Solving the far south starts from understanding the far south
Last week Amnesty International reported the Thai army is systematically using torture in the far south. The army denies it has any such policy. Yet a Narathiwat court last month ruled that an imam had been battered to death in military detention. For the past year, the far south has been swept from the front pages by the violence in the rest of the country, but the problem has not gone away. The frequency of incidents has dropped, but the intensity of violence has increased.
Earlier, many blamed the mess on Thaksin, his dismantling of the SBPAC, and his use of the police rather than the army. But Thaksin has gone. The police have been removed. The SBPAC is back. Somehow, things are not getting better.
To his enormous credit, Abhisit seems prepared to try something new. But what? The resurgence of violence four years ago prompted new attempts to understand the region and the violence with more depth than daily reporting and comment. Some of these efforts have recently been published.
The Thammasat political scientist and peace activist, Chaiwat Satha-Anand, has edited Imagined Land, a kind of soul-searching exercise about how the rest of the country views and interprets the far south. In this collection, Decha Tangseefa read the “bureaucrat manuals” prepared to brief army and government personnel assigned to the far south. These manuals explain about Islam and Islamic society, and advise officials how to conduct themselves. To his amazement Decha found that the content had scarcely changed over eight decades. In 2004, government reprinted the 1923 edition with minimal change. An introduction explained that “the advice for bureaucrats contained herein is not outdated at all” because the situation is “no different.” As Decha points out, this claim is stunning. In 1923, the Thai state was very different; the past sixty years of protest and insurgency among Malay Muslims had not yet happened; and the radical globalized Islam of today was nowhere to be seen.
By reading the manuals closely, Decha discovers some small changes. The 1923 edition advised officials to build good relations with local teachers and imams by arranging special meetings “with suitable ceremony.” In the 2004 edition, this last phrase changed to “just for ceremony.” In short, where officials were once advised to go out of their way to show respect, they are now prompted to put on a show. In the Thai, the difference is only one word. The dismissive attitude of these manuals is itself a kind of violence.
The British political scientist, Professor Duncan McCargo, spent a year in the far south interviewing officials, soldiers, ex-rebels, politicians, academics and local by-standers. His book, Tearing Apart the Land, is forthright, powerful, polemical. The military will not like it at all.
McCargo reaches the conclusion that the Thai security forces cannot prevail. To put that another way, the militants have already won.
The Krue Se mosque and Tak Bai incidents turned the local population fiercely against the security forces. The army realized that they were being suckered into confrontations which made them look bad. In later incidents at Saiburi, Kapho, Tanyong Limo, the army refused to be drawn into similar traps, even though this meant the sacrifice of Teacher Julin and several soldiers. But standing back just delivered the militants victory in another form. Territory slipped out of effective control. Patrols were reduced to driving around at high speed to evade attack. The army could no longer protect people. Whether for love or for fear, few in the three provinces would now dare side with the security forces. In McCargo’s estimate (made around a year ago) large tracts of the three provinces are wholly or partially “no-go” area, effectively beyond state control.
Though the hated police have been withdrawn, the army is not doing much better. “The core pursuits of the Thai military are playing politics and engaging in business activities.” The nature of the fighting is new, and the military do not have the right training or equipment. McCargo observes in amazement that they cannot even run a simple checkpoint properly. Intelligence is poor and often contradictory. Strategy depends heavily on learning from old anti-communist campaigns, now often irrelevant. More and more use is made of rangers and paramilitary forces that are less well-trained, less competent, less disciplined, and less sensitive.
If a military solution is unlikely, what else? McCargo examines what the militants and the local population seem to want. In the absence of formal demands, this is tricky. He concludes there is no strong evidence of separatism, in fact no coherent political demand at all, but simply a fierce anger at being treated so badly. What the Malay Muslims seem to want is a way to live within Thailand without being treated as outcastes. The solution, McCargo argues, is “to give Malay Muslims substantial control over their own affairs, while retaining the border region as part of Thailand. In other words, substantive autonomy.”
This thought has come up several times over the last four years—notably from Chaturon Chaisaeng and even General Chavalit Yongchaiyuth. Each time the army has slapped it down, trotting out the mantra that Thailand is a unitary state which cannot be divided. But this argument is thin. Many unitary states devolve power in order to manage special situations. The far south is not really different from “minority problems” that other countries have managed quite well. Maybe the military fears that a political solution could be seen as a defeat for them. This sensitivity needs to be finessed.
The eclipse of Thaksin and the installation of a new government present an opportunity to break the deadlock over the far south. The Democrats have bravely said they will look deeper than a military solution, and Abhisit has taken the initiative to start a process. In different ways these two books suggest that some very brave and radical decisions need to be made.