Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Peace in the South?

Chinese and Thai fortunes at a temple in Pattani. I suppose the rationale for choosing this picture is that answering questions on southern violence involves a particular kind of prognostication.

'hobby' said:

"Your film looks interesting - when will it be released? Also, if it's not a spoiler, I would interested in your thoughts on the following":

  • "what the average southern Muslim think of the extremists?"
  • "how to get the southern situation under control?"
  • "how a lasting peace can be achieved?"
The above questions, asked by a reader at Bangkok Pundit, highlights some of the core problems facing a resolution to the crisis in the deep south. Although I am not sure how qualified I am to answer, I will try to summarise what academics, politicians, and southern residents have told me:

  • 'hobby' asks: "what (does) the average southern Muslim think of the extremists?"
I have put that same question to a many southern Muslims over the last two years and most have answered that they simply dont believe the ideology of Islamic extremism and certainly do not agree with the use of violence. For the majority of Muslims that I have talked to the use of violence is unacceptable but the use of violence in the name of Islam is nothing short of abhorrent.

Yet there certainly is a noticeable level of religious ideology that is finding acceptance, particularly in closed rural villages. Terminology from the Koran, like kafet which means infidel and used when talking about non-Muslims, has been creeping into mainstream use. (to read more on this term and extremist ideology please read the post called 'The Coming Jihad')

In closed villages the fear of authorities (military and police) has been exploited by extremists and villagers are more likely to be open to or accept extreme ideology.

I think its due to a lack of options. If the authorities have shown a history of violence and can not be trusted, an alternative source of power/legitimacy can be found in religious extremism.

But, what we need to keep in mind is that extremism and violence is accepted by very small percentage of southern residents. The overwhelming majority of residents wish for peace and have no sympathy for extremists. (for more information on the mood in the south, May Tan-Mullins' essay 'Voices from Pattani: Fears, Suspicion, and Confusion' in 'Rethinking Thailand's Southern Violence' edited by Duncan McCargo is very helpful)
  • 'hobby' asks: "how to get the southern situation under control?"
The short answer is simply justice. The need for Justice is because southern residents have been caught between a violent state and violent separatists.

Years of military and police abuse in the south has broken the trust that must exist between authorities and the population.

State authorities are simply not trusted because justice for state-sanctioned crimes are never addressed.

Dr Pechdau Tohmeena (พญ เพชรดาว โต๊ะมีนา), daughter of Haji Sulong, told me that her family has always known the specific government officials that killed her father yet some 50 years on, there have never been charges laid.

Not only can the same be said about the missing Muslim lawyer Somchai Neelahphaijit, but the whole issue of Tak Bai needs to be addressed. 76 deaths while in police/military custody (85 total) and not a single person held accountable...not even then Fourth Army Region commander General Pisarn Wattanawongkiri. Tak Bai without criminal charges is an insurmountable barrier between the south and the authorities.

But its not just the authorities that need to be restrained. The militants have proved themselves to be capable of absolutely savage violence and that violence is just as often focused upon the Muslims as the Buddhists.

If the government forces can not protect the general population by arresting those causing the violence they simply can not regain the trust
of southern residents.
  • 'hobby' asks: "how a lasting peace can be achieved?"

No one really seems to know but there are symptoms that need to be taken into consideration that could make a lasting peace possible.

Justice has already been mentioned but it should not be undervalued. With out justice there will be no trust and without trust there will always be rebellion.

Chaiwat Satha-Anand, prominent academic at Thammasat University and member of the National Reconciliation Commission, has argued that an alternate understanding of 'Thailand' might address some underlying grievances in the south. How are southern Muslims, who are also ethnic Malay, supposed to feel about the political state of Thailand when Thai nationalism continues to reinforce the myth that the Thai state represents only ethnic Thais and Buddhists?

The militants will also need to be dealt with. This is not to suggest more violence, which while be inevitable in dealing with extremists, but the root causes of how and why some people in the south adopt and attempt to propagate extremism needs to be better understood.

