Hard line lingers on the deep South
Published on May 31, 2009 - Bangkok must emulate Surayud and admit that it can do wrong
In November 2006, when then Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont apologised to the Malay Muslim community in the deep South over the handling of the Tak Bai protest, which ended in the death of 85 unarmed demonstrators at the hands of the security officials, family members of the victims wept.
"I have come here to apologise to you on behalf of the previous government and on behalf of this government. What happened was mostly the fault of the state," he told a packed room of about 1,000 local residents from all walks of life in the Muslim-majority region.
"We must look for ways to work together. I have come here today to extend my hand to you and to tell you that I was wrong. I have come to apologise," said Surayud, whose remarks were greeted by a big round of applause for what was seen as a long-overdue apology and by tears of joy.
In spite of the fact that some zealous nationalists, half-baked academics and hardline officials tried to shift the blame onto the demonstrators or unabashedly to blame the incident on some agent provocateur, Surayud refused to hide behind them and did the right thing by coming forward and reaching out to the people of the deep South.
For a brief moment, there was hope in the air that Surayud's bold move would close this long and bitter chapter between the Malays of Patani and the Thai state. It was hoped that the historical mistrust the Muslims in the Malay historic homeland and the Thai state would subside and make way for a better and brighter future based on mutual respect and dignity.
But while the apology was very much welcomed by the Malay Muslims, not to mention the fact that it was long overdue, the rest of the country wasn't prepared to move on unconditionally. Then-Army chief General Sonthi Boonyaratklin and his top brass would instead hold all the Malays accountable for the actions of the insurgents behind the seemingly endless violence on the ground. Basically, the Malays were told that if they wanted friendship with the Thai state they were going to have to earn it.
Sonthi's expectation, however na๏ve, was that the Malay residents would have to come over to the state, point out the insurgents and eliminate them once and for all.
Never mind that their lives and security were at stake, not to mention the fact that the state had failed miserably in terms of providing them with security. He seemed to overlook the fact that more than 60 per cent of the victims killed in the deep South were Muslims killed by fellow Muslims who saw them as traitors for siding with the state.
And when the militants didn't reciprocate the government gesture of goodwill, Sonthi gave the green light for a series of blind sweeps in hotly contested areas. Young men were rounded up and forcibly sent to re-education camp in army bases in the upper South. A court stepped in a few months later declaring the operation unconstitutional and ordered the detainees freed.
If recent history is any indication, Thailand's attitude towards the Malay-speaking South has been largely shaped by a zero-sum game mentality. The local residents are told that they are not to question the legitimacy of the state, should be grateful for whatever the state gives them and must embrace whatever values, myths, notions and institutions come from their benevolent rulers.
But last Friday, in a packed Songkhla courthouse attended by family members of the Tak Bai victims, reporters and foreign diplomats, it was a different kind of tears, not expressing relief but reflecting the long-standing bitterness and grievances that reinforce the historic mistrust between the state and this particular minority group.
For others, justice has been served. These demonstrators got what had been coming to them. After all, what gave them the right to challenge the police, much less the Thai state? They should be grateful for what the Thai state has given them, for trying to "civilise" them and educate them so they can be like everybody else, like other minorities in the country.
It's amazing how many of us fail to see the racist and ethnocentric nature of our attitude towards the Malays in the deep South. Is it just because we want to sleep soundly at night that we don't have time for moral confrontation such as the needs and grievances of minorities such as the Malays?
Unless we can summon the gumption to see the ethnocentric racism of our policy towards Malay-speakers, Thailand can never move on as a country.