Published on November 18, 2007
A Muslim reporter interviews Phra Paisal Visalo.
Peace in Thailand's southern provinces isn't decades away, but much closer, according to leading activists, who point out that things have already begun to calm down this year.
"In past years," says Nimaso Niyor, a religious leader from Narathiwat province, "deaths were being reported continuously, many times a day - in the morning here, at night there. But the current situation is much better, thanks to the government strategy to get people involved in educational workshops."
Nimaso, 60, was speaking at the second Non-Violence Festival staged recently at Thammasat University's Tha Prachan campus by the Research Centre for Peace Building and two dozen other organisations.
He pointed that young people with plenty of free time gather to chat, and the talk might well turn to the history of Pattani, the former Islamic kingdom of the South. Those who take a dim view of the history tend to forge networks, he said, and could end up contributing to the divisiveness.
The tension in the South, Namiso reminded listeners, is nothing new. The region is "like an old man who has accumulated many ailments". But in more recent decades, he said, its citizens "have been treated to daily doses of provocation and arrogance" and told that Central Thailand knows what's best for them.
Part of the tension gripping the South stems from the lack of economic opportunities, he said, another from the rest of the country's failure to understand subtle religious differences. Nor does Namiso have high regard for the news media.
"The media usually report from the government's press conferences while ignoring the people's voices, and this can unintentionally result in a poor image of people in the South."
The unrest is local in origin, he said, and it's the local people - such as village headmen - who have the authority and experience to form networks to monitor the situation.
From the conflict in the South, the discussion moved to the nationwide political and economic divisions, between groups who welcomed the coup and those who condemn it, and between the business elite and the poor.
Phra Paisal Visalo, the abbot of Wat Pa Sukkhato in Chaiyapum province, said the Thaksin government showed interest in the reconciliation process. "Although its conflict management relating to the southern unrest might not be a good example, many institutions saw that violence was not the way."
He outlined six factors necessary for peace: human resources, organisations, a pluralist rather than centralised society, research, participatory rather than hierarchical relations and conflict management.
"We have peace activists," Phra Paisal said, "but still not enough. And more people need to be trained by the organisations that are working for peace, such as Mahidol University's Research Centre for Peace Building and the Phra Pokkhlao Institute. But they are only a handful of these - we need more."
Street demonstrations occur because of the disinterest in reconciliation and conflict management, the monk said.
Dr Parichart Suwanbubbha of Mahidol's Research Centre, which was established three years ago specifically to help ease the southern conflict, said it has a course called San Sawana, meaning Dialogue. Workshop activities include training in "deep listening" for soldiers, police officers and community leaders.
"Sometimes we may think we listen, but in fact we just hear," said Parichart, who also teaches comparative religion.
The training encourages people with different viewpoints to listen with compassion and without judgement, to walk in the shoes of their perceived enemy.
"Students learn that soldiers also fear death and don't want to cause trouble, and the soldiers learn that they'll get more cooperation from the citizens if they communicate openly ahead of inspections," the doctor said. "They ultimately become friends."
Parichart said she is often asked to conduct workshops by women's groups and hospitals in the South, and has had some success promoting harmony at juvenile detention centres and universities.
San Sawana workshops are among the long-term solutions to the conflict in the South, Parichart said. "We've had cooperation from both sides in pursuing dialogue. At least these talks can serve as a starting point in bringing about further action. I believe it's the best way out of the conflict: treating each other as equals."
For more information on peace studies and the workshops, visit Santisikkha.org and Peace.Mahidol.ac.th.