Thailand: Bitter Lesson For All

2004

Steven Bodley

The fashion for blaming Prime Minister Thaksin for the southern uprisings is not entirely misplaced, but a holistic examination of the context in which they occurred reveals wider sources of unrest.

Southern Muslims are not stupid. They know that violence disrupts the lucrative tourism industry, oil exploration and grand plans for a canal across the isthmus (cancelled 30 March after the Pattani massacre). The 32 billion Baht recovery plan announced 16 March is a mere drop in the bucket in the context of the broader economic picture, yet is typical of the reactions of various Thai governments to southern dissatisfaction.

Contrary to what may be the perceptions of some of the south, in Yala Province one of the affected provinces is Yala city - Thailand's only planned city, which is renowned for its cleanliness and order. The Royal Family has long been involved in encouraging southern social integration with frequent visits by the Queen and Crown Prince. The regional Royal Palace was built in Narathiwas especially for this purpose. Scores of rural development schemes and economic plans, however, have failed to stem distrust of the central government. Throwing money at it has not, and will not, make the problem go away.

The issues are obviously deeper, and a more sensitive approach is therefore necessary. Thaksin's reflex reactions to the 28 April attack at the Krue Se mosque in Pattani, his criticism of the Malaysian Government for allegedly allowing perpetrators of the violence to slip over the border into Malaysian territory, and the subsequent government sackings of key officials responsible for the south were misplaced and unfortunately did not help the situation.

All Thai citizens should seriously question the continued representation of 'Southern Bandits' (jorn tai) in articles, comics, television reports, and everyday conversation. Pandering to US calls for increased 'information sharing' and furthering Malay-Thai police co-operation are likely to exacerbate rather than ameliorate the problem. More Royal visits (most recently by popular Crown Princess Sirinthorn), Prime Ministerial photo-shoots with Muslim babies, and still more money are also unlikely to resolve the underlying issues.

The latest violence in the south has occurred in an environment of increased international suspicion and sensitivity. It is symptomatic of the 'other side' of globalisation, whereby local grievances can be amplified by international developments. Consideration should be given to recalling Thai military support from Iraq the last of the 451 troops are currently scheduled to be out of Iraq by 20 September. The government must emphasise social issues such as education, social inequities and the recognition of Muslim law. All of us, Thai or not, must refrain from participating in an increasing polarisation of ideologies and internationalisation of violence. If we don't, we will all lose.

WATCHPOINT: Thaksin's renewal of the 'War Against Drugs' signals a continuation of heavy-handed politics, which may be counterproductive in efforts towards resolving the problems in Thailand's south.

 

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