EDITORIAL: In the South, a new point man, same policy

BANGKOK (The Nation/ANN) - Abdul Rahim Noor’s negotiations are doomed if the Thai government doesn’t bend on autonomy.

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad is coming to Thailand at the end of this month and is expected to introduce to government officials in Bangkok the recently appointed facilitator for peace talks in the Thai South.
The appointment of Abdul Rahim Noor, Malaysia’s former national police chief, has generated a great deal of discussion among observers of a peace process that has failed to gain traction under the military-led government. The lack of progress stems from the fact that the government has introduced no meaningful policy changes for the Malay-speaking southern border provinces, where a separatist insurgency has claimed nearly 7,000 lives since January 2004. 
The junta gave the National Security Council a mandate to oversee conflict resolution – and then appointed a retired Army general, Aksara Kherdphol, to head the negotiating team. Aksara got nowhere because all he was able to contrive was a “Safety Zone” concept – designated violence-free areas where foes could talk – believing it would win over the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), which controls the armed militants in the South but has refused to negotiate. 
Like his predecessors in uniform, Aksara knows about strategy but has little grasp on logistics and even less on the root causes of the conflict, a key aspect that the junta has never addressed. The generals see the ongoing violence in the South not as a conflict but a series of criminal acts, the perpetrators of which must be captured and prosecuted.
Now there is hope that Rahim Noor can convince the BRN to come to the table, but it’s a reflection of Thailand’s illiberal peace, a shallow notion that our security planners have embraced for far too long. Rather, they need to understand that the BRN and other long-standing separatist groups are collectively a symptom of Thailand’s misguided policy of assimilation. Assimilation is what the Malays of Patani began violently rejecting 50 years after the region came under Bangkok’s direct rule, when the border with British Malaya was redrawn. Even in the first 50 years, relations between the state and the Patani Malays were far from perfect, but
the situation was at least manageable.
All this changed when Thai authorities began trying to impose “Thainess” on the ethnic minority populace in the far South, which has insisted on maintaining its ethno-religious identity. The guns came out in the 1960s.
The international community has little awareness of the southern conflict or its back-story. It hears the leaders of a predominantly Buddhist country saying the armed Muslims of Patani are interpreting Islamic scripture wrongly and are being taught false history in their schools. Not even our leaders question where the government went wrong in its policy regarding the far South.
Instead of relying so heavily on Mahathir and Rahim Noor, the government needs to negotiate with the insurgents in earnest and re-establish the same level of comfort everyone enjoyed prior to the ’60s, one based on dignity and mutual respect. Mahathir and Rahim Noor will be under substantial pressure to achieve what’s proved impossible all these years, but the peace process cannot be rushed. 
The junta spent the past four years pursuing ill-considered tactics. It had opportunities to change course and did not, instead stubbornly clinging to the same path and refusing to listen to alternative views. We hope the generals are now ready to listen to and heed good advice.

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