People in the Thai Deep South call for transparent peace dialogue


Saudi Gazette

YALA/PATTANI — In the Thai Deep South, 2017 saw a sharp reduction in the regional violence that has seen almost 7,000 people killed since 2004. Last year, 235 people were killed as opposed to a high of 892 in 2007.

While people in the Deep South provinces of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat welcome the decrease in violence, they have increased their call for a continued peace dialogue between the government and local insurgents.

Local government officials, academics, businessmen and activists told Saudi Gazette that a transparent peace dialogue is necessary to address the roots of the problem.

In fact, intermittent and mostly secret peace negotiations have been underway since 2013 between the government and Mara Patani, an umbrella group which claims to represent a variety of insurgent groups. In February, an agreement in principle was announced to create a pilot “safety zone” and it was recently announced that Narathiwat’s Cho Airong district has been chosen and that a joint action committee has been set up to follow through on measures to ensure that the district is free of violence. The proposal has been met with skepticism by some who describe it as a confidence building exercise.

When asked about the reasons for last year’s reduction in violence, Mr. Kitti Surakamhaeng, Deputy Secretary General of the Southern Border Provinces Administration Center (SBPAC), said that the developmental efforts by SBPAC along with those of the military and local community groups are largely responsible. He added: “Furthermore, people have begun to see that stability and peace lead to a better life and better economy for everyone. Dialogue and development equal peace and stability.”

SBPAC works for the development of the region to increase the welfare of the people by stimulating the economy and encouraging education.

Mr. Kitti pointed out that three triangle cities are being set up in the three Deep South provinces. Agro industry, tourism and border trade projects will be models for the entire region. Betong airport in Yala province will be opened for domestic flights next year and expanded to accept international flights so that the area can become a center for tourism.

He explained that SBPAC provides compensation to the families of those killed as a result of violence in the region. Families receive 500,000 baht (SR 60,000) compensation along with provision for the education of all of the children in the family to the BA level and help in furthering their careers.

Mr. Muhammad Ayub Pathan, Chairman of the Civil Society Council of Southernmost Thailand, said that local people feel that in comparison to previous years, they have a better life.

He said: “There is evidence that things are better. For example, you can see that tourism from Malaysia has increased. Malaysians can drive their cars across the border. You see big motorbikes driven by young Malaysian tourists. This is happening more than before.”

With regard to the future, he said: “In the next five years, people in all walks of life will increasingly support dialogue. Peace surveys are conducted periodically by a consortium of universities. The results of a recent survey of more than 1,500 people show clearly that everyone supports dialogue, even those who do not have much knowledge about it. And in five years the results of dialogue should be successful in the region.”

The survey asked people what they thought were the solutions to the conflict and what specific issues they wanted to see put on the table for discussion. Mr. Ayoub said: “It is clear that people want safety, security and justice to be discussed as part of the peace dialogue. And furthermore they want any peace dialogue to be open and fully transparent.”

As in other parts of the world the growth of social media websites has promoted openness in the Thai Deep South. Mr. Ayoub said: “Civil society groups which have seminars share everything openly on Facebook and other social media platforms. There has also been an increase in ‘citizen journalists’ as more and more young people use social media to share their view of local events.”

He added: “If you have open platforms for discussing issues this is better than attempting to hide what is going on. People have to be able to have information from different sides so that they can have a clearer picture of the regional situation. Nothing should remain hidden.”

Asked to name the most important regional issues which must be solved, Mr. Ayoub began with justice. He said: “I have met with many people and they all raise the issue of justice under the emergency laws imposed on the region by the government. Of course, there are valid reasons why the government has had to impose such laws. However, one way to solve this problem is through dialogue by placing the issue of justice on the table for open discussion.”

He then added safety to the list saying that civilians are the ones who are most affected by violence in the region. When violence occurs and innocent people suffer, everyone is afraid for their own safety. He then pointed out that the local economy has been greatly affected by the decrease in the world price of rubber and that alternatives to rubber as a source of income must be found. Finally, he said that people in the region want to preserve their own culture and identity.

When asked how these issues can be resolved, he answered: “Dialogue. Now, everywhere I go everyone says: ‘Let them start talking’. People are calling for dialogue. They say that if all of these issues are put on the table, they can be solved one by one through dialogue between both sides.”

Dr. Yusof Talek, Director of the College of Islamic Studies at Prince of Songkla University Pattani Campus, added the need for quality education to the list of issues facing the people in the Deep South of Thailand. He pointed out that the three southern provinces rank near the bottom of Thailand’s 76 provinces in terms of educational achievement.

He said: “We have a lot of schools, but our schools cannot compare with the quality of schools in other parts of the country. When our students graduate from our schools, they cannot compete in the job market with the graduates of other schools. Some of our people say, this is because we are Muslims, but actually it is because of the education they receive in our schools.”

The College of Islamic Studies is working to address this problem. Dr. Yusof said: “We have established a Demonstration School on the university campus. The school, which is in its second year, teaches science subjects along with Islamic courses. The school, curriculum and system of teaching are meant to be a model for other schools in the community to help improve the quality of education.”

He added: “We need to produce scientists, but we need to produce scientists who know how to have Islamic values in daily life.” Dr. Yusof made it clear that only open peace dialogue would lead to an improvement in people’s lives in the region and that this was the only way to finally solve the problem of education and the other issues facing local communities.

Mr. Teeruth Supawiboonpol, Director of the Bureau of Justice Administration at the Southern Border Provinces Administration Center (SBPAC), said that solutions to the problem of education in the region must start at an early age so that students can learn how to live with each other in society. He said: “Give people a chance to see clearly that after receiving an education that they have opportunities in the region for their future. This is one reason why the emphasis on vocational studies has been increased.”

Assistant Professor Cheloh Khaekphong, Director of the Academy of Islamic and Arabic Studies at Princess of Naradhiwas University, explained that the Academy has been providing academic services to communities in the Deep South provinces and encourages research with regard to the use of the mosque as a center for community development. The Academy works with curriculum and teacher development to attempt to improve the education provided by local schools.

While stressing the need for open dialogue, he also emphasized the importance of preserving local culture. The Academy has a variety of programs aimed at cultural conservation and it works to develop academic cooperation with both local and international universities, institutes and religious organizations.

With regard to those increasingly active in attempting to stimulate dialogue in order to find solutions to the problems of the region, Mr. Ayoub, Chairman of the Civil Society Council, stressed the changing role of women in society. He said: “There have been many changes in the role of women in the region. It was actually a women’s civil society group that suggested to the government that there was a need to create safety zones in the region. Five years back, Muslims in the South believed that the place of women was in the home. But now you can see women involved at almost every level of society.”

Asked the reason for this change in the role of women, he explained: “Women are, of course, concerned about family matters and they have seen their sons, husbands and fathers killed and injured. Women have seen that men have not solved the problem. Also people are less suspicious of women and of their motives if they are seen in this role rather than men.”

He also pointed out that apart from Muslim women’s groups, the last five years has also seen an increase in Buddhist groups and groups of young people working on civil society issues and an increase in cooperation among groups.

The efforts of these groups along with those of SBPAC, the military and the community outreach of local universities have all contributed to last year’s decline in regional violence. However, it is clear that although the people of the Thai Deep South are heartened by the improved security situation, they will not be satisfied until the major issues affecting the region are put on the table for discussion as part of an open and transparent peace dialogue.