Saturday, February 16, 2008

No Quick Fix

Bangkok Reporting

This post is the latest in a series from our Bangkok correspondent, H. Numan.

An editorial from the Bangkok Post:

News Think: No quick fix

The Samak government has been quick to take up the issue of violence in the South. But if any solution is to succeed, it must look after both Muslim aspirations and the safety of the Buddhist minority.

Surprisingly, the Samak government has been quick on the uptake in becoming involved in moves to find a solution to the problem of southern violence.

Even before he has presented his policy framework to the parliament, Mr Samak has supported a proposal from a southern Islamic committee for the disarmament of the civilian defence militia in the far South, and eventually of the junior ranks of the security forces.

And Interior Minister Chalerm Yubamrung has been quick to float the idea of some form of autonomy for the predominantly Muslim region.

We looked for a quick fix during the previous military-installed administration, but nothing tangible emerged.

The new government seems set to repeat the style of the Surayud Chulanont government, which apologised to Muslim people in the deep South for the misconduct and heavy-handed policies of the Thaksin Shinawatra government.

But it might also need a near miracle for any proposed solutions to bear fruit during the Samak government.

Ideally, these ideas would be welcomed by all parties in the South — civilians, NGOs and the security forces.

But in fact nothing has been decided upon and the matter has yet to be thoroughly debated — not only by Bangkok-based policy makers but also by those in the South.

Mr Chalerm is clearly attempting to steal the show from the opposition.

The Democrat party reportedly already has plans for introducing a bill to parliament on setting up a special administration in the far South.

This could well include having an elected governor, local use of the Malay-based Yawi dialect and some standardisation of Shariah law.
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The party believes the proposal is workable and could lead to a sustainable solution — provided these efforts are properly supported and coordinated in consultation with the people in the South.

Critics, of course, say it would never be allowed to work.

The Democrats should have proposed the bill during the life of the Surayud government — they were certainly on good terms with it. So why didn’t they?

And Mr Samak and Mr Chalerm should have systematically discussed a plan for the far South plan before launching it into the public arena.

Both of them are outspoken and sharp-tongued, qualities that might not be conducive to a sustained effort to bring peace to the southernmost border provinces.

Some form of autonomy for the Muslim-dominated region would doubtless be welcomed by many of the parties involved, but it would also create concerns among the security and intelligence communities. If the plan is not well-conceived it could provide a platform for further demands for total separation, which has long been the desired aim of hardline Muslim factions in the area.

While the army is boasting that it has succeeded in containing the insurgents inside a smaller area, critics are distraught over the lack of a serious effort to win the hearts and minds of the targeted villagers — so-called ‘‘psy-ops’’.

But more is needed than a well-thought strategy to placate and integrate the Muslim population of the far South.

Any special policy towards the ethnic Malay population in the region must also assure the safety of the Buddhist minority there and, importantly, not deprive them of their rights.

Commentary by H. Numan:

We first had a government that found out the hard way that “let me win your hearts and minds or I burn your f***ing huts down” doesn’t work. This government was toppled by another one doing not much, just apologizing. They didn’t do much anyway. Now we have a government that announced it will roll over, and play dead. Which is the worst? Frankly speaking, I think the latter. The age-old proverb comes to mind: “give them a finger and they take your hand”. Hitler didn’t stop after the Munich conference, neither did Stalin stop after Yalta.

What does work is winning hearts and minds. I’m working on a Rotary project in the troubled deep south of Thailand: schools asked for support from Rotary to build a football field and cover for the parents, so they can watch their kids in the shade or dry (it rains a lot down there). Each project costs Bt. 150,000 ($4,200) per school. It can be done that cheap because everybody contributes: the Thai marine corps supplies engineers and marines to help build. The community itself provides the manual labor. A cement company donates the cement.

Result: the villagers changed their minds completely. In the past, there wasn’t a reason to support the soldiers. Soldiers didn’t do anything for them. Neither did the terrorists, but at least “they are one of us.” Now the villagers work together with the marines to build the football field. They see that those soldiers aren’t that much different from themselves. And that they gain a lot more from the government. The villagers now say: why do we need to support those terrorists? All they brought us was misery. So far, Rotary Pattaya helped two schools, with several other schools in progress.

Showing some real interest would help a lot. It doesn’t require giving up your authority. The civil defense militia are an absolute must. Disarming them means that the non-Muslim villages become open targets. Even better, from the terrorists’ point of view, is the disarmament of the junior ranks of the security forces.

Installing a Muslim governor might or might not help. That depends entirely on who will become governor. Given that the South is the Thai equivalent of banishment to Siberia, and the place to send a suitable misfit we want out of the way, a Muslim governor can actually worsen things. Shariah law will not help at all.

What this government proposes, in my opinion, is granting de jure autonomy without any guarantees. What will the terrorists do in return? Are they negotiating with the terrorists? Who actually are the terrorists? So far, nobody seems to know. How can you negotiate with someone you don’t know? I’m not much impressed by Mr. Samak. He has actually been convicted of fraud, but pending appeal is not yet guilty. That’s why he could run for office. As soon as the high court convicts him, we’re going to have new elections. Unusual, I agree, but legal here. This policy doesn’t give me a lot of confidence in his government.

This was Bangkok reporting,
H. Numan.