Notes from the Field

A Pathway to Peace for Thailand’s Restive South?

June 13, 2012

In March 2012, a few weeks before Thai New Year which is celebrated every April, a series of explosions rocked a district of Thailand’s Songkla province popular with tourists, and a business district in Yala province. Thirteen people were killed and 400 wounded. The bombings shocked the nation, raising more questions about the competence of the Pheu Thai government and the ability of the Royal Thai Army to quell the persistent separatist conflict that affects the three southern border provinces of Yala, Pattani, and Narathiwat and four districts of adjacent Songkla province.

Peace Festival in Thailand

Nearly 1,500 participants from local communities, government, and armed forces gathered in May for a Peace Festival to discuss key issues in the conflict-affected Deep South.

The region has been plagued for decades by daily shootings, bombings, and other acts of violence that have affected the security and well-being of the Malay-Muslim majority and Thai-Buddhist minority communities. Since the latest cycle of violence in the separatist conflict resumed in 2004, leaving 5,000 dead and over 8,000 injured, successive national governments have pursued a two-pronged strategy of development and security to address the conflict, imposing martial law and deploying over 80,000 armed security personnel in the Deep South.

The recommendations of the National Reconciliation Committee (NRC) established in 2005 –which combined the restoration of civilian justice, recognition of the unique identity of the Malay-Muslim community, and a shift from security solutions to political mitigation – have been only modestly followed through on to date. In fact, according to a 2010 Asia Foundation survey of the Deep South, over one-third of citizens in the region cited the failure of the government to understand the local population as the main cause of the southern conflict. However, over the last few years, central authorities have gradually registered calls from the local community for a greater voice in the peace process. The current administration has adopted a new, three-year strategic plan (2013-2015) that recognizes that the southern conflict is fundamentally ethno-nationalist in nature, departing from past claims that the conflict is motivated by economic inequalities, criminal elements, or international interference, and has begun to embrace key NRC recommendations.

To advance the NRC recommendations and create space for community input in the peace process, The Asia Foundation and 12 local partners launched a grassroots peace recommendation initiative in 2010. The initiative featured a “deliberative dialogue” technique and involved a series of 84 community-level forums in which 3,000 local stakeholders participated – including residents of remote communities that are especially affected by the insurgency movement. Participants included young people, women, religious leaders, government officials, security personnel, young men charged with or detained on suspicion of criminal misconduct related to the conflict, and family members of victims of the conflict. The dialogues allowed local participants to identify the four issues that most seriously weighed on their daily lives: personal and community security; access to justice; education quality; and the high incidence of drug use among young men. A set of four “issue books” similar to white papers were produced. Each issue book presented three alternative resolutions and described actions needed and associated obstacles and trade-offs of each. These books served as the basis for follow-up dialogue sessions, the resolution and recommendations of which were documented in a publication entitled Local Peacemaking: Challenges and Alternatives, which documents areas of common ground and points of disagreement or debate.

One of the priority follow-up actions proposed by local community members, and by women in particular, was the need for mechanisms that enable peaceful co-existence between locals and security officials to ensure personal security. Community members called for the pilot testing of “safety areas” in which communities would assume responsibility for their own security as an alternative to formal military protection. Another recommendation called for the introduction of compulsory cultural and human rights training for security personnel – most of whom are natives of other parts of Thailand and locally recruited armed militia prior to their deployment in the conflict region.

While opinion is divided on the issue of military withdrawal, consensus emerged on the value of adjusting the number of security personnel to an appropriate level below current numbers. Recommendations also focused on the desirability of applying conventional criminal laws and procedures rather than the existing combination of martial and emergency laws, which the community views as vexatious and ineffective. Consensus emerged on the poor quality of government and private Islamic school administration and teaching. Further, as a result of the conflict, many Islamic schools were closed down or subjected to piercing scrutiny by the authorities, suspected of being breeding grounds for insurgents. School-burnings, killing of teachers, and other security challenges have undermined the quality of education. A 2006 study conducted by the Ministry of Education found that only 2 percent of students from the heavily conflict-affected communities of the Deep South were able to graduate from university, and these students scored the lowest in all but one subject on a national test.

Communities, government officials, and security forces share a common concern about the scale of drug use among young men in the South, including addiction to drinks made of krathom – a plant whose leaves can be ground to form a narcotic. Communities recommended that security forces try to adopt a more positive attitude toward the young men as the first step in trying to more effectively reduce drug use, rather than branding them as insurgents.

On May 20, 2012, the two-year dialogue initiative culminated with a Peace Festival convened by The Asia Foundation’s local partners in the seaside community of Saiburi in Pattani province. The festival attracted nearly 1,500 participants from local communities, government agencies, and the armed forces. The opening ceremony included remarks by Police Colonel Tawee Sodsong, secretary general of the Southern Border Provinces Administration Center (SBPAC), the central government agency responsible for the multi-disciplinary civilian administration of the Deep South. Tawee voiced an appreciation of the deliberative dialogue initiative and a commitment to ensuring local recommendations documented in the publication inform SBPAC’s future operations and peace-building initiatives. He agreed that sustainable solutions to the conflict must begin at the kampong or community level. The day-long program included panel discussions on the four key issues, interspersed with cultural performances that highlighted the unique artistic traditions of the Malay-Muslim community. Participants responded to the passionate remarks of discussants in the local dialect with swells of clapping and cheers. [Watch a slideshow of the festival below.]

Widely reported in the local and national media, the Peace Festival included the first-ever, face-to-face discussions between military officials and young men who experienced physical and mental abuse at the hands of security personnel while in detention, with former detainees candidly describing their suffering and the grievances that they have harbored as a result, and military officials apologizing. The forum was further distinguished as the first occasion in which participating military and police officials followed the wishes of the organizers in wearing civilian or local cultural dress and leaving their weapons outside the venue.

The festival closed with the reading of a formal Declaration adopted by the 12 local partners, which said: “We the people of the southernmost provinces have a strong will to take part in ending this sub-national conflict and beg all societal sectors to sincerely support local initiatives … as it might be too late to solely depend on the government.” This impressive and well-received local initiative is a crucial first step along the pathway to peace.

Ruengrawee Pichaikul is The Asia Foundation’s senior program coordinator in Thailand. She can be reached at jieb@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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