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Is there genuine desire for peace in the deep south?

Publication Date : 01-11-2012


In less than two weeks, foreign ministers from member countries of the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) - wherein Thailand has permanent observer status - will gather in the northeast African country of Djibouti to discuss strategies to promote peace and mutual development and strengthen cooperation.

The conflict in the southernmost Thai provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat will be on the agenda again, and Bangkok is struggling to get the OIC Secretariat to tone down the discussion for fear that the country will lose face in the international community.

But with or without OIC discussion and criticism of the issue, Bangkok has lost face for much of the past decade, ever since the current wave of Malay-Muslim separatists resurfaced to take up arms against the state.

Publicly, Thai officials and diplomats have always insisted that they are on the right path toward resolving this internal conflict, and have dismissed all offers of help from outsiders, including the OIC.

But after eight years of saying the same thing, Thai officials and diplomats are now admitting that the official line - the one that accuses the insurgents of embracing a wrong version of history and a false teaching of Islam - has become increasingly embarrassing. More to the point, it is somewhat arrogant for Buddhists to tell Muslims how to be good Muslims.

Secret talks held since 2005 with exiled separatist leaders have not produced the desired outcome because our political leaders have not backed our officials with full political commitment. Notice how every time news about these secret talks becomes public knowledge, our policy-makers immediately pour cold water on it?

The OIC granted Thailand permanent observer status in 1998 during the Chuan Leekpai government, which believed it was important to build stronger ties with the Islamic world. Granting of that status was seen as a stamp of approval from the OIC as to how Thailand treats it Muslim minority. But relations between Thailand and its Muslim citizens have never been a problem. Thai Muslims have never challenged the legitimacy or sovereignty of the Thai state. The Malays in the deep south have.

Apparently the OIC took a big leap of faith in 1998, believing that the Malays of Patani had come to terms with their place in Thailand's nation-state and that historical resentment and mistrust of Siam/Thailand - feelings that feed into the separatist narrative - had subsided. Sad to say, the most significant outcome from the OIC observer status was Thailand using it to block Patani-Malay separatist movements from obtaining the same status at the organisation.

With more than 5,000 insurgency-related deaths since January 2004, it is safe to say that the country, and the world for that matter, have underestimated the cultural narrative and the historical resentment of the Patani-Malays towards the Thai state. Thai officials often argue that it is only a handful of people who have taken up arms. What they won't say is that there is a vast network of support in the region for the insurgents. Few villagers ever step up to identify the young men who bury roadside bombs or carry out ambushes.

Hard-pressed to score political points, Thai security and military officials have in recent months decided to carry out staged "surrenders" of those they claim to be part of the armed movement. All the while, insurgent attacks are becoming more violent, forcing political leaders in Bangkok to put on a brave face when in fact they are really dancing to the militants' tune.

The OIC has over the past decade tried to mediate between Thailand and the separatists, but Bangkok continues to give it the cold shoulder. Even leaders of the long-standing separatist movements say they never had much faith in the OIC because the organisation had given Bangkok the status they covet themselves. Besides, they don't think an organisation like the OIC, made up of 57 states and a handful of international organisations, can sympathise with non-state actors like them.

The OIC has been paying lip service to the idea of peace for the past three decades, but is not willing to put serious pressure on Thailand to push for change. For it to be taken seriously, and if it really cares about the Malay-Muslims in southern Thailand, the OIC will have to go beyond this and show some serious commitment to fostering peace.


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