What chance of reconciliation in the South?
Published on June 12, 2006 - The report of the National Reconciliation Commission (NRC) on the southern violence is possibly the most important product of the second Thaksin government and potentially a milestone in a long and now very ugly conflict.
It was dropped onto the nation's table last week with a plop so faint it was almost inaudible. Across the spectrum of the press, it failed to make the front page. Thaksin was reported as "not very interested". Deputy Prime Minister Chidchai Vanasatidya said his eyes were too tired to read it. Commentary was minimal. Was the report's appearance just drowned out by the royal celebrations and the blizzard of lawsuits blown up by the political crisis, or does it deliver a message that nobody wants to hear?
The report dismisses any idea that the southern violence can be explained in terms of Islam, local or global. What makes the people of the three southernmost provinces different is that they are ethnic Malay, they are Muslim, and they remember the long and troubled history of Pattani's relationship with Siam. The ethnic, religious and cultural elements in this identity are fused together inseparably. For the perpetrators of the violence, this complex difference provides the justification of their own behaviour. For others in the Malay-Muslim-Pattani community, it can provide a rationale for giving them at least tacit support.
But the report argues this does not "explain" the violence. The root causes lie in the lousy economy and the unjust treatment by the state. In fact, the report points out, these two factors are no different in kind throughout rural Thailand. There is just some difference in degree because the state has treated the far South as a cesspit in which to dump the worst officials in the nation.
The report argues that the real tragedy has been created over the past few years. The numbers directly involved in violence are very small, and they are probably scattered groups with varied agendas rather than a movement, but when they provoked the government by acts of random violence, the state responded with acts of random violence of its own, only on a larger scale. Over the past two years, this game of violence versus violence has turned the local community against the state, Muslim against Buddhist in the three provinces, and the rest of the nation against the far South. The area has become "ungovernable". That's the tragedy. And that's the issue the NRC report tries to address.
This diagnosis dictates the cure. The treatment is similarly complex and multi-levelled. The report suggests some cultural fixes including designating Malay as a "working language", amending the 1997 Islamic Act, and allowing partial usage of shari'ah law. It advises economic measures including a drive against unemployment and implementation of the Constitution's provisions on community control of resources, but the report's main thrust is that the government must stop fomenting war and start building peace.
This thrust is best exemplified in two of the report's most brave and startling recommendations.
The first is to pass a Peace Act, implicitly to replace or overshadow the Emergency Powers Act that the NRC chairman, Anand Panyarachun, dubbed a "licence to kill". Just the idea of such an act is challenging for a government that has become so committed to violence. It's also thought-provoking for the whole nation.
The second idea is for a "peace brigade", a corps of unarmed people whose job is to get between the state authorities and the local people to defuse the frictions and misunderstandings that in the past have escalated into tragedies such as Krue Se, Tak Bai and Tanyonglimo. This idea is not original, and the practice has worked well in conflict hot spots around the world, but it is intriguing to imagine the amazement of the military members of the NRC when the idea was first proposed.
The purpose of the Peace Act is to set up a framework for working towards reconciliation over the longer term. This framework includes a peace-building centre with a brief to purge the area of rotten officials, ensure all future appointees have the right mind set, involve the local community in monitoring officialdom and work on improvements in education, economy and administration. The act also proposes a special Development Board for the region, and a Reconciliation Fund with a big budget and a managing committee totally independent of government.
One major aim of this structure is to unify government policy in the region, in contrast to the shambolic privateering that has characterised recent years. Over and over and over again, the report quietly says that the solution to the problem lies within the state itself.
The 48 members of the NRC included some of Thailand's most distinguished peaceniks side by side with some of the most frightening hawks. It's little surprise that the report went through nine rounds of drafting before all could agree. It's amazing that its proposals remain so ambitious, but two things have gone missing along the way.
For over half a century the moderates in the far South have asked for some special administrative arrangement that recognises that this region is truly different. The NRC has ducked this. Probably they think such a proposal is still too difficult for the state or majority society to imagine and so would risk provoking rejection of the whole report. Instead the report places great hope in local participation in various advisory and semi-official bodies. This looks like a sticking plaster, not a cure.
At the start of the NRC's work, Anand and other key members raised hopes of reforms to make Thailand embrace its multicultural character in a much more wholehearted away. Again, perhaps the polarisation over the past year made this issue too hot to handle. The idea lingers in the final draft as little more than an aspiration. The report seems to say: fix the state first, and then we'll think about society.
Maybe that's right. Reconciliation is not easy. May this report get the attention it deserves.