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Overview of the experience of human rights violation in Patani

Transcript of talk presented by Adam John at the Tak Bai 17th Anniversary Commemoration organised by the Civil Society Assembly for Peace (CAP) on Monday October 25th 2021.

Asalamalakum. Good evening.

I’m really pleased to have been invited to talk tonight to commemorate the 17th anniversary of the Tak Bai massacre. I’m sorry that I can’t be there speaking to you live. I live in Sweden and the time difference means that I’m working right now teaching in Stockholm. I was asked by the organisers of tonight's event to give an overview of the experience of human right’s violations in Patani from an outside perspective.

I’ve decided to try to give several perspectives. Firstly, I’ll give my own point of view but then I will try to outline what I think a typical European or Western perspective might be since this view is much more important than my own. That’s because my point of view is not a typical one which I’ll explain in a moment. What’s more important for change and progress is what the general perspective of outsiders is, concerning human right’s violations in Patani.

So I’ll begin with my opinion. My name is Adam. I’m not a human right’s expert or dedicated human rights activist. The reason why I’ve been invited to speak and why I even know about the Tak Bai massacre is because my wife’s family originally comes from Patani. I remember 17 years ago when my wife - who was a university friend at the time in the UK - told me about what had happened in a small fishing town on the border between Malaysia and Thailand, a town which she had passed through many times as a child while visiting family in Patani.

I was a young university student with no real knowledge of Thailand or Patani. I remember thinking that if I hadn’t been told in person about what had happened, I would never have heard about it. I thought I might hear something on the news or people talking about it at university, but I didn’t. It got me interested in wanting to learn more about the conflict in Patani and the reasons behind it.

I have been in a unique position for a foreigner to understand more about the conflict because I have had access to my wife’s family and the wider Patani diaspora in Europe. That’s why I say my perspective is quite an unusual one.  I’m pleased that the organisers of tonight’s forum used a picture of me on holiday in Langkawi in Malaysia on the beach wearing a t-shirt I had made with the word’s ‘Patani self-determination’, because that really sums up how I feel about not only human right’s violations but ending the conflict and achieving peace.

Self-determination is the freedom to choose. Self-determination is the freedom of a people to manage their own community. I don’t just believe in the right to self-determination for the Patani people. I see it as a universal right and I believe it is a higher value than respecting the national integrity of a nation state. I personally feel that nations are becoming less relevant because the problems we face are international ones which don’t recognise national borders. So I will always support the self-determination of communities over nation states.

I see all human right’s violations in Patani stemming from the Thai state’s unwillingness to respect the local people’s right to self-determination. The Tak Bai massacre is just one more symbol to add to local people’s list of grievances against the Thai state’s unwillingness to recognise Patani people’s right to self determination. Like the Thai state’s refusal to acknowledge the seven demands for autonomy under the leadership of Haji Sulong and his subsequent arrest and disappearance. Like assimilation policies after World War Two forbidding the use of the Melayu language. And like the decision of Britain and Siam’s governments to decide the fate of Patani without considering the voices of the local people in 1909.

Combined, these symbols have acted as a recruitment tool for local people to take arms against what they see as an occupying force. And it will continue to do so as long as these grievances are not addressed and the right of self-determination of the local people continues to be ignored. 

So that’s my personal perspective. But like I said earlier, that’s not a common outsider’s opinion and therefore not that relevant. Now I’ll make some huge generalisations. I think it’s useful to do so because it might show us where some of the major challenges are in changing outsider opinions. I’m going to give two outsider perspectives. A pessimistic one and a more optimistic one. I’ll start with the pessimistic one.

This type of westerner or foreigner sees Thailand as a mystical paradise. Thailand is a place with beautiful beaches, a hot sunny climate with friendly local people and it’s so cheap to live there that you can live like a king. Although some of these things might be true, anything which upsets the foreigner’s paradise is a major inconvenience and therefore should be ignored. Things like undemocratic governments, human trafficking, corrupt officials and human right’s violations of minority groups get in the way of the foreigner’s paradise experience. 

The second, more optimistic perspective of the outsider is when as a foreigner we want to learn about all aspects of Thailand including the inconvenient ones. The problem with trying to understand what is happening in southern Thailand is that there is hardly any information about it. Not even Thai people from other parts of the country really know much about the region. Like I said earlier, I was only able to learn a bit about Patani from speaking to people from the Patani Malay diaspora. Most people don’t have this luxury. For outsiders who make a real effort to try to read about the political and human rights situation in Patani, it soon becomes clear that there is much conflicting information. It all seems too overwhelming and complicated to really understand what is happening there unless you are willing to settle for simplified explanations like “it’s just a religious war between Muslims and Buddhists” or that so-called criminal gangs and ‘bandits’ are to blame.

Why do I think these two outsider perspectives exist?

To understand the foreigner’s paradise perspective I think we have to look at the political relations between Thailand and the outside world, particularly the West. Thailand has been an important political ally of the US and Western Europe since the end of World War Two against the West’s enemies - communism and now international Islamic terrorism. All countries - including Western countries - don’t tend to raise uncomfortable truths about their allies such as domestic human rights abuses. It’s a principle we learn in the playground at school.

You don’t tell on your friends to the teacher if they do something wrong but you are happy to tell on other children you don’t like. It might even be to your advantage. 

For example, in the UK, it’s common to read in mainstream news about human rights abuses of the enemies of the UK government like Iran. It is not as common to hear about the human rights abuses of the UK’s allies such as Saudi Arabia. It’s easier to maintain the paradise illusion of Thailand when the image you are given is a place of pleasant mystery and beauty. 

To understand the second outsider perspective I think we have to look at the media in general. I would say that international reporting on human rights violations in Patani has not succeeded in informing an international audience. I don’t want to put all the blame on the media because reporting on state violence in Thailand is a very challenging task. This is particularly so in a militarised zone which has been under martial law for almost two decades.

It’s not easy getting verifiable information from a community which fears getting caught up in the conflict. It doesn’t take long for a journalist to realise that the conflict in Patani is a matter of political self-determination but if you want to operate in Thailand without the fear of arrest or being forced to flee the country, it is better not to address this issue. So gaps in the outsider’s understanding of the conflict remain and, because of a lack of international pressure, the environment remains hostile for journalists and human rights activists in Thailand.

So I have argued that the general Western response to human rights abuse in Patani is either to ignore the issue because it does not fit with the illusion of Thailand as a paradise or to conclude that the conflict in the Patani region is simply too complicated to understand.

I’ve given reasons for why I think these perspectives exist. The implication is that human rights abuses continue to be ignored by the international community.  There is no outside pressure on Thailand’s government to acknowledge why there is a conflict, to make political concessions and to respect its citizen’s right to self-determination.

The foreign understanding that southern Thailand is a paradise needs to be challenged and accurate information must be gotten out to the world.

Thank you for listening. And thanks again to the organisers for inviting me to talk tonight.

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