Saturday, March 8, 2008

Samak's Divisive Nationalism

In a recent article in The Nation, Prime Minister Samak claimed that Thais would not do anything to harm their country and, to follow his logic, that would mean that those involved in the insurgency in the deep south must not be Thai.

From The Nation - PM blames "outsiders" for southern violence:

"Samak blames 'outsiders' for insurgent attacks, asserting that Thais don't do things that harm their country."

Such utterances might be brushed off as Samak's usual acerbic style but, at the intersection of Thai-nationalism and discontent in South Thailand, such comments only serve to increase the divide between Bangkok and the deep south.

A long-standing grievance held by Malay-Muslims in Southern Thailand is the often repeated suggestion that they are 'guests' in Thailand.

The Thai term keak (แขก) means a guest and particularly a guest of Indian or Arab descent. It is not necessarily a bad word on its own, but the term has often been used in Thai discourse when talking about Malay-Muslims in the southern provinces.

The trouble is that the Malay-Muslims are, of course, citizens of Thailand.

The awkward suggestion that Malay-Muslims are only guests in Thailand is not just offensive but should be understood in context of the region's history.

The southern provinces were an independent Islamic sultanate that Thailand officially annexed in 1903 and has administering like a colonial possession ever since.

To call Malay-Muslims guests in the country of their birth is an insult. To call them guests in the land of their forefathers feeds rebellion.

This might seem to be nitpicking and unfairly taking Samak to task over minor linguistic subtleties but that is not the case. As the Prime Minister, Samak is responsible for setting the tone of how the government will attempt to reign in the escalating violence in the South.

By suggesting that those responsible for the daily acts of resistance to Thai rule are not Thai, Samak has made a foolish blunder.

Essentially, Samak is encouraging ethnic/religious polarization by forcing citizens to chose between simplistic notions of Thai nationalism or the simplistic label of foreign separatist.

As the situation in the border provinces has been sliding ever and ever closer to a conflict based on ethnic/religious lines, Samak's divisive remarks are not just strategic blunders but will encouraging conflict between Thai-Buddhist and Malay-Muslim communities.

The Nation's article ends with:

"My visit to Malaysia will give me a clearer picture of the situation," he (Samak) says.

Yet it seems that Samak needs more than a clearer picture. He will need tact, diplomacy, and a sound strategy to prevent the southern crisis from escalating.

But, as Samak has already demonstrated, he has little tact or diplomacy.

One can only hope that Samak will at least have a strategy.

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