Thai hegemony goes south

  • Letters
  • Sunday, 14 Nov 2004


Thailand’s domination of weaker neighbouring territory is not new, but in a period of bushwhacking marginalised peoples, crude methods have proven controversial.Ironically in a democratic era, the dispossessed are no longer prepared to suffer the imperial forays of democratic states

DIFFERENT theories abound for the recent spate of violence in Thailand’s southern provinces: poverty, destitution, racial or religious discrimination, Bangkok colonialism, police-military rivalry for control, and separatist agitation. 

To these, another may be added: regional factionalism within Thailand, with discrimination against southerners. Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra is a northerner, holding positions in four associations or clubs of northern Thais since the 1990s. 

These different theories or factors may all be correct, with each helping to explain a part of the problem. But the central issue is how these come together to explain the whole, and for this there is no better explanation than the age-old Thai colonial impulse. 

Bangkok does not lord it over southern Thais alone, much less victimising only Muslim or Malay communities. The logic of colonialism is to dominate everywhere possible, including across national borders where communities are perceived to be weak and susceptible to power plays. 

As two major countries in Indochina, Thailand and Vietnam have long been rivals in carving out their respective influence in the region. If Cambodia at times seemed manoeuvred by Vietnam, Laos has likewise been “managed” by Thailand. 

A Thai historian I met in Vientiane observed that not only has Thailand dominated the Laotian economy, but 90% of Laotian culture is now Thai. This was part of a private conversation over a casual dinner, not a conference statement, so he was being frank rather than trying to impress Laotian nationalists. 

But economic domination is often seen as job creation and wealth-generating, cultural imperialism is more insidious, and Laotian nationalism has been suppressed by socialism, so there has been less of a backlash from Laos. In southern Thailand where neglect has been allowed to fester and deteriorate, the consequences of overlordship are more stark and painful. 

The added tragedy of the killings in southern Thailand throughout this year is that the rebellion did not originate from the minority separatist struggle in the area. But since Bangkok’s response and attitude have aggravated the situation rather than resolved it, the situation is perilously beyond Thaksin’s control, as one prominent Thai critic put it on Thursday. 

Some 90% of southern Thais are Muslim, many of them ethnic Malays. The Narathiwat Islamic Religious Council recently stumbled on a new problem – the extreme Wahhabi sect is being spread by some people, which if nothing else would divide Thai Muslims. 

Still another tragedy besides the needless bloodshed is Bangkok’s failure to recognise the rich human resources in the southern provinces. Pattani, for example, has produced not just spirited rebels but also renowned Islamic scholars – but if such energies are not properly utilised, they may be diverted and exploited. 

Nonetheless Bangkok’s imperious attitude remains a problem: when Malaysia’s former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad recently suggested autonomy instead of independence for the southern provinces, Bangkok rebuffed it by saying he did not understand the situation. 

Yet Dr Mahathir’s native Kedah is closer ethnically, culturally, geographically and historically to southern Thailand than Thaksin’s hometown of Chiangmai. Since Bangkok’s policies have failed so far, is it willing even to listen to suggestions by others? 

There was a time when Thaksin looked to Dr Mahathir to set the lead, or at least said he did. Dr Mahathir was the first foreign leader Thaksin visited as prime minister in April 2001, whom he later emulated by casting himself as “CEO of Thailand Inc.” 

When Dr Mahathir announced his retirement last year, Thaksin lamented that he would miss his ”big brother.” But apparently, not any more. 

For years, Malaysia assisted Thailand through the work of the General Border Committee, the Joint Development Strategy, and the northern triangle development project – and even assigning moderate Muslim clerics to pacify southern Thais. As prime minister, Dr Mahathir had advised southern Thai communities to stay loyal to Thailand, the country of their birth. 

In return, Thaksin’s government has accused Malaysia and Malaysians of agitation and sheltering rebels. When Thaksin found the US ungrateful for Thai help, he called it “a useless friend” – but Malaysia has refrained from acting similarly with Thailand. 

Bangkok cannot seriously accuse Malaysia of meddling simply by showing concern, since Thailand has done the same with Myanmar for the same kinds of reasons. Now that Malaysia stands accused, the issues become a Malaysian affair as well, especially when the charges are false. 

When bird flu first spread in Thailand the authorities denied it, just as they initially denied the deaths in custody in Tak Bai. But Malaysians were openly accused without proof of “sheltering” rebels in April, and are now accused of fuelling the violence. 

There is a familiar and worrying pattern in Bangkok of denial in the face of evidence, and accusations in the absence of proof. Thaksin is said to hanker after the role of “senior regional leader,” but others in the region may first need to see him govern his own country competently.  

Malaysia faces problem in the north

THE latest round of violence by Thai authorities against southern Thai protesters is just 20 days old, and the controversy continues to mount. 

On Monday, the Islamic Committee of Thailand announced its own investigation to unearth the facts of the 84-plus deaths, showing a lack of confidence in government investigations. Meanwhile, non-Muslims increasingly talk of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s loss of moral authority to govern. 

Disquiet is also at the heart of the Thai government. An official in Bangkok secretly leaked an intelligence report to the media on Monday, days after the report was submitted to Thaksin. 

However The Nation, Thailand’s leading English language daily, found the report vague and self-contradictory. The report described Malaysia’s PAS opposition party as unpopular, yet said it was influential in encouraging revolt. 

In seeming to hedge its bets, Bangkok is now said to be blaming both Umno and PAS for the same misdeeds across the border. The author of this contradiction also forgot that Umno and PAS are bitterly opposed over both ends and means. 

Yet another contradiction is the double allegation that Malaysia is at the same time meddling in, and yet too apathetic about, Thailand’s southern region. It happens that when Bangkok is in a fix down south, Malaysia just cannot win. 

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