Southern conflict marked by profound sense of history
On his recent trip to the south, Thaksin told the people of Tak Bai to forget the events of the recent past and begin a new life.
A few years ago, in his speech on the opening of the monument to the uprising of 14 October 1973, Thaksin urged that now the monument had finally been built after years of controversy, people should forget the incident and the controversy and look to the future.
When interviewed by his own biographer, he remarked that he was not so interested in history, even of his own family. His own offhand telling of a key incident in the family history differs from other accounts.
In the 109 books which Thaksin has said “should be read” by the Thai people, there is only one that has a historical theme. Given the weightiness and complexity of this tome, it is rather unlikely that Thaksin himself has read it. The main theme of these 109 books is the future. Thaksin is also on record that he never reads novels. He prefers accounts of scientific and technological changes which affect the future.
Clearly, his eyes are firmly fixed on the road ahead. Possibly this is a good thing for the man who sits in the nation's driving seat. A leader with no vision of the future would have no idea which way to go. But Thaksin seems to have no rear-view mirror, and that is less reassuring. Indeed, his disinterest in history seems to go beyond a simple matter of taste to something almost pathological. He resembles the tearaway hero of a famous Italian film who, in the film's opening scene, rips out the rear-view mirror and tosses it out of the window as a metaphor of his contempt for the past.
But this failure to acknowledge history is one reason why this government's handling of the far south has turned a difficult but manageable local situation into a major national crisis.
The southern problem is not new. Siam finally occupied the borderlands two centuries ago in an act of imperial expansion. Since then, the area has revolted roughly once every 20 years. Most of these revolts have not demanded separation from Thailand, but more sensitive treatment within it. The Thai state's consistent response has been to deny any such concessions.
When the southern problem boiled up in early 2004, Thaksin's first and instinctive reaction was to deny that history was important. The violence was the work of bandits. The background problem was poverty. Complications came from profiteering and gangsterism both inside and outside the security forces. Ideology had no part in it, especially ideology based on a view of the past that might vary from the national mythology.
Only after a year of growing disaffection, did Thaksin begin to admit that the resilience of the rebels might be based on something stronger than criminal instincts and profit motives. Since then the message in his public statements on the issue has changed. He mouths the multicultural line that Thailand is a nation of diversity, and repeatedly states that Muslims and Buddhists are all Thais together. That's fine. What he says next is not. He tells the people of Tak Bai to forget their history. He hectors them for not knowing the Thai language. He blames local religious teachers for wrong interpretation of Islam. In short, he puts all the blame on the southerners, and shows himself no different from other governments which have failed to solve the problem over two hundred years.
At the same time, he has not once admitted fault on the part of the security forces. He has never publicly embraced the thought that the old unitary version of the nation has to be questioned if cultural diversity is to have any political meaning. He has never urged the rest of the nation to understand the south. And he has consistently squashed proposals, such as the Chaturon plan, which recognised the deep historical roots of the southern malaise.
It is not surprising that local leaders in the three southern provinces are reluctant to cooperate with his government. They have been given no sign that this government has any interest in addressing the southern issue in any long-term way. This lack of cooperation has become a major factor hampering the effectiveness of the security forces.
When Thaksin urged the people of Tak Bai to forget the past and look to the future, you could imagine local leaders all over the south rolling their eyes up to heaven in sheer despair. For Thaksin, this glib comment may simply be a reflection of his general view that the future is everything and the past nothing. But for the people of Tak Bai, things are not so simple. Their small community has recently been subject to one of the worst acts of violence in Thailand's modern history. They have been told that nobody is responsible for 85 people killed without good cause. A handful of members of the security forces have been rapped lightly on the knuckles. An avalanche of excuses has been offered including Thaksin's latest line that there weren't enough security personnel around (a fact not borne out by the video footage). Thaksin is not offering them any closure. He is just trying to rip out their rear-view mirror too.
For Thaksin, the Tak Bai incident may be a policing problem that went a bit wrong. For many in the south, it is part of a long history. The only real lesson of history is that there are many, many histories. By wilfully denying himself a sense of history, Thaksin seems condemned to repeat the same one-dimensional approach of his predecessors over two centuries.
The trouble about drivers who like to speed ahead without a rear-view mirror is that they demand others take evasive action, and they run high risk of a really bad crash.