Najib may have some answers to deep South problems
Published on December 6, 2009 -
Abhisit can learn from how Malaysia treats its ethnic minorities
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak is coming to Thailand at a time when ties between the countries |are cordial and friendly. This is a big change from a few years back when bilateral ties were at one of their all-time lows.
The Thaksin Shinawatra government's all-or-nothing attitude towards the Malay-speaking South had rubbed many people the wrong way, including the Malaysian government.
Relations hit rock bottom when Thaksin threatened to walk out of the Asean Summit in Vientiane in November 2004 if Malaysia, or anybody else, raised the Tak Bai massacre, an incident that ended in the deaths of 78 Malay-Muslims while in the custody of security officers.
Relations hit another nadir when 131 Muslims fled their village in Narathiwat, citing harassment from security forces, and took refuge in Malaysia. Thaksin was embarrassed by the fact that a UN refugee agency got involved and interviewed the displaced people.
The same culture of impunity continues today, as seen with the government's foot-dragging in bringing to justice some of the high-profile cases involving security officials. These include the beating to death of Imam Yapa Kaseng and the massacre of 10 Malay-Muslims praying at a Narathiwat mosque this past June, reportedly by a pro-government death squad. In both cases, police implicated Thai soldiers and a former paramilitary ranger.
Unfortunately, the Thai authorities don't seem to understand that beating an imam to death or torturing suspects will only create more insurgents.
Relations between Thailand and Malaysia improved significantly during the Surayud Chulanont administration. Surayud publicly praised Kuala Lumpur for helping to facilitate some of the meetings with members of the long-standing Patani Malay separatist groups. It was the start of a secret peace process that took a backseat during the administrations of Samak Sundaravej and Somchai Wongsawat.
Now, with Abhisit Vejjajiva at the helm, the process is back on track but continues to be out of the public spotlight. Bangkok is also exploring a possible role for Malaysia.
But meaningful progress cannot come about until the Abhisit administration goes beyond the normal rhetoric about how development, coupled with political participation at the local level, will eventually win over the Malays of Patani. Good intentions do not make a policy and blaming Thaksin's heavy-handed approach will get you nowhere.
It has been consistently pointed out that this new generation of insurgents was in the making well before Thaksin came to power in 2001.
No matter how many good and clean officials are sent to this contested region, or how many Patani Malays squabble over chicken feed disguised as development budgets for local governments, the predominant lens through which the Malays in the South view the Thais is that theirs is an occupied territory.
Like it or not, there are plenty of Malay-Muslims in the deep South who embrace a different set of historical-cultural narratives - one that questions the legitimacy of the Thai state and sees the authorities and security forces as colonial masters. It is this very narrative that keeps alive the separatist spirit not only among the local people but the militants as well.
Perhaps Abhisit should take up Najib's advice and seriously explore the idea of autonomy, whether in terms of structural reform or in the form of greater cultural space.
In essence, Abhisit needs to acknowledge that the Malays of Patani have a history of their own, are proud of their institutions and can peacefully coexist with the Thai state, but on their own terms.
In other words, their Thai citizenship shouldn't have to come at the expense of their identity or their place in the greater Malay world.
No one is saying Malaysia has all the answers. But perhaps if Abhisit can look at how our southern neighbour deals with the issues of race and ethnicity - how the Indians and the Chinese negotiate their social, political and cultural space with the ethnic Malays - he might just pick up a thing or two.