Disclosure of the 200-Public Forum Report on “Self-Governance”: Facing Peace Challenge from People’s Voice

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Romadon Panjor
Deep South Watch (DSW)
Those who have been closely monitored Thailand’s Deep South conflict over the past several years should be familiar with one important argument proposed as a political solution to this conflict. Such proposals were to introduce governance reform of the Deep South provinces in a way congruent with the problems and specific nature of local areas and population. These proposals were based on a notion that at the core of the conflict that has been escalating into violence was the incongruous power relationship between the central government and the “locals”, exacerbated by historical, cultural, and identity differences as well as the locals’ feelings about the unfair treatment by past and present administrations.
On many occasions, these proposals were known and described as diverse “models”. Throughout the nearly decade-long and ever-escalating period of violence, such proposals have been developed and presented periodically in the forms of public discussions, research works, opinion surveys, and articles. Such “forbidden” point of contention that had been previously posed as exaggerated endangerment by merging it into separatist proposals has now become a widely and openly debatable issue. But on many occasions, such debates have raised an important question of what the local people’s opinions are.
“Special Administrative Region” under BRN’s conditions
A peace dialogue initiative between the Thai government’s representatives led by the National Security Council (NSC) and the Patani liberation movement led by the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) was started in late February 2013. Following the peace talk, one of the proposed approaches to the political reform of the Deep South region like a “special administrative region” has been publicly revived. Coming after was the citing of the BRN’s five demands as a condition for the peace talks to continue, causing considerable discomfort to the Thai authorities. One of the demands was the recognition of “Ownership Right (Hak Ketuanan)” of Malay Patani nation in Patani homeland. In the document the BRN panel submitted to the facilitator according to the Thai panel’s request, further details of the demands and principles behind them, as well as offers in exchange for the granting of such demands. Also included in the document was a concrete proposal for the special administrative region pursuant to Thailand’s constitution, which would a mutual solution to the problem.
            The proposal referring to the “Ownership Right” was included in the detailed explanation of BRN’s fourth demand whereby it principally called for the Thai authorities to recognize the existence and “Ownership Right” of Malay Patani nation to Patani homeland. The detailed explanation also reiterated the acknowledgement of the existence of Malay Patani community and its “Ownership Right” connected with the history of the region and its population. Besides, an emphasis was put on the meaning of the right to self-determination, which was within the legal context of Thailand’s constitution and had nothing to do with the desire to separate the region from the Thai state’s territory.
Nevertheless, in terms of procedural requirements, the document stated that the recognition of such right should be put on Thailand’s parliamentary agenda. The document further added that taking into account the detailed proposals might take an additional period time after an official ceasefire has been materialized at good timing.  
It should also be pointed out that at the core of such demand was a call for the acknowledgement or recognition of the political status of “Patani” that was independent and the Ownership Right of “Malay Patani nation” to the homeland. This was a typical demand of ethnic minority groups put upon their governing authorities, which, of course, would inevitably upset the established authority from the state’s perspective. But this was the matter of politics of recognition, which the State tried hard not to let it visibly emerge while the resistance movement found it necessary to make its effort to bring up the subject in its negotiation.
Difficulty in deliberating on solutions to such issue was a great challenge reflecting the reality of a peace process. Necessarily, when the peace talks faced such obstacles, it seemed to be suspended. If such barriers could somehow be removed, the prospect for the peace process would be feasible.
This “special administrative region” could be deemed to be the Patani movement’s strategic retreat. Surely, they had to deal with tough questions brought up by their constituent groups and political allies. But such stance could not easily satisfy Thailand’s political leaders and the armed forces either. Though the Thai constitution allows the establishment of a new administrative and political unit congruent with the local context, there is reasonably strong opposition to it in Thai society.
Thus, the decisive factor depends on what the locals think about their future. Although the talks have been carried out between the “representatives” of those armed opponents, as equally important as the subject of representation is the question of political legitimacy. In other words, any political agreements to be made in the future also need to include local people’s consensus.
Heed the People’s Voice: How Will They Choose Their Future?
In relation to the Pa(t)tani conflict, the proposed political reform of the Deep South administration has been brought up over the past several years. So far, over ten “models” have been recommended. For instance, the “ministry for the South” model (for further details, click here and here), “Patani Mahanakorn” model, which was proposed by networks of local civil society (see the draft Act on Patani Mahanakorn Administration B.E…. and discussion papers, click here), “Nakorn Patani” model that had been recommended continuously by General Chavalit Yongchaiyudh and part of the concept had been subsequently turned into a bill by the Puea Thai Party but has not been further promoted so far (see the draft Act on Nakorn Patani Administration B.E….), or even the proposed establishment of a “mandala (an administrative area)” as a greater local administrative body (please look at the basic concept article here). In addition, there have been a number of research works mentioning the establishment of a ministry and transition into elected provincial governors (for further details, clickhere) as well as research-base proposals for the setting of a special administrative zone (for further details, clickhere).
