Crisis in south rooted in ethnic Malay identity
Published on June 22, 2007
- Govt's charm offensive may be winning support abroad, but it won't end bloodshed in region
Not long after Thai soldiers and police stacked hundreds of unarmed Muslim demonstrators on the back of military transport trucks - suffocating 78 of them in the process - the Thai Foreign Ministry went through their rolodex's looking for Muslim organisations.
The aftermath of the Tak Bai tragedy generated all kinds of fears and concerns.
Besides the possibility of a diplomatic fallout with Islamic countries over the death of 78 unarmed demonstrators, many were worried the incident would change the course of the insurgency in the deep South, turning local grievances into a struggle for Islamic causes. But nearly three years later, the banner is still very much Malay nationalism.
Prior to the Tak Bai incident, the then Thaksin Shinawatra administration didn't give much thought about generating political capital from international Islamic organisations or institutions.
But like most organisations, foreign or local, an institution is only as good as what you churn out of it. The previous government of Chuan Leekpai succeeded in securing a "permanent observer" seat in the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC). In doing so it dashed the hopes of separatist movements such as the Patani United Liberation Organisation (Pulo) or Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) from using it as a launching pad to attack Thailand.
As part of its effort to get the Muslim countries off its back, Bangkok launched a charm offensive. Diplomatic old hands and Muslim VIPs were dispatched to the Middle East and to OIC meetings.
There were some difficult moments, however. The OIC rattled the government's cage on more than one occasion, issuing some strong statements in 2005 over Thailand's handling of the far South.
After more than two years of diplomatic offensive, Thailand has succeeded in obtaining some breathing space.
But Bangkok also made some concessions. In a joint press statement in May 2007, the Foreign Ministry had to acknowledge the OIC's desire for "prompt and effective investigation of any allegation of human rights abuses". It also said that "long-term solutions to the problem in the South should entail granting the people of the region greater responsibility in governing effectively their local affairs".
Although no one knows what this will translate to in real terms, diplomatically speaking, the language of the joint statement suggested that the tricky topic of structural or administrative reform could be on the table in the future.
But while its charm offensive gives Thai officials some breathing space in the international arena, back in the deep South, the government's campaign to win hearts and minds is being clipped by reports and allegations of targeted killings and heavy handed measures.
Moreover, Muslims in the restive South, as well as those living exile, said Bangkok has been barking up the wrong tree with its insistence on playing the Islamic card.
The problem in the restive region is not about Islam; it is deep rooted in the ethnic Malays' refusal to embrace the pillars and values that define Thailand's nation-state building, they insist.
But Thai officials continue to ignore the complexity of the long-standing problem of assimilation and the question of identity the ethnic Malays face.
Oversimplifying the problems in the deep South tends to turn many Muslims off, particularly those who would like to work with the state but are disgusted by the government's futile policies.
Although it has put off many Muslims around the country, the government continues with its search for a model Muslim citizen, or "moderate", as the government likes to say, for others to emulate.
One big problem for Bangkok is that the model isn't catching on - no one wants to be seen as a "Muslim Uncle Tom".