The Nation in an editorial:

Unlike other party leaders, Sonthi has made the insurgency in Thailand’s Deep South one of his party’s top priorities, mainly because most of the politicians under his wing hail from there.

Now that’s not to say that other political parties have been ignoring the South, it’s just that they don’t make it a campaign issue, because they know the subject will not score them any political points. After all, the voters are not interested in hearing any more about rights and cultural differences, much less historical grievances of the Malays in the Patani region.

So should Sonthi be given credit for promising to tackle a difficult task?

BP: So has anyone else started to raise issues for the Deep South? Yes. Former Prime Minister General Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, who at present is chairman of the opposition and pro-Thaksin Puea Thai Party suggested an autonomous region as the Bangkok Post reports:

Gen Chavalit Yongchaiyudh has raised the idea of establishing an autonomous “Pattani City” covering the southern border provinces of Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala.

The chairman of the opposition Puea Thai Party yesterday said his party wanted to see a Pattani City where people could take care of their own issues.

“The southerners deserve respect from others”, but they would still be subject to the Thai constitution and other laws, Gen Chavalit said.

The Pattani City’s legal structure would be similar to that of Chiang Mai City Municipality which is governed by a separate administrative law under the charter.

BP: Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva responded and called it “vague”. This seems unfair criticism given Chavalit outlined the basics of the plan and has written (ok, authorized the writing of) more about this in a book from 2005 as Suranand Vejjajiva wrote up recently in an op-ed in the Bangkok Post. In addition, the government’s decentralization model is just as “vague”.

As Supalak Ganjanakhundee of The Nation has noted, the plan won’t be accepted by the Democrats as “it’s coming from the wrong side” (i.e simple partisan reasons). Supalak also writes:

Apparently it is not the right time for him to float such ideas, especially since the country is dominated by conservative figures. Even though this might be the only option available to resolve the conflict, the ruling Democrat Party would never listen to Chavalit because he is now standing on the wrong side of the tracks.

It is politically incorrect for any government to accept an idea put forward by the opposition after all. Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban and many others who appear to be concerned about the South came to the same conclusion – that Chavalit’s idea is nonsensical and deserves no further discussion.

The government’s spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn, who is an expert on security affairs, went even further by saying that Chavalit had just borrowed the idea from a separatist group championing for the return of the Sultanate of Patani.

Suthep could be right. Whether or not one has ruling power, nobody can deliver any sort of autonomy for the people in the deep South. It is taboo. The elite who run this country would never allow it partly because they are afraid of losing this part of Thailand. Any discussion of autonomy, even among the academics, is rare in Thai society these days.

BP: Borrowed the idea from the terrorists? Nothing like allowing for reasoned debate about ideas.

Of course, Thanong of The Nation was his normal self and stated that Chavalit supported Pattani “becoming an independent state”. Given that the US State Department and most others define “independent state as “people politically organized into a sovereign state with a definite territory” (emphasis added), Thanong is being misleading, at best, as in the brief news report Chavalit compared his model as being similar to Chiang Mai city and said it would be under the Thai constitution so to characterize this as an “independent state” is virtually dishonest. This is the reason why it is difficult to offer up ideas on the Deep South as they are quickly labeled and misconstrued.

It is unsurprising then that 72 percent in the South were opposed to Chavalit’s “Pattani City” idea when polled by Suan Dusit (although note the very small sample size of less than 400). However, one should not confuse this as meaning that people were happy with Abhisit’s response on this issue because in a larger sample of 1,652 people in another Suan Dusit poll when they were asked for their opinion on the “position of PM Abhisit in relation to Gen. Chavalit’s idea on establishing Pattani City”, the answers were:

- somewhat dissatisfied, 44.92%
- dissatisfied, 27.28%
- somewhat satisfied, 14.97%
- satisfied, 12.83%

BP: That is hardly a vote of approval in Abhisit as we have 73% of people either somewhat dissatisfied or dissatisfied.

btw, BP has previously looked at the issue of autonomy in a three-part series of posts a few years back – part 1, part 2, and part 3 (see this last post in particular on the problems of an autonomous region – it shouldn’t be seen as some simple solution which will solve everything). As also blogged recently:

The question is the form and level of autonomy. Now, there is a greater level of autonomy than in the past with various local elections, but how much further should it go? BP’s preference is for elected governors, as which exists in Bangkok. That seems a reasonable first step.

BP: Anything should be done by referendum in the concerned area as to exactly what the people want…