Money goes to waste in the deep South
Published on August 6, 2009
Conflict resolution and development will be achieved only via new attitudes, not by doling out funds
By just about any standard, a budget of Bt119 billion for a region of less than two million people is a lot of money. That's how much the Thai government has spent over the past five years in the deep South. The aim has been to win hearts and minds in a region that, in spite of having fallen under the direct rule of Thailand over a century ago, continues to question the legitimacy of the state that administers over them.
The sticky issue of government expenditure was debated at a Budget and Policy Responses to the Southern Provinces seminar last week at Chulalongkorn University.
Nirand Chomthong, a Budget Bureau official, highlighted the lack of coordination on policies and measures and the need to integrate budget and work plans among agencies in the restive region.
Chueng Chatariyakul, an official of the National Economic and Social Development Board, said the state doesn't have much to show in terms of success. Five years ago, 14 per cent of the people in Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat lived below poverty line. In 2008, the figure went up to 17 per cent. (The poverty line is defined as people whose monthly income is Bt1,386). So much for the Bt119 billion budget.
Whispered one academic: "With this kind of budget, who wants the conflict to end?"
While there may be some truth to that remark, it would not be fair to conclude that government agencies are keeping the violence going so they can pocket the money. Yes, officials skim from the top, whenever opportunities arise. It doesn't have to be in the restive deep South. We see it every day on the streets of Bangkok, but we just tolerate it, that's all.
Nevertheless, bureaucrats at the seminar maintained that their respective agencies are committed to resolving the problems in the region, where roadside bombings and drive-by shootings are everyday occurrences. More than 3,500 people have been killed since January 2004 and the end is nowhere in sight.
Besides the Bt119 billion spent, the government of Abhisit Vejjajiva has just earmarked a further sum of Bt63 billion for community development for 2009-2012. It was hoped that the past five years would provide some sort of a lesson but apparently the government, like the administrations before it, continues to think that pouring more money into the region will help improve the situation.
Earlier in the Abhisit administration, there was talk of bringing back civilian supremacy, assigning a mini Cabinet to look at the deep South, as this would bring political accountability to the problem instead of throwing it back into the bureaucrats' laps.
But none of this talk has translated into anything meaningful. Deputy Interior Minister Thaworn Senneam took charge of drafting legislation to create the Office of the Southern Border Provinces (OSBP) but lacks the courage to move on it because he and Abhisit are afraid the Army will slap it down. With legislative backing, the OSBP would be entitled to some of the Bt63 billion being allocated to the military-run Internal Security Operation Command (Isoc). So, the return of civilian supremacy, apparently, is still a pipe dream.
If Thailand's history proves anything, it is that giving the military a lot of money to do development work will end in utter failure. Remember "Green Isaan"? The Bt119 billion poured in over the past five years should be enough to convince us that the Army needs to step aside.
While it is true that frequent changes in government haven't helped the situation, it should also be noted that none of these administrations have come up with any innovative thinking or new approaches to the problem. It is obvious that throwing more and more money at the problem hasn't helped, never mind won any hearts and minds among the Malay Muslims who continue to see themselves as colonial subjects.
But while officials were skirting around the issue of expenditure and the need to improve coordination, associate professor Srisompob Jitpiromsri, director of Prince of Songkhla University's Deep South Watch, hit the nail on the head when he said the country has been barking up the wrong tree. We keep pushing Thai nationalism down the throat of the Malays in the deep South as if this is something they really want. After all, nationalism, as defined by the state, has always been the sticking point between the Malays in the region and the rest of the Thai state.
Surely there are enough smart people in this government who can come up with a model under which the Malays in the deep South and the people of the Thai state can coexist peacefully. But if the past five years tell us anything, it is that the same old mindset and attitude towards the conflict has to change if we wish to resolve the problem.
We can start by taking the military out of the development equation and bringing back civilians to help end a conflict that is deeply rooted in the question of the legitimacy of the state.