BANGKOK: Thailand needs help, especially from neighbouring Islamic countries and beyond, to manage the conflict in Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala.
Since the carnage at the Krue Se Mosque in April and Tak Bai last month, the conflict down south has been regionalised, if not internationalised, more than the Thai authorities would like to admit.
Breaking with the Asean tradition, both Indonesia and Malaysia have expressed concerns and the hope that the Thai government will be able to resolve the conflict. Malaysian Muslim leaders have been more critical of the Thai actions in the south.
Obviously, without co-operation and understanding from these neighbours, as well as from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, the Thai-Muslim communities will remain restless. The future of southern Thailand looks bleak.
However, within the ruling party, Thai Rak Thai, a high sense of deja vu has been detected following Thaksin’s TV appearance and tough talk on the south at the end of last month. Sadly but truly, his popularity, which was on the way down before Tak Bai, has suddenly surged in the north and north-east, Thai Rak Thai strongholds. Immediately, the party’s top echelon raised its benchmark and expected to win at least 370 parliamentary seats in the 2005 election, up from 270 before Tak Bai!
Judging from this sentiment, it is hard to foresee any solution in the near term. After all, if this current situation persists, with a harsh governmental response, Thaksin and Thai Rak Thai will probably obtain more votes by fanning the flames of nationalism. Ironically, to use the south as an electoral tool, Thaksin must once again eat his own words.
So far, the Thai government’s response to the international outcry has been recalcitrant and somewhat moot. The diplomatic corps listening to the foreign ministry’s briefing the other day was unhappy with the Thai explanation.
At a security meeting in Beijing on Nov 4, attended by defence representatives from the Asean Regional Forum, the Indonesian delegation dutifully asked the Thai colleagues to brief them on the situation in the south. But the Thais replied deadpan that it was an internal matter.
Internal matter it is, but in the days and weeks to come there could be a paradigm shift. Thailand must be courageous enough to explain what has happened in the south and what should be the remedies. The government could learn a few things from Indonesia and Malaysia when it comes to sensitive issues.
At various times, both have taken the initiative to brief Asean colleagues on domestic conditions that were causing concern. Indonesia briefed the grouping on the situation in Aceh voluntarily and subsequently asked for co-operation. So did Malaysia on the arrests of Islamic militants following 9/11.
Unfortunately, Thaksin’s record of denials is well known when it comes to the quagmire in the south.
With the election approaching, it is highly possible Thaksin will want to portray the south as a regional issue, if that can ease domestic pressure and fit into his political agenda. In other words, he could apportion blame to foreign elements, without getting so specific as to radicalise Thai Muslims, and ask for co-operation.
Doubtless, Thaksin would certainly have a tete-a-tete with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Malaysian Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, the most important Asean friends at this juncture. Their reactions, real or imagined, will have far-reaching repercussions on Thailand’s future relations with Islamic countries.
So far, Bangkok has requested that Kuala Lumpur help with the education in Thai religious schools.
For now, though, Thaksin’s ignorance has obstructed outside goodwill and sympathy. – The Nation/Asia News Network
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