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Thailand's creation of a National Reconciliation Commission (NRC) in March has been widely praised. The International Crisis Group in a major report on southern insurgency emphasised the need to address political grievances from which the perpetrators of violence were drawing strength: it described the NRC as 'the first encouraging step in this direction'. (Southern Thailand: Insurgency, Not Jihad, 18 May 2005) The dissident leader of Bersatu, Wan Kadir Che Man, also welcomed the NRC, seeing it as a move towards a more conciliatory approach.
Is this optimism warranted? After all the NRC has no powers beyond those of recommendation, and its report is not due until early 2006.
The NRC is doing the right thing in terms of consulting with residents in the South. Its leaders have also spoken widely of the need to adopt peaceful solutions, end martial law, promote justice and the rule of law, compensate the victims of violence, address underlying economic problems (particularly in education) and support cultural diversity. Five sub-committees have just been established to report on these issues. Such an approach has been tried before - in an April 2004 report by Deputy Prime Minister Chaturon Chaisang, and another by the National Security Council secretariat a month later - but the NRC has taken the process much further.
The composition of the NRC, headed by former Prime Minister Anand Panyarachun, provides reason for optimism. Its remaining 47 members -drawn from civil society representatives in the south (16), civil society outside the south (11), politics (7) and the public sector (9) - are all hand-picked by Anand. There are two deputy prime ministers, whose cooperation is essential for implementing policy - Chaturon and Chidchai Vanasatidya (who has overall responsibility for security policy, and is also interior minister). Other members are among the most respected and independent leaders of civil society, including Anand's deputy Dr Prawes Wasi, and Muslims such as Chaiwat Satha-Anand (peace activist from Thammasat University) and Ammar Siamwalla (Thailand's foremost economist). Muslim former Foreign Minister Surin Pitsuwan, who wrote his PhD on southern problems and comes from just north of the conflict area, is also a member.
The NRC has made a difference already. It has reassured southern Muslims that their views can be heard. And it has convinced the government to release the full reports of the tragic killings at Krue Se mosque in April 2004 and at Tak Bai in October. But by the time it reports the NRC will need to convince the public - which has generally been unsympathetic to the Muslim cause - that a change of tactics will produce results. And above all it must convince Prime Minister Thaksin, who for the most part has sided with the security forces.
WATCHPOINT: Insurgents greeted the formation of the NRC with a dramatic bombing of Hat Yai airport, and have maintained the level of attacks since then. Any decline in the violence would likely be an indication of NRC progress.
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