UPDATE and bumped: An informed reader e-mails BP as they are having problems commenting and states:

“I feel rather uncomfortable about Duncan’s totalizing statement, Malay Muslims in Thailand’s southern provinces are demanding their own political space”, especially when it is used as the basis for policy recommendations. Who are these “Malay Muslims” who all seem to have the same opinon? And, obviously, this directly leeds to the insurgency. In turn, as soon as the “political solution” is found, the insurgency will disappear, because it has lost its justification and root cause. Marc [Askew] and Jason [Johnson] have tried to point out that there are other issues involved. Anyway, it is about pushing a policy agenda, not about trying to arrive at an academically sound assessment, which is a pity…

BP: For Jason’s views on the Deep South see here. In essence, this is why BP thinks a referendum is only option – open to other suggestions – so we can know exactly what locals really want when they are given choice(s) (obviously, if referendum questions are not properly worded, it would largely be a waste of time).

Duncan McCargo, an academic at University of Leeds and author of a number of journal articles and a recent book on the violence in the Deep South (details of the book and some of McCargo’s other writings can be seen in this post) has a new op-ed for Project Syndicate on the violence in the Deep South particularly on the need for a political solution. Key excerpts:

Thailand’s former prime minister, Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, recently ignited a furor when he proposed that the separatist campaign in his country’s Muslim-majority southern provinces might be solved politically, with a form of self-rule. Thailand’s ruling Democrat Party immediately called Chavalit’s remarks “traitorous.”

Many Thai military and police officials now privately admit that the insurgency cannot be defeated through security measures. After a dip in the number of incidents during late 2007 and 2008, violence once again increased in 2009. The military’s belief that Malay Muslims could be re-educated and re-socialized into accepting a Thai identity has proved untenable.

The same goes for earlier hard-line rhetoric about rooting out the militants and destroying their organization. The current government under Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva misses the point with rhetoric about creating peace simply through promoting justice, or by funding large-scale socio-economic development projects.

Malay Muslims in Thailand’s southern provinces are demanding their own political space. Few of them seriously believe that a tiny separate Patani state, wedged between Thailand and Malaysia, would be viable. What many are seeking is some form of special status within Thailand, enabling them to pursue their own cultural and religious traditions without interference from Bangkok.

Until the Thai government grasps this simple point, young men like those I met in Yala will still be recruited into militant activity. As Chavalit Yongchaiyudh understands, the southern Thai conflict is a political problem in need of a political solution – just like Afghanistan and other more familiar wars.

BP: As noted in a previous post on Chavalit’s idea of autonomy it is very difficult to raise issues of autonomy as the ideas can become misconstrued and you can be labeled as taking ideas from terrorists or some form of “separatist” – McCargo notes this as well. Hence, it is not surprising, but it is still disappointing that there is little public debate on political solutions for the violence in the media or in parliament. Most political solutions involve giving greater powers to the people in the Deep South so the question is, what form of “autonomy” should be given? Three possible options are below:

  1. A single autonomous region for Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala as suggested by Chavalit.
  2. Elected governors in each province with greater powers.
  3. The Abhisit government position seems to be about further decentralization at village level.

BP: While the violence is mainly limited to three provinces in the Deep South, namely Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala, there is also violence in neighboring Songkhla province mainly limited to four districts, should these be included in any more of the above solutions? Then you also have the issue of another neighboring province, Satun, where a majority of the people are Muslim, but there is negligible, if any, violence (see this post mentioning Satun and why there has been no violence there). Should it be included? One way to decide to include such areas is by way of referendums in that area on whether they want to join the Patani/Pattani autonomous region, have elected governors with greater powers etc. 

On (3) it is difficult to comment on as we do not have specifics, but unless the local communities have extra powers it really seems like a cosmetic approach. (2) is likely to be the most viable political solution for politicians to advocate without being labeled a “separatist”, but (1) may be what the people want. Initially, one of the best ways is to put these idea on the table for discussion and eventually some form of referendum for the people in the areas to choose from.

In 2007 and 2008 this blog noted the need for the military to get more involved/change their strategy to provide greater security in the Deep South. In BP’s view the security situation was so bad that referendums and/or there being an opportunity for locals to discuss and hear information on the options could not take place until the violence was brought under control. By the middle of 2008, the violence had reduced significantly – see posts here and here.

It seems difficult to see a further improvement on the security situation and while the violence is still high, from what reports that BP has heard that the reduction in the violence has enabled more people to go on about their lives without living in absolute fear all the time. Given this, we are moving on to the next stage – actually this should really have started about the middle of last year – of looking at political solutions to the problem. Aceh, Mindanao, Northern Ireland etc have all involved political solutions either eliminating or reducing the level of violence. Now, it is Thailand’s time to have this discussion and look at the issue.

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