            A big challenge, however, was what the locals that were immediate stakeholders thought about these proposals. Did they believe that changing administrative and political structures would actually solve their ongoing problems? This was the origin of the “200 Public Forums” run by the Public Policy Programme for the “Deep South Self-Governance”. The forums were organized successively between September 2012 and March 2013 and scattered over the areas within Yala, Pattani, Narathiwat provinces, and certain districts of Songkla. Despite the targeted forums were slated to reach 200 (thus it was generally dubbed as ‘200 Forums’) only 146 areas-based and specific target groups-based public forums could be held because of a number of restrictions and lack of readiness. In terms of areas, these forums covered both Malay Muslim and Thai Buddhist communities in urban and rural areas while the specific target groups included local politicians, women’s and student groups as well as “groups of different-opinion people” (for details of the forums’ organization, clickhere).
            The forums were co-organized by the civil society council of the Southernmost Thailand and the Office of Thailand Reform, with the support of 17 working groups from civil society organizations, which were members and non-members of the Council. Public deliberation was used as a tool for the forums to obtain people’s voice and take into account the “reasoning” of the locals’ debates on a variety of “alternatives”, which were compiled and grouped into six options.  All of them, previously proposed to the public in various manners, were clearly detailed “models” and importantly constitutional (as described in detail in the policy brief on “Choices in the midst of Southern Fire: How do we live together?”). Therefore, the view about the region’s separation as an independent state was not included in these options since it had no clear details and obviously in breach of the Constitution.
Choices in the midst of Southern Fire: How do we live together? [in Thai]
            Still, the forums’ approach was open to the discussion of various alternatives as the “seventh option”.  The aim of such process was not to seek consensus or survey opinions in an opinion- polling manner. But it intended to focus on the arguments of those participating in the forums to weigh up their choices in a well-rounded manner as much as possible.   
In Malay- language version
            As the topic of “special administrative region” has been raised and widely discussed, it was very interesting to reexamine the viewpoints of the immediate stakeholders, whose networks had earlier tried to launch their initiatives before the start of official peace talks between the NSC and BRN. 
            The report on “Choosing the Future: A Synthesis of Deliberation on Political and Administrative Possibilities held by the Public Policy Programme for the ‘Deep South Self-Governance’ ” (for a full report download, click here) put together the conclusions based on opinions expressed and shared in the forums. A number of thought-provoking findings could be drawn from such conclusions. First, most participants, regardless of their arguments for or against any options, viewed such issues, especially those related to their future livelihood, as very crucial and called for the increased information to be distributed continuously. Similar discussion, which they could voice their views like this, should continue. Some were much surprised that such sensitive issues relevant to political and administrative changes like this could be debated in this manner. But a number of participants thought that these issues, in any event, should not be brought up for discussion.
            The need to be informed of one’s own future was commonly found in almost all forums organized by the working groups. This was a sign of significant political awareness of the deep South people, which could be verified by an increasing number of organized political discussions overflowing with interested participants.
The report on “Choosing the Future: A Synthesis of Deliberation on Political and Administrative Possibilities held by the Public Policy Programme for the “Deep South Self-Governance” [in Thai]

            In terms of arguments cited by the participants that “chose” various options, they could be classified into four groups, as follows:
First Group chose the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Center (SBPAC) color:#333333"> arguing that its integrated administrative structure was still suitable for the local problems and location. color:#333333">  This group’s participants cited the agency’s notable achievements—particularly under the current management—as their strong argument in favour of their choice of SBPAC. Though the current management and its executives were not elected, its special status was obviously legitimate and entitled to be directly supported by the government so that it could make it jobs quickly and visibly materialized. Criticisms of the agency, on the other hand, were leveled at “personal” constraints rather than against structure. Another compelling aspect lay in the fact that the majority of the Thai Buddhist communities were more satisfied with this choice. Most importantly, when taking into account other choices that required local administrators to be elected, they were unsure of potential changes. The inclination to such reaction could be found in urban and rural communities.
