Saturday, May 01, 2004

EDITORIAL: Too extreme a solution

By Mohd Jawhar Hassan

The Pattani operations were a complete success for the Thai authorities, but the killing of over 100 suspected militants is no real solution. In fact, it could make the problem worse, writes MOHD JAWHAR HASSAN. AS security operations go, the April 28 killing of 112 militants and the capture of a number of others in the Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat provinces of southern Thailand was a huge success. The intelligence was good. The enemy was lulled into attacking what it considered to be soft targets. They were virtually all killed or captured in a classic example of the use of overwhelming force to achieve the desired military objective.

But April 28 will go down as a black day in Thai history, tarnishing its reputation as a tolerant and peace-loving society. It was a battle won, but a war lost. The repercussions will be felt mostly in Thailand itself, but neighbouring Malaysia will not be immune.

The most dreaded consequence is a surge in the alienation of the Muslim south from Bangkok. Old wounds of discrimination, oppression and subjugation, already reopened by recent heavy-handed action in the region, will fester. Thai nation-building has just taken one gigantic leap backwards.

When this alienation translates into more widespread militancy, as many expect, it will trigger a downward spiral of violence, throwing the south back into the Sixties and Seventies. The warning by the separatist group Bersatu may be a portent of things to come.

The situation in the south is now ripe for exploitation by external militant Muslim movements. Already on the target list for supporting the US-led invasion of Iraq, Thailand has just increased the probabilities of an al Qaeda-linked terrorist attack.

It will not be the Muslim south alone that will be disenchanted, however. Many Buddhists will recoil, too, especially from the senseless and needless massacre of youths armed mainly with machetes and knives and the odd assault rifle in one of the region’s oldest mosques in Pattani. Already reeling under heavy attack for human rights abuses in its policy towards alleged law-breakers, the Thaksin administration will come under renewed and intense criticism, not least by local rights and civil society groups.

For Malaysia, the consequences can only be negative. Border security has been beefed up, but the border cannot be fully policed. The country will continue to be exposed to unsubstantiated and politically convenient allegations of providing a safe haven or support for militant elements.

If the situation deteriorates, Putrajaya must brace itself for further highly publicised visits by Thai leaders, which serve at least to deflect attention from the Thai Government’s own shortcomings.

If security measures in southern Thailand continue to be perceived as being blatantly and oppressively anti-Muslim, Malaysia must also guard against emotions being stirred among its own Muslim population.

Negative economic repercussions also cannot be discounted. In the sometimes notoriously ignorant world of foreign investors, who seem to be particularly weak in their geography, Malaysia and the rest of the region can be lumped with Thailand as unsafe markets for foreign funds. Another tom yam contagion of sorts cannot be entirely ruled out.

In the larger scheme of things, the region as well as the Muslim world will suffer from a freshly stimulated stigma of so-called "Muslim" terrorism and militancy.

It is in the interests of Thailand, Malaysia and others in the region, therefore, that normalcy is restored in southern Thailand and an enduring and sustainable solution is found to the long-standing problems there.

While Malaysia should co-operate fully with Thai security agencies in its own interest and as a good neighbour, the burden is essentially upon Thailand to put its house in order.

For a start, its political, military and police bureaucracies need to discard vested and turf conflicts and arrive at a credible assessment of the root causes of the problems in southern Thailand. Four months after the latest cycle of violence began, the authorities are still giving conflicting reports of the reasons for the violence.

They range from the unrest being the work of separatists to that of drug traffickers, weapons smugglers, and contraband dealers. Others claim some politicians and influential locals, or business groups angered by some of the Prime Minister’s measures, are behind the unrest. Still others point to conflict between military and police groups.

The truth, however, may also lie in a number of other deeper factors. The perception of domination and control by Buddhist Central Plains Thai is strong in the provinces and especially in the south. This perception is strengthened by discrimination, neglect and abuse by the authorities, who are largely Buddhist Thais.

In fact, Thai Deputy Prime Minister Chaturon Chaisaeng is among those on record saying that killings, torture and kidnappings by government agents had fuelled the latest violence.

The extensive poverty and unemployment that afflicts the south makes especially its young vulnerable to exploitation by criminal and militant elements.

Thai authorities therefore need to adopt a more holistic plan for addressing the problems in the south. Essentially, they need to co-opt the Muslim south into the mainstream of Thai economic and political life. Previous attempts have failed, in part due to funds being siphoned off by corrupt officials.

But Thailand needs no lessons in solving its internal problems. It already has at least one sound proposal before it that was previously shunted aside. This is the seven-point "peace plan" proposed by Chaturon Chaisaeng. It calls among others for the lifting of martial law, removal of police who are not southerners, more openings for locals in the civil service, and revival of a 12-billion baht development package.

This will require a radical reform to Thai strategy for the south. But it will be one well worth it.

The writer is director-general of ISIS Malaysia. The views expressed in this article are his own.

NST 01/05/2004

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