Will Malaysia get the mediator's role to resolve South conflict?

By Wednesday June 10th, 2009 No Comments

It’s difficult for any Thai government to qualify what constituted a successful visit to Malaysia. In this respect, it’s a matter of all’s well that ends well.

This assumption has been more or less the guiding principle between the two countries ever since a new generation of Patani Malay militants emerged in the deep South about eight years ago, putting Thai-Malaysian relations in an unwanted spotlight.

At first, the new generation of militants were dismissed as “sparrow bandits” by the Thai government. But after a daring raid on an army battalion on January 2004 in which they made off with more than 300 pieces of weapons, Bangkok could no longer ignore the political underpinning of the act.

Although it was obvious that the theatre of violence had switched from remote hilltops to towns and villages, Bangkok stuck to its obsolete counter-insurgency methods that included massive build-up of troops sent to the region with heavy fire power. The troops immediately sealed off and placed a number of highly contested areas under curfew.

Until today, the security grid that was put in place immediately after the January 2004 raid, has done nothing in terms of curbing the activities and mobility of the insurgents. Instead, the high number of troops have only provided the insurgents with a wider selection of targets. Roadside bombings and ambushes have become a daily reality as political leaders talk about winning the hearts and minds of the Patani Malays.

It is an open secret that the ongoing violence has revived the old suspicions that originated in the Cold War days when Communist rebels and Patani Malay separatists operated along the common border.

While no one can deny the security concerns of both countries, nevertheless, it was generally agreed that diplomacy should dictate the terms of the bilateral relations.

In spite of repeated statements from both governments that the conflict is Thailand’s internal matter, the conflict continues to make Kuala Lumpur extremely edgy because of the geographical proximity. Thailand and Malaysia share a porous border where people cross back and forth with virtually no interference from the officials.

During the Thaksin government, Thai officials often pointed their fingers at Malaysia, accusing the southern neighbour of not doing enough to curb cross-border activities.

Kuala Lumpur has been quick to point to the fact that militants arrested or taken down in gunfights are all Thai citizens and that the theatre of violence has shifted from the remote hilltops along the common border to towns and cities inside Thai territories. In other words, this generation of insurgents are essentially home-grown with no real link to sympathetic Muslim governments in the Middle East or elsewhere.

Two decades ago, at the height of the insurgency, Patani Malay separatists received training support from countries like Syria and Libya. A blanket amnesty in the early 1990s crippled their military wings on the ground as field commanders and foot soldiers put down their weapons and returned to their villages.

Many remained abroad, taking up citizenship of their respective countries. In recent years, senior political figures in Malaysia and Indonesia – including former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohammed and Indonesian vice president Yusuf Kalla, in their private capacity, have taken a shot at mediating the conflict between the insurgents and the Thai government. But none of their efforts, or the initiatives by foreign NGOs, have gained any real traction, partly because Bangkok could not come up with a policy on negotiating with the separatists, whether they are old guards from the previous generations or the new generation of militants operating on the ground.

As expected, the ongoing insurgency in the deep South was high on the agenda during Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s one-day visit to Kuala Lumpur where he was received by his counterpart, Najib Razak.

As a sign of solidarity, Abhisit and Najib said they would make a joint visit to the restive region “so that the right kind of message can be transmitted”.

Symbolism aside, the decision to visit the region together was a bold move, indeed. At the least, it is a strong statement from Kuala Lumpur that it respects Thailand’s territorial integrity – the artificial political border that cuts through Malays’ historical homeland called Patani.

Abhisit might have to reciprocate by granting the Patani Malays more cultural space. In other words, their citizenship in the Thai state should not have to come at the expense of their membership in the Malay-speaking world. He would have to appreciate the fact that the Patani Malays have an entirely different set of historical and cultural narrative – in this case, a century-old occupation of the Malay historical homeland by invading Siamese forces.

Whether this display of solidarity between him and Najib will translate into something more meaningful – such as giving Kuala Lumpur the full mandate to mediate between the Thai government and the separatists – on the other hand, remains to be seen.

But such a mandate may be hard to come by because many top brass in Thailand see Malaysia, because of the country’s geographical proximity and the historical ties to the old guards, as a stakeholder to the conflict, not a potential broker.

Source : The Nation (Thailand)

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