Second Group preferred the establishment of a Southern Border Provinces Ministry. This choice, mainly based on research works, was not widely discussed. Supporters of this choice viewed it as plausible as this proposed model required the government’s increased attention to the region’s development and problem solving. Taking into account the people’s role in the “Deep South People’s Council”, this model was highly recommended. But a major criticism of this choice was that its direction was still controlled by central government bodies regardless of the fact that the minister came from an elected government. After all, the participants believed that despite the change was made in this direction; the substantives of the problem were rather unchanged.   
Third Group put together options 3, 4, 5, and 6 (three Nakorns with two-tier administrative structure, three Nakorns with one-tier administrative structure, two-tier Mahanakorn, and one-tier Mahanakorn). A common issue widely discussed by most participants was the election of governor. A major reason behind this common enthusiasm was that the local people would be “empowered” to elect their own leaders. With such leadership origin, these elected governors would be able to address their ongoing problems better than those appointed by the central authorities. For certain groups of Muslims, these options would allow Muslim people to become leaders and administer the affairs related to their lives. But to some Thai Buddhists, this same scenario made them worried and afraid that their voice would not be heard.
The participants themselves also foresaw that these models would bring on many ensuring problems. For instance, local conflict would increase as a result of the contest for political positions and opportunities. It seemed more likely that rich and influential people would get elected as administrators, which would inevitably result in corruption. These problems were extensively examined to counteract the positive attitude. But the supporters of these models believed that the problems they would have to face in exchange for such benefits were acceptable.
Different opinions among participants about the “size” of the administrative unit leveled at practical difficulties. The participants found it easier to introduce changes to an individual province than merging the provinces into a “Mahanakorn”, though doing the latter would reflect the region’s historical unity. They viewed that maintaining the two-tier local elections would be more instrumental in introducing any proposed changes since Tambon (subdistrict) Administration Organizations (TAO) and municipalities have still been playing their active roles.
The reasonings about approaches to the elections of governors or administrators presented enthusiastically in such public forums represented the intention of certain groups of people that expected to see changes in the region’s political and administrative structures. All the pros and cons of these proposed options brought up during the arguments should be useful to decision-makers, one way or another, no matter what forms they would be carried out.    
Fourth Group comprised additional options recommended in the forum whereby the participants were asked to suggest other new options for changes. There were several interesting recommendations from the floor.  These included, for instance, the proposed election of SBPAC’s secretary-general and allowing local people to participate in the selection of high-ranking army officers to be working in the region.
This freedom of choice and discussion was, however, still constrained within the constitutional framework. But it was most likely that these stakeholders would be enabled to share their views on future options in a more comprehensive manner and relevant to the reality if such public hearings like these were to be organized continuously.
The above grouping of options resulted from the weight the participants given to various options. When putting options No 3-6 (election of governor option)—which had a common key focus on the election of chief executive of a political unit—together, a significant trend could be seen, as shown in the illustration below (Illustration No.5 in the Report).
Proportions of Groups of Option in Brief
            The conclusions of the 200 public forums were first presented to the second conference of the Deep South Reform Assembly on 28 April 2013, two months after the signing of the General Consensus on Peace Dialogue Process in Kuala Lumpur. Recommendations contained in the report also reiterated that all parties should place importance on the voice of stakeholders from all ethnic and religious groups in areas of conflict about their political future. In other words, the peace process concerns not only the “representatives” of each party in conflict but it also needs the consensus of other people. Providing people re with “options” will keep the process in touch with reality and sustainable peace will eventually emerge.
Therefore, the recommendations to peace dialogue parties focus on the need for the peace dialogue/negotiation table to consider the proposed changes to the Pa(t)tani’s governance structure in a comprehensive manner as a win-win political solution for all parties. At the same time, it is necessary for the Thai state and the Patani liberation movement to open opportunities, while enabling political atmosphere for all groups of people to talk and discuss such solutions creatively and safely.
These recommendations had previously been made while campaigning and arguments for the issues had already been carried out to a certain extent before the BRN’s special administrative region was brought up. Hence, highlighting the political issue that is at the heart of and underlying the ongoing conflict.  Not only do the representatives of the negotiating parties have to meet these challenges, the wider Thai society, especially groups of people in the Deep South/Patani have to deal openly with these problems as well. Otherwise it is difficult to transform the ongoing conflict into other outcomes. Another crucial challenge is how to make local people’s voice a legitimate foundation upon which their future (peace) is to be built. Most importantly, in what forms will the people’s voice be reflected? This is the concluding question the 200 public forums raised and left it to all parties to answer.