Southern solutions

Here are some thoughts on autonomy and solutions to Southern problems.

First, I don’t believe straightforward approach is going to work, for now it looks like some people thank that if two sides simply negotiate political terms then everything would go away. Terms are not terribly important here – whether they should have elected governors or special administrative region or whatever.

This is a negotiation between two societies, Southern muslims and mainstream Thai. The solution must be acceptable to the societies at large, terms laid out on paper is a very poor approximation of that settlement, and for now it’s the possibility of settlement itself that is in question.

On Thai side we have a very diverse society and vast majority of Thais don’t really care how muslims in the South conduct their affairs, and I can’t think of anything that would ignite their interest. If cultural identity is going to be a possible problem – Thais have a far bigger challenge with their own new generation. Introducing sharia might give them jitters, but it would mostly be a headache for the government, not for the people who’d be totally unaffected.

The resistance lies in a perceived threat to Nation-Religion-King, and the heart of this resistance lies in a very closed quarters. If muslims can manage to live without threatening that concept, and I believe they can and would, there should be no problem with the autonomy.

It’s like with trying new food – Thais usually shun any unfamiliar stuff and they need to be tricked into trying it, and they need their trusted friends skillful encouragement.

Practically it means the autonomy idea needs to be sold to a few selected individuals first and spread from there. For the sake of convenience let’s say Prem should be that first person, though it could be one of his aides or other members of Privy Council or someone else entirely.

The key here is not the ingredients or the recipe but psychological barrier, and that’s why I think the exact details of proposed autonomy do not really matter.

On the muslim side the picture is a bit more complex. They have the old separatist movement, largely retired, they have new generation of fighters, totally out of control, and they have current set of leaders, largely irrelevant. Ok, not irrelevant, but the formal leadership, MPs, senators, provincial and tamboon elected officials, do not talk about autonomy at all, at least in public. It appears that for them, and for daily governing of the region, autonomy is irrelevant, it won’t offer any clear administrative advantages and possibly reduce the flow of funds from central government. Perhaps for them it would create only more problems as the region is not economically viable to stand on its own feet in the short to medium term.

So there we have the problem of violence by the new generation of insurgents, and two other stakeholders with their own interests – old separatists want the autonomy, current leaders are indifferent.

For some time Thai government strategy was to get the old guard to negotiate and hope that they could somehow reign in the “yawe”. It’s understandable why Thais chose this approach because if it works they’ll get peace with all troublemakers at once, but there’s also a danger that “yawe” would break off any connection with old guard the moment they feel duped into a deal with Thais and we will be back to square one.

As the time goes this new generation of fighters also grows into an old news. Maybe they can still attract new blood for now but as Thais take better control of the breeding grounds and mainstream muslim society grows resentful of their war new recruits will be a lot harder to come by. Also pretty soon the “old hands” will naturally start growing out of it – running around the jungle and cutting people’s heads off is a very “teenage” thing, it might help you score some chicks but you’d better have a real job if you want to marry and get your bride’s father blessings. I’d say the biological clock would run alarm bells in less than ten years, we are five years into the insurgency already so in the next few years the old timers would start settling in and hopefully it would have a pacifying effect on the insurgency overall.

I’m sure Thai planners have taken these considerations in account, and winning the hearts strategy, however imperfect and even counterproductive it might appear, is absolutely necessary, and so are negotiations with whatever party represents the other side, and so is pouring development funds in the region and talking about political solutions, and so is military solution to armed insurgency.

Then, out of the blue, comes Chavalit and declares autonomy for the South in the form of a special administrative region as his party policy. That was an absolute disaster on all fronts. First, as I said earlier, Thai hardliners need a soft and inconspicuous approach, they need to be tricked in considering the idea in a safe and unprovocative enviornment, and Chavalit ruined it all, possibly for good – god knows how much time they’d need to get over this bad impression.

On the muslim side they are not stupid either – they don’t take Chavalit seriously, he’s not in the position to negotiate or promise anything, and they probably see him as an opportunist using the problem to his own political ends, and it also came hot on the heels of Chavlit’s “help” in Cambodia that had exactly opposite effect.

Chavalit’s political benefits are not clear, probably because they were never thought of and he didn’t consult with anyone. It’s not even his party to make electoral promises on behalf of. Autonomy might no go down too well in PTP’s strongholds in Isan – Thai state had long relied on Isanese to defeat the separatism there and many Isanese paid with the lives of their children for that. There could also be an exodus of Isanese who were relocated there years ago to create Buddhist community in the South.

Chavalit himself is also not a new face in the South, local Wadah faction came to prominence under his NAP and later TRT and it didn’t get anywhere and was trashed in 2005 elections. What are the chances of successfully resurrecting them? Perhaps Chavalit was simply afraid that they’d go with Sonthi’s (coup leader) new Matabum party. Either way even his sincerety is in serious doubt, nevermind his abilities to deliver.

Also making autonomy part of a political platform in Thailand’s internal politics effectievly kills any chances of it actually happening – it would become a commodity, stripped of any commitment and traded along with cabinet posts and other political spoils, not to mention the likelyhood of PTP not be able to break up the coalition and assume power after the elections, or keep it long enough to see the autonomy through. It also forced Democrats to take the opposing side even if it’s not where they want to be on the South issue, now they could be easily provoked and manipulated by being asked uncomfortable questions they’d rather not discuss in public.

And that’s why even muslim leaders gave Chavalit a cold shoulder despite being attracted to the idea.

Hopefully Chavalit’s intervention didn’t ruin the negotiations altogether and didn’t spook Prem and Co, and it wasn’t a major blow to the process altogether. Luckly he quickly disappeared from the spotlight without inflicting any more damage.


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.