Deep south the graveyard of Thai leaders' ambitions

Deep south the graveyard of Thai leaders' ambitions
Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha.

THAILAND - For whatever strange reasons, the Thai media keep getting it wrong, according to Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha.

Prayut says the media misunderstood him when he stated that how a woman dresses could leave her vulnerable to a crime like rape. He later apologised to anyone who might have been offended by the "bikini" remark.

Just days ago, he pledged to bring peace to the restive southernmost provinces, where a decade-old insurgency has claimed 6,000 lives. The vow came as part of a prepared statement delivered to troops at the Vajiravudh Army Camp in Nakhon Si Thammarat as he bid farewell to his career in the military and turned his full focus to running the country.

But a day later, Prayut backtracked, saying he had again been misunderstood. What he meant to say, he explained, was that he hoped a peace process would be in place by the end of next year.

To be fair to the junta chief, the clarification had a positive ring to it. After a decade of almost daily violence, any gesture towards peace is welcome.

However, we should not lose sight of the fact that peace efforts in the South are nothing new. The Thai military has been talking to separatist groups on and off for years, depending on the circumstances and the level of conflict.

Until a decade ago, peace efforts were exclusively the work of the Army, but the latest wave of insurgency in Thailand's Malay-speaking deep South has seen civilians become more involved in peace initiatives, albeit without much success.

In 15 months Prayut is hoping all the separatist groups will join Thai government representatives around the table to make progress on securing peace. Thailand will enter the ASEAN Economic Community in 15 months and Prayut is aware that it would be a major embarrassment for the country if the Muslim-majority South were still in turmoil at the time of regional integration.

However, wishful thinking won't be enough. A lasting solution requires some understanding of the nature of the problem on the part of the national leaders involved.

Prayut has expressed worry over the possibility of Islamist movements entering this highly contested region. Such concern is welcome, since it shows he is sensitive to how events in other parts of the world, like the Middle East, could have an impact on Thailand.

But to demonstrate that he truly understands the nature of the conflict, he could say something about the fact that its roots lie in the issue of state-minority relations.

A comfort level was established between the state and the Malay-speaking residents of the South during the five decades after the region came under direct rule of Siam/Thailand. But, since then, a series of ultra-nationalist policies has shattered that mutual accommodation.

Moreover, declaring a deadline for the peace process could result in the state making unnecessary compromises and premature agreements that cannot be sustained in the long run.

This has always been a problem with Thailand's leaders, whether elected or not: They are eager to bring an end to the conflict while they're in office, yet they ignore the fact that a long-term outlook is needed if genuine peace is to be achieved.

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