Other issues such as corruption, the failing economy and reliance upon 'conflict industries', as well as serious education issues all need to come together in a more realistic solution to the crisis.

But the resolution, if there is one, is a generation or more away and it certainly requires more political solutions than hard line military solutions.

Hope that answers your questions 'hobby'.

Oh, and the documentary film should be out in about 5 months. I will certainly post more information when I have a better idea of an exact date, cheers.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Indonesia's Religious Frontline

There used to be an article I wrote about three Christian women imprisoned for proselytizing in Indonesia posted here.

The article has now been published as a lead story at the Asia Sentinel.

Please click here to read the full article.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

สมน้ำหน้า or น่าสงสาร?

Pro-Thaksin/Anti-Junta protesters at Sanam Luang on June 15th, 2007.

Thaksin Shinawatra’s political future has been dealt another serious blow with the Assets Examination Commission’s (AEC) decision to freeze his bank accounts pending a series of investigations into alleged corruption.

The decision, effective immediately, will place 21 bank accounts and approximately Bt 53 billion (US $1.6 billion) in suspension until the outcome of five separate charges are investigated.

The debate that the AEC decision will now inspire can be aptly summarized by two popular Thai phrases; สมน้ำหน้า and น่าสงสาร.

สมน้ำหน้า, or som nam nah, can roughly be translated as ‘it serves (someone) right’1 and there are bound to be thousands of people uttering the phrase with unrestrained glee as they hear of the AEC decision.

Thaksin’s tenure, in the eyes of numerous critics, was characterized by his habitual abuse of power and his obscene wealth is certainly fueling his critic’s anger.

The most notorious of allegations, and certainly instrumental in Thaksin’s overthrow, was the sale of his telcom giant, Shin Corp, to the Singapore based Temasek.

The deal netted Thaksin and his family Bt 73.3 billion and, much to the fury of the critics, went 100% untaxed.

Thaksin is accused of using his position as Prime Minister to manipulate tax laws in the transaction which suggests that his position as a political leader was more about advancing his own business interests than working for the betterment of the country.

For those in the som nam nah camp, the Junta has finally taken off their kid gloves and begun to dismantle Thaksin’s political/financial foundation.

Last week’s decision by the Constitutional Tribunal to disband Thai Rak Thai and ban Thaksin from politics for five years, coupled with the investigation by the AEC, are going to be serious, if not fatal, decisions for the future of the former Prime Minister.

For those saying som nam nah, Thaksin certainly had this coming and the decision by the AEC will be welcome, if not long overdue.

And then there is the other camp.

น่าสงสาร, or nah song san, is translated as ‘it’s a pity’ and the 10,000 plus demonstrators on the Bangkok streets venting anger at the Junta and waving pictures of Thaksin are certainly thinking this way.

For Thaksin’s supporters the AEC decision will be viewed as the further prosecution of their rightfully elected leader.

Thaksin’s popularity, particularly the rural poor who benefited from his 30 baht healthcare scheme, is undisputed.

His success, overwhelmingly proved at the polls, was not simply through populist policies but also orchestrated by his personal popularity.

The fact that he was Thailand’s richest business man seemingly holds no contradiction as self-professed champion of the rural poor.

Thai politics has always been plagued by corruption so why should rural voters, whom have been given unprecedented political attention and pro-poor policies, be fussed about corruption-as-usual?

Now that the AEC along with the Constitutional Tribunal, who were both created by the Junta, have implimented serious efforts to permanently remove Thaksin his supporters will certainly be saying nah song san for their former leader.

More importantly than expressing their pity will be the possibility that they will express their anger.

As previously stated, the streets are teeming with anti-junta/pro-Thaksin supporters and they could turn their sympathy for Thaksin into a serious expression of anger on the streets in the coming days and weeks.

Some, like the editor of the english language daily The Nation, Tulsathit Taptim, are even speculating that Thaksin could instigate a dangerous game of brinkmanship and attempt to start a full scale violent revolt against the Junta.

