New Straits Times May 6:

A large dose of decentralisation may be good for Thailand‘s vibrant democracy and to resolve problems that threaten peace in southern Thailand.

THAILAND has a reputation for some of the most discreet and effective diplomacy in Asia. Perhaps that has something to do not only with the professionalism of its diplomats but with the low-key approach adopted in the past by Thai prime ministers to international issues.

However, things have changed under outspoken, man-of-action Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. That could make the cross-border issues arising from recent violence in southern Thailand doubly difficult to handle. Already Thaksin has made reported remarks about Malaysia which have had to be withdrawn. Meanwhile, assorted official explanations for the violence have been greeted by doubts at home and abroad.

There is nothing more disruptive of good Asean relations than domestic issues which become internationalised. Even the Afta (Asean Free Trade Area) could be at risk if Malaysia and Thailand let this get in the way of resolving disputes which go to the heart of regional free trade.

The issue in Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat is evidently complicated by the fact that Pas controls the State Government in Kelantan and Thaksin has, for whatever reason, become a partner in US President George W. Bush’s self-proclaimed "War on Terror’ and his occupation of Iraq.

These have nothing specific to do with the situation in southern Thailand, but are very much part of the sentiments which fuel the emotional issues which provide the backdrop.

Fortunately, so far at least, the Thai media, for long unusually obsequious towards Thaksin, has shown less than wholehearted support for the Government’s position either on Iraq or the south. But there is scant sign that Bangkok knows what to do other than send in more troops.

It seems that almost no one has a clear idea of the forces at work in the south. There are some armed Muslim extremists, there are many disgruntled Muslims, youth in particular, ready to take their frustration to the streets or the mosque.

There are business interests who run the smuggling naturally generated by the big price differences which exists for some basic commodities as well as luxury goods.

There are policemen with scant regard for Muslim minorities, and prone to acts of intimidation and excitement.

There are military personnel with poor training in civilian control. And there are rivalries between police and military.

All these elements exist but judging the mix and quantities is the problem.

As for allegations of Malaysian involvement, it is important to distinguish between sympathy for the plight of Malay Muslim brothers across the border and actual support for insurgency.

Given the Malaysian security forces‘ reputation for effectiveness in dealing with militants, Thai allegations of collusion look improbable.

Thaksin’s suggestion that dual-nationality was part of the problem seemed especially inflammatory. However, Malaysia’s offer of sanctuary for refugees, however well-meaning, was not helpful either — at least in the context of relations with Thailand.

There is no easy solution to the problem — even assuming a more enlightened administration from Bangkok and injection of funds into a region which is poor by Thai standards and very poor by Malaysian ones.

But discussing the issue in terms of al-Qaeda and the "global war on terror" is not merely a diversion. It is dangerous, providing al-Qaeda with just the identification with support for oppressed Muslims everywhere which it so desires.

Let us start instead by recognising the historic origins of the issue. There was the nominal suzerainty that Bangkok held over Kelantan, Terengganu, Perlis and Kedah expressed through occasional payments of tribute.

The British formally recognised this as late as 1896 at a time when they were anxious to preserve Thailand’s independence and territorial integrity as a buffer against the expansion of French Indochina.

But the British subsequently backed moves by the sultans to detach themselves from Bangkok — in effect having to accept British "advisers" instead.

However, the Thais did manage to hang on to the Pattani sultanate despite popular agitation.

As late as 1946, there was a move by British interests in Malaya to punish Thailand for its role in the Second World War by forcing it to cede Pattani.

There has over the years been a gradual southward creep by ethnic Thais. Phuket, for example, was once part of Kedah and until the tourist boom got under way 30 years ago as much an island of Malay farmers and fishermen and Chinese traders and tin miners as of Thais.

No one is suggesting that these legacies of history can or should be reversed. But it is well to be aware of a background of unhappiness which goes back a long way.

Thailand generally has a good reputation for absorbing foreign ideas and people into its own freewheeling society.

However, it could learn something from Malaysia’s federal structure and acknowledgment that some differences between religions and cultures are so great that different rules and languages are needed within one country.

A large dose of decentralisation would be good for Thailand’s vibrant democracy, and help resolve a problem which threatens not just peace in the three provinces but relations with Malaysia and thus the integrity of Asean.






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