Published on December 18, 2007
In fact, one could say that this is the first general election in which the insurgency in the three southern provinces of Yala, Pattani, and Narathiwat has been made a top priority by political parties.
But the irony is that politicians themselves might have been part of the problem. They could not pretend to be bystanders as the situation in the region went from bad to worse - nor could they avoid being held accountable for the more than 2,600 deaths since January 2004, which marked a crucial turn in the decades-old insurgency in the strife-torn region.
While former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra took the brunt of the blame for the worsening situation in the three provinces because of his heavy-handed approach there, Muslim MPs representing the region in his Thai Rak Thai party were no less guilty. Don't forget that several of them occupied ministerial positions and other prominent parliamentary posts and were obviously in a position to make noises when they saw disaster on the horizon as a result of the misguided policies of their leader going astray.
But either because they were out of touch with the reality on the ground, or due to the need for political self-preservation, these politicians chose to stay silent the entire time the Thaksin government committed its major blunder of employing strong-arm tactics in response to the violence. The bloody storming of the Krue Se Mosque, where several armed insurgents were holed up during a face-off with authorities in April 2004, and the horrible deaths of over 80 Muslim youths in the Tak Bai incident the same year drew international condemnation but a very mild reaction from government MPs.
Thaksin felt unrestrained in pursuing a tough policy, largely because nobody wanted to risk inviting his wrath by telling him that he was misguided. Had the MPs representing the three provinces had the courage to speak out, more violence could have been avoided.
Eleven MPs have represented the three provinces - with an extra seat added in the coming election - and most have been Muslim politicians with wide local networks and strong credentials as defenders of religious beliefs. But, as the worsening situation testifies, their role in influencing the central government's policy toward the region has been almost non-existent. Worse still, some have even been accused of complicity in the insurgency.
It's no surprise that in conversations and panel discussions in the run-up to the election, all candidates - several of them veteran politicians with high positions in the previous administration - tried to distance themselves from past policy blunders. Instead they are all trying to peddle grandiose platforms, unfailingly tinted with high degrees of populism, designed to bring peace back to the South as if they have nothing to do with the past.
Political expediency aside, one silver lining of all this is that for the first time all political parties, seem to be paying serious attention to the region. It certainly does not escape them that the next government can never have political stability unless they can contain the insurgency and restore security in the region.
Though the policies put forth by most political parties represent their serious attempts to find long-term solutions to the problems plaguing the area - notably poverty, income disparity and social injustice - they do not guarantee an immediate stop to the violence. Those behind the killing sprees and mayhem since 2004 are unlikely to pause simply because of a change of guard in Bangkok.
Probably the most urgent task facing the next government is determining how to unify the approaches being pursued by different government agencies in dealing with the strife-torn region. Despite Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont's vow to contain the insurgency, his government has done little to bring the region closer to peace. The Army has been put at the forefront in the fight against the insurgency and in some respects has been successful in containing the violence in certain areas.
But soldiers are equipped to deal only with the immediate security threat. When it comes to long-term solutions to the insurgency they are obviously at a loss, while other government agencies are far from united in tackling the root causes of the violence.
What is urgently needed is a strong commitment from the central government to deal with the problems in the three southern provinces.
Equally necessary is a more effective central command that can pull together all the resources available to work on long-term approaches.
Since the violence in the region took a turn for the worse in 2004 there has been a serious lack of political leadership in pushing through badly needed solutions that are both workable and comprehensive.
It should have dawned on the political parties vying in the general election by now that unless the new political leadership has the will and is truly committed to finding ways to end the carnage, the ideas and proposals they are peddling will be useless.