Will the Thai state accept a special form of administration for the region?

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Note: On January 18, 2009, at the Novetel Central Hotel in Hat Yai, Songkhla province, the Deep South Watch (DSW) and the Southern Journalist Association of Thailand held a seminar on resolving the conflict in southern Thailand entitled Five years of fire in the south: war, knowledge, and confusion…And now what?  


The State’s Policy to Manage and Control the Violence

"Governments come and go in Thailand, but the people in the three southern border provinces are still waiting for the state to develop a collaborative agenda with them.”

- Sukree Langputeh
Yala Islamic College

The important point in this topic is something discussed and proposed by Haji Sulong, and it concerns the policies of governance for the region.  Even though Haji Sulong spoke on these issues about 50 years ago, the same controversial issues he spoke on remain today.  One of these issues concerns the application of Islamic Sharia law.  Although some family matters are already adjudicated using Muslim principles, this does not quite resemble Islamic Sharia law.  As a result, there are still calls for its application.

Islamic law in fact prohibits the payment and collection of interest, which relates to issues concerning education and the economy.  For education, many people still wish to see tadika (kindergarten) schools and private Islamic schools receive financial support through non-interest loans.  With the persistent economic problems in the region, many people continue to speak about the promotion of an Islamic banking system that also makes use of non-interest loans.

Despite these and other long-standing calls, there has been little support by Thai governments to address these issues. Over the past several years, this has been particularly problematic given the marked instability in government. Indeed, governments come and go in Thailand, but the people in the three southern border provinces are still waiting for the state to develop a collaborative agenda with them.

Haji Sulong’s proposals unquestionably contributed to his status as a separatist rebel in the eyes of the state, but today there are still many people who propose strikingly similar ideas.  And though the Thai state has generally been reluctant to promulgate reforms that would appease these people’s wishes, some headway has been made.  Today, at least many government officials have become more willing to listen to ideas proposed by Muslims from the south.  This shows that Thais outside the southernmost provinces have become more knowledgeable about the complexity of issues in the region.  But in spite of this progress, successive governments have generally maintained similar policies and have been unable to successfully quell the violence and resolve the conflict.  

To work towards a resolution, the state must not approach the situation as a struggle over politics.  Although government officials repeatedly mention their wish for stability throughout the country, the people in the south also want stability. 

This wish for stability among locals can be seen when one considers the four broad groups of people that I have categorized for the region: 1) insiders (e.g., people directly involved with the insurgent movement); 2) inside-outsiders (e.g., people who appear to be insurgent supporters but actually do not support it); 3) outside-insiders (e.g., people who appear to be outside the militant movement but actually support it); and 4) outside-outsiders (e.g., people who do not support the militant movement). Of all these groups, the largest is outside-outsiders.

Because Thailand’s population is predominantly Thai-Buddhist, the Thai state may not have the experience or knowledge to address issues confronting a country that has multiple ethnic groups.  It thus might be a good idea for Thai officials to look to Malaysia to learn how to better address issues relating to a multi-cultural society. 

Despite Malaysia’s ethnic diversity, the Malaysian state has largely managed to limit ethnic tensions.  One area that the Thai state may look toward Malaysia is in the area multi-lingual and multi-ethnic education.

In this regard, the Thai state should recognize the utility of the three languages spoken in the three southernmost provinces of Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat.  Many people speak not only the local Malay and Thai but also standard Malay and Arabic.  If the Thai government would provide more support for the learning of standard Malay and Arabic, it could prove beneficial.  Local Muslims from the three provinces would have a better grasp of these languages and would thus be able to communicate more effectively with people from countries where Malay and Arabic are spoken.  This would not only improve their career opportunities but could also develop Thailand’s trade relations with the numerous countries where these languages are used.


A perspective on governance for the region

"Should a unified, standard mode of governance still be applied to a region with unique characteristics, or should a new mode be implemented in an effort to reduce the unabated violence and long-standing conflict?  How can reforms be made that lead to peace?"

 Chaturon Chaisaeng 
Former Deputy Prime Minister




If we can not come together to create a greater sense of belonging throughout all of Thailand, we will not be able to resolve the problem in the southern border provinces. Policies concerning nation, religion, and resource management in the region are therefore very important, and I believe that they are tied to nation-building.  However, given this region’s distinct ethnic and religious character, we need to give more consideration to this group’s unique character in terms of policy. 

Indeed, the people in the three southernmost provinces have a unique history in that they hail from the Kingdom of Patani.  Their history, religion and ethnicity give them a greater sense of distinction from people in other regions of Thailand.  To help reconcile relations with the people from this region, it might also be necessary to not only promote the freedom of religious practice, but also highlight the many misconceptions about Islam and violence.

Another issue deals with development.  The people in the three border provinces should be the primary people responsible for setting agendas on issues related to religion, education, and politics.  To receive the greatest benefits from development, it is crucial that they have a greater say in matter that determine their lives.  As Sukree Languteh pointed out, the main cause of the current situation is the lack of real, legitimate forms of participation.

Controlling and reducing the violence through effective governance is important, but effective governance alone can not solve this problem.  By looking at the various policy proposals people have discussed, it can be seen that there are suggestions take into account the special characteristics of the people.  If implemented, such proposals could bring about a resolution. 

However, any policy proposal that gives special attention to the unique characteristics of the people of the region could be problematic for the Thai state.  Therefore, a key question is whether or not the Thai state can understand or accept this.  In fact, the state may understand it but still might not be willing to grant a form of special governance for the region because the Thai state prefers to use a single, arbitrary form of governance for the country.

There are thus two broad ways to work toward effectively governing the region.  First, the state may continue to rely on the same model through which it administers the rest of Thailand.  However, this form of governance has contributed to the current state of violence and unrest in the south.  Second, the state could implement a special form of political administration for the region, which might reduce violent activity and create more peace. 

In the future, policies related to politics and security will be critically important, but also important is that a mutual understanding emerges between the people and the government. To work toward achieving this, officials at all levels must be devoted, diligent and responsible and serve the people wholeheartedly.

The state also must develop consistent and clear policies.  With Thailand’s constant change in government, policies often change as well. 

Perhaps most importantly, if the people in the far south develop a clear approach to governance, then they should be able to work together with the state and develop a strong and appropriate form of governance for the region.   This could in effect foster unity and create a more efficient governmental system.