What the som nam nah and nah song san arguments reveal is how deeply polarized the country is over the former Prime Minister and in Thai politics in general.

The recent decisions against Thaksin, by both the AEC and the Constitutional Tribunal, look more likely to result in further political chaos in the short term than pave the way for national political reconciliation in the long term.

But there is one last group who don’t fall into either camp and their expression might be อะไรก็ได้ or arai ga dai.

Arai ga dai means something akin to ‘whatever’ and there will certainly be some Thais expressing this sentiment.

Bt 53 billion might seem like a lot of money but, as both critics and supports concede, it is widely assumed that Thaksin has transferred ample funds from the country and can live comfortable ‘whatever’ the outcome of the AEC investigation.


1 สมน้ำหน้า or som nam nah is actually an idiom with a more abstract etymology than simply meaning 'serves (someone) right'. Som means appropriate, nam means water, and nah means face. The appropriate (som) word is literal but the water (nam) and face (nah) are not. I initially thought it meant tears but, in fact, it stems from an older - before the arrival of the mirror - concept. The water and face idea is actually an expression of gazing upon one's own face (told to me as looking into the water inside a freshly split coconut) in the reflection of water during a time of soul searching. So, som nam nah really means something like; the appropriate self refection of one who is faced with a conflict of their own creation. Either way of understanding it, it makes an endlessly comical statement when employed at the inconvenience of friends but it makes and even harsher attack upon one's enemy.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Chaturon Chaisang: Second Class Citizen

Chaturon Chaisaeng at the FCCT.

Khun Chaturon Chaisaeng, acting leader of the now dissolved Thai Rak Thai (TRT) party, greeted the assembled press at the Foreign Correspondents Club Thailand this evening with the opening remarks;

"Thank-you for allowing me to use my freedom of speech…one of the last freedoms I have left."

Although the general ban on political parties, which began after the September 19th coup d’etat, has recently been lifted, Chaturon and 110 other members of TRT have been banned by the Constitutional Court from politics for the next five years.

Yet beyond being banned from participation as a political candidate or even a member of a political party Chaturon and TRT seem to be at risk of losing their freedom of speech also.

T-ITV (formerly I-TV until the junta-installed-government decided that a television station not controlled by the military or government was a bad idea and launched questionable legal action and took over the station three months ago) was scheduled to interview Khun Chaturon for a new talk show until the office of the Prime Minister intervened.

A senior staff member with T-ITV informed me that the station was threatened by a government official who said "if they (reporters) interview someone we don’t like" the station’s staff salaries would not be paid.

Since the government take over three months ago the staff have not been paid.

The government has promised that next week the long overdue salaries would be paid but it seems that I-TV must self-censor its broadcasts if they plan to get paid and stay on air.

During Chaturon’s press conference he claimed that the coup and the recent Constitutional Tribunal’s decision are part of the same effort by the military to dismantle the enormous electoral power that TRT commands.

"One can not help thinking that it had all been planed" claimed Chaturon.

What the military establishment wanted all along was to disband the TRT and create a "weak coalition (between the) democrats and the military" claimed Chaturon.

If the junta was sincere about seeking a return to democracy then freedom of the press is essential and freedom for citizens, even those banned from political office, to speak is implicit.

Khun Chaturon is a banned political actor yet he is still an influential figure whose opinion could add to a healthy political discourse in a proper functioning democracy.

Yet, as the ongoing crisis demonstrates, Thailand is not only far from a functional democracy but also appears to be heading in the wrong direction.

Chaturon claimed that the junta was "determined to destroy us (TRT) from the beginning" and he might be right.

Many have questioned the Constitutional Tribunal’s black and white exoneration of the Democrats and the political assassination of the TRT.

Now, if the junta continues what appears to be the persecution of the TRT, they are at risk of permanently derailing a return to Thailand’s once fragile democracy.

Worse yet, by persecuting a political party with 16 million voters, the junta could create political martyrs that will certainly look to the future to exact their revenge.