The Autonomy Problem

So what is this autonomy thing? What does it mean?

Forget about Chavalit, he is not known for clarity and consistency, and he’s already backtracked on his original “Nakhon Rat Pattani” name.

What does it mean to the rest of the country? Some saw it was Sultanate of Pattani. That would presumably mean they get their own sultan instead of Thai King, and they’ll send their “tributes” once in a while. I don’t see how Bangkok would ever agree to that, so it’s a non-starter.

Abhisit views autonomy in terms of decentralization, transferring more executive powers and funds, like they do in Bangkok with its own governor, and, if I’m not mistaken, what they plan for Phuket. For now there are local governors appointed by Interior Ministry and there’s resurrected SPBAC, a joint military/local leaders body, that is supposed to work as a team. For now it’s also under Interior Ministry but is in the process of getting transferred to Prime Minister’s office directly. Previous incarnation of SPBAC was very effective so Abhisit hopes it would be the better solution.

Insurgents have not stated any political goals but it’s assumed they fight for full independence.

Older generation of separatists gave up on independence and would fully embrace the idea of autonomy instead.

People on the ground, including the elected officials at Tamboon and Provincial Authority levels and MPs apparently do not care one way or another. Whatever works.

So here is the first problem with granting the autonomy – it’s the prize that has been won by the insurgents but will be given to the old, largely irrelevant geezers instead. Will it stop the killings? Maybe, in the short term, but since it’s not what insurgents want, they won’t put up with it for very long. Eventually the region could be overrun by bandits like it happened in Chechnya, or, more likely, the insurgents will turn on the new set of leaders and new institutions accusing them of betraying the Cause.

Next problem – what level of autonomy? Bangkok and elsewhere in Thailand want autonomy to streamline the governing process, cut through red tape and so on – it’s a managerial need. What various groups want in the South is something entirely different. People might agree with improving the executive branch but separatists, both old and new, want a new set of laws and a new set of institutions, not better tools to implement the existing ones. They want to effectively replace Thai state and its mechanisms with their own rules, not simply fill Thai state positions with the locals.

Pardon me for not being politically correct, but I’m a bit apprehensive when I think about muslims instituting their own laws. They don’t have particularly good records.

Bangkok would never agree to this, too. Another non-starter.

What might happen is that there will be some sort of public referendum, an agreement reached, and only then people would realize that there are fundamental differences in how they imagined the actual result. Some will feel triumphant, others will feel duped, and a new set of problems will emerge in no time.

Don’t discount the possibility of the mass exodus of Buddhist population.

Also don’t forget the readiness, or the lack thereof, to actually run the region with their local human resources. Look at Iraq – the country was perfectly capable of self-governing in the past but not so much anymore. Afghanistan would soon celebrate a decade of “liberation”, but, as a government, it’s still in the stone ages and would likely remain so for the foreseeable future.

What will happen in the South if Thai state withdraws? As I said, there’s no grassroots push for autonomy, so there will be power struggles between various groups with various degrees of self-interest, and the people will be totally excluded and abused.

It looks like Abhisit’s proposal of a powerful body answerable to the PM and staffed with both Thais and local leaders is the best way forward indeed.

Finally, some think that Chavalit’s idea would win muslim hearts for PTP. Maybe so, but there are risks as well – if they seem half-hearted and impractical, muslims will dismiss them, and if they seem determined and capable of actually delivering the autonomy – it won’t go down well with the Isanese who have often been on the receiving end of the insurgency. Autonomy won’t win PTP any votes outside of the South so they have to play it very carefully.

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2 Responses

  1. What I don’t understand is why nearly all of those in power (apart from Abhisit) would not even consider the idea of autonomy or devolution at all. They would always say things like “It’s not possible under Thai law”, “Thailand is a unitary state and cannot be divided” etc etc. I’m pretty sure that, for all his flaws, Chavalit wasn’t the kind of fool who would actually propose something that would directly contradict the law.

  2. I think they can put it into law without even amending the constitution.

    At some point the guardians of Thai identity would realize they can’t simply enforce it by laws or guns, and they can’t force southern muslims to love them either.

    I think they can simply sit it out, however, separatism is not particularly strong among the general population there and from the governing angle autonomy is probably not the best solution to managing local affairs.

    They just have to give the southerners the feeling of pride in their “unique” identity, locals there don’t want anything more than that. Thailand should go for “benevolent empire” image.

    Secessionist feelings are temporary. Twenty years from now they’d want back, like Gibraltarians who don’t want to lose their British passports now.

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