during this second process is completely different from that during the first round. Although the military is dealing with the conflict area differently from the other parts of the country (for instance, no one has ever been called in for ‘attitude adjustment’, and there is no security case related to lèse-majesté), the political public space has been drastically reduced, just as in the rest of the country.  
Since the coup, pressure from the military (via the ISOC Region 4) on local activists has become more severe. For example, the local media were summoned to a meeting held in a military base and told by the commander at that time that they only had two choices: to co-operate with the military or to prepare THB 20,000 (as a fine) and stay in prison. 
 
Before the coup, I was one of those who were actively involved in NGO activities. Apart from providing comments to the media, I also joined several Bicara Patani forums, and once a week joined ‘Dunia Hari Ini’. Some people called me a mouthpiece of the BRN, mainly because I translated the initial statements released by the organization without being asked and paid. What probably most irritated the authorities was the translation of the Malay expression ‘penjajah Siam’ as ‘Siamese colonialists’. I even had to have a polemic with a professor of Malay language who offered ‘the perfectly correct translation’ of the BRN statement. The professor accused me of choosing a provocative term in my translation. I defended my position by stating that regarding Siam as colonialist is a common view in Malay studies. I firmly believed that understanding the insurgents’ political stand point properly was a necessary step for an effective peace process. 
Probably these activities might have made the military feel uneasy with me. I was regularly contacted by some military officers even before the coup, but after the coup, I was twice invited to the Pattani Provincial Hall by the military (at that time I was working in a local university), first in 2014 and again in 2015, to see high-rank military officers in the region. Both meetings ended with intimidation (the account of the first meeting is available here
 
  Later I decided to leave the job in the university after my faculty told me that morality evaluation of me (yes, morality) wasn’t satisfactory. The reason was that I had expressed my political views in the media. In order to extend my contact, I must be put under probation to be re-evaluated a few months later. I reminded them of several senior lecturers from my university who had appeared on stage during the whistle-blowing protests in Bangkok to support the PDRC, and the university was trying to close itself when the PDRC was shutting down Bangkok. Even the university issued a statement that ‘those who join the political activities in Bangkok were not regarded as absent from study or work’, and provided bus services for those who wanted to join the PDRC mob. None of them was questioned about their morality. But senior faculty members told me that the situation had changed. I asked them not to extend my contract, on the pretext that I was going to study abroad. Since then, the pressure from the military also stopped (partly because I also became far more careful so as not to provoke them in unnecessary ways).  
 
Other lecturers who were critical of the junta were also pressured by their faculties, at least to some extent, and some of them took a sabbatical to extend their studies after the coup. Under such circumstances, free open discussion became far more difficult. It doesn’t mean that all discussion has disappeared, but the number of such events has decreased, and these events have become far less political. Some topics, which had caused no trouble before, were again regarded as too risky to be talked about in public. 
 
Before the coup, I made an agreement with a foreign funding organization to organize a series of public forums in so called red zones, in order to discuss the issues related to these zones. After the coup, I was contacted by a senior member of the organization, and a senior officer from the organization told me that the project should be changed into something totally different. After an intense discussion, I agreed to change the project completely into training on humanitarian principles in a conflict area.    
 
Community radios all over the country were closed following an order issued by the NCPO immediately after the coup, including Media Selatan (which so far hasn’t yet re-opened). Public forums and discussions in the villages also became rare. The significance of this change should be stressed here because some local Malay Muslims who speak the Malay dialect as their daily language do not consume Thai media, at least not as much as their Thai-speaking compatriots. Therefore, the public forums and community radios were among the main information channels which enabled them to keep up with the progress of the previous peace process. When these channels became unavailable, the villagers were left out of the loop on the peace process. According to a recent peace survey, only 25 percent of the local population have ever heard about Mara Patani. I suppose if the information channels mentioned above had been still open to the local people, the percentage would be higher than this. 
 
Any successful peace process must be, first of all, understood by the local people, and second, supported by them. A peace process is a political process; therefore it requires a high degree of freedom, in speech, expression and assembly. When freedom in these aspects is restricted, any constructive discussion for the peace building based on facts, including several inconvenient truths for the authorities, remains practically impossible. For this reason, there’s nothing surprising about the current stalemate in the peace process. A peace process which only involves those who are sitting at the negotiation table, while the local people in the conflict area are left behind, is not a peace process for peace, but a peace process for another peace process which will never bring about any peace. This, according Dr Noah Salameh, a Palestinian peace activist, is the reason why the peace process for Palestine has never borne any fruit. 
 
The authorities, as the legitimate governing body, should be reasonably more open for a wider range of opinions. Some knee-jerk reactions of the military against the things done by local, young activists only provoke negative emotions. On February, a public forum on the right to self-determination, organized by a local student union called PerMas, was banned by the authorities. There was also incessant interference in the preparation for a fund raising event for a closed pondok school in Yaring District (for details about the event, please see: http://www.prachatai.com/english/node/6048). A banner put up by PerMas in a mosque close to the closed pondok school, calling for the right to self-determination, was pulled down by rangers, allegedly as an illegal statement. The latest example of a knee-jerk reaction was the design of t-shirts produced by a network of tadika schools. On these shirts, there was a map of the southernmost part of Thailand, in which five Muslim majority provinces (Satun, Yala, Pattani, Songkhla and Narathiwat) were highlighted, with the name of the provinces were written in Jawi script. It only shows the area where the tadika school network exists, but for some reason some people in authority mistook it as a sign of separatism. Luckily, when the report about the shirt was delivered to the Prime Minister, he was able to tell properly that this had nothing to do with separatism. In my opinion, the real separatists can only be found abroad or in the forests and mountains in the region, taking up weapons to fight against the authorities. Those young activists who made the t-shirts can be contacted any time, and they are always in the region. 
 
Given these circumstances, the prospect for the current round of the peace process is still quite bleak. However, although there is little hope for progress at this moment, it is important for the competing parties to maintain the framework of the process in order to show that both sides still believe that the conflict should be solved via political means, not via military strategies. If official talks are not feasible, at least a contact team should be set up to inform the opposite side of recent developments, so that when the situation changes, proper talks can be swiftly resumed. I’m sure the facilitator will not decline such a modest request. When the rival parties are ready to listen to inconvenient truths, it’s time to resume the proper process.