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Promises made before votes are often broken

Thailand’s Pheu Thai Party’s proposal to give the three southernmost provinces some degree of autonomy sounded like a political campaign platform ― but on closer examination it looks more and more like a cheap ploy to win votes.

What’s worse, its proponents are exploiting the sentiment of the Malay Muslims of the deep South, who deserve better.

In this heavily centralized country of ours, decentralization is a good thing. It needs to be done in a national context, not regional. Even if it succeeds in getting a legislature for Pattani, that success could very well generate resentment from other regions in the country.

Besides, what does this autonomous status guarantee? Given the fact that the vast majority of the people in the three southernmost provinces are of Malay ethnicity, it is very likely they will elect a Malay governor, as well as Malay district chiefs, if that’s on the table. The head would change from that of a Thai Buddhist to a Thai Malay. Moreover, talk in the teashops in the deep South says that Malay Muslim officials are just as corrupt as the Thai Buddhists.

Or perhaps these Pheu Thai Party candidates think it’s better to pay off Malay officials than paying off Thai Buddhist officials. Corruption is rife in this country and runs deep regardless of one’s ethnicity or religious or political affiliation.

Like everything, the devil is in the details. Local residents in the deep South are interested in the proposed details if they are real, not some cheap rhetoric from lawmaker wannabes. They want to know about real equality and justice, not whether their regional master will be a Muslim or a Buddhist. They want to know about a safe and secure environment, the future for their children, their place in the Thai state and whether their historical narrative and unique cultural heritage will be respected.

And in spite of the fact that it has been over a century since the region was annexed by Siam, the Malays of the deep South and the Thai state have yet to find that level of comfort with each other ― the kind of comfort the state has succeeded in establishing with all other ethnic groups, as well as the former communists who came to the deep South to make a life for themselves.

Time and again the Malays in the deep South have shown that they are willing to be part of Thailand, but on their own terms. The state, on the other hand, has kept pestering them with the Thai state-constructed identity and narrative. The authorities cannot seem to realize that the Malays are not like the Lao people of Isaan or the Chinese of Bangkok.

If the new lawmakers want to contribute to peace and reconciliation between the deep South and the rest of country, they need to work with the state to identify these terms. And if we are to understand that the conflict in the deep South stems from failed negotiations between the two sides, then, historically, policymakers and elected representatives have failed miserably in bridging this gap.

It should be noted that the same people who are calling for a Nakhon Pattani come from the same breeding ground of the now-defunct Thai Rak Thai Party. Where were they when Thai troops were gunning down unarmed demonstrators in Tak Bai district, or tossing young men into the back of military transport trucks, where they suffocated to death? Did they say anything then, or were they too afraid of their political master, Thaksin Shinawatra, who did so much damage to any chance of a peace process? We all know that if the tables were turned and such a massacre was to take place anywhere else outside the Malay-speaking south, folk rocker Ad Carabao would probably have written 50 songs to commemorate the tragic event.

But these people are Malays. They speak a different language. They don’t look like Thais or dress like us, and worse, they are an ungrateful, disobedient bunch. And so in the hearts and minds of the general public outside the deep South, they get what they deserve when their sons get tortured or their imams die suspiciously while in police custody. We are indifferent because we don’t like the fact that they don’t embrace our “Thainess,” or kwam-pen Thai.

But at this juncture, the onus is on the candidates. Will they speak about issues that matter to the people of the South, or will they continue to look for ways to strengthen their political power? If history is any lesson, then we can forget about a meaningful campaign. 

(Editorial, The Nation (Thailand))

(Asia News Network)
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