In The News

A New Peace Plan for Southern Thailand

July 22, 2009

Recently, the Prime Minister of Thailand and more than 400 other people – including government officials, military personnel, representatives from foreign embassies and NGOs, academics, and a large contingent from the southern-most provinces of Thailand – assembled with great anticipation at the King Prajadhipok’s Institute (KPI) in Bangkok. The big draw was overwhelmingly the presentation of a peace plan, including seven concrete recommendations for achieving sustainable peace in the country’s troubled southern-most provinces.
Southern Thailand has been ravaged by conflict, violence, and other challenges for years, but this past June was one of the worst months ever in the region. On June 8, evening prayers at the Al-Furquan mosque were fatally disrupted when six masked gunmen carrying M-16 assault rifles stormed into the mosque and opened fire into the congregation. Eleven people, including the imam, were killed. While the official investigation is still underway, many locals in the area believe that Thai security officials were involved. This incident has unleashed a series of reprisal killings against Buddhists, including the brutal murder of a teacher who was eight months pregnant and a monk on his morning alms round. And so, the cycle of violence is perpetuated.

To make matters worse, a controversial court verdict on May 29 further heightened tensions. Back in 2004, security officials killed 85 Muslim protestors (78 of them were suffocated or crushed to death while being transported to detention centers) in the Tak Bai district of the southern border province, Narathiwat. While surviving Muslim protestors have been charged with criminal offences, the security personnel involved were recently acquitted of any charges. Just a day before the gathering at the KPI, a petition for an inquest into the deaths of the protestors lodged by family members was rejected.

With Asia Foundation support, the KPI, a Thai think tank closely affiliated with the government, had organized a group of 92 influential leaders from a variety of sectors to spend a year developing solid, strategic recommendations for peace in the South. The group included leaders from the south, civil servants, military, police, civil society groups, academics, and media, among others. Their deliberations sometimes involved intense debates over the best course of action in the south. Over the year, the group carried out an extensive program of dialogues, research, and analysis that included study trips to Northern Ireland and Aceh, as well as extensive interviews conducted in Thailand’s south with people who live with the conflict on a daily basis and with key players in Bangkok. Their resulting seven strategic recommendations could not have come at a more urgent moment, and they offer a new paradigm for exploring solutions that could potentially pave the way to true and lasting peace.

When Thailand’s Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva spoke at the presentation of the recommendations, he promised that his government would do its utmost to bring the culprits of the recent mosque shooting to justice, saying that the investigation would serve as a test case for the authorities to win back faith in the country’s judicial process.

Any real resolution to the conflict will have to go beyond cracking down on violence and acknowledge the historical consciousness and identity of Muslim communities in the South, said one speaker. The three southernmost border provinces where the conflict is taking place are located between predominately Muslim Malaysia and Buddhist Thailand. These states have a unique local history, culture, and language. The policies of the Thai government – focused on nation-building and national unity – have, at times, imposed a state-constructed identity on southern Muslim communities. The KPI recommendations emphasized the importance of embracing pluralism in Thai society, rather than trying to suppress the differences inherent in the distinct cultural heritage of these southern communities.

The KPI recommendations represent an important statement from mainstream Thai society that a durable political solution is possible in the South. Some of the recommendations address sensitive issues that go a step beyond similar previous efforts. For example, the group recommends designating the Pattani-Malay dialect as an official working language, so that it can be used in official government business. From road signs to legal documentation, using the local dialect will allow many locals who are not fluent in Thai to interact with officialdom in their own language. The recommendations also suggest the need for peace talks with the local population to understand their grievances and seek a common solution. On the issue of local governance for the southern provinces, the KPI group recommended new efforts to explore options for governance arrangements that would be in line with local identities and more conducive to local participation within the framework of the Thai Constitution.

For those in Bangkok, the troubles of the South can seem distant, highlighted only by newspapers articles and television news reports chronicling a steady stream of violence and bloodshed that have resulted in the loss of over 3,400 lives since 2004. Events such as the launch of this peace plan bring the issues back into the public sphere and – most importantly – generate essential discourse and debate on real and workable ways to resolve the southern conflict.

Thomas Parks is The Asia Foundation’s Regional Director for Governance and Conflict based in Thailand. He can be reached at tparks@asiafound.org.

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