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    Southeast Asia
     Sep 8, 2007
Page 2 of 2
Tentative peace talks for Thai south
By Bertil Lintner

(For a detailed explantion of the key groups in south Thailand, see  Who's who in Thailand's Muslim insurgency )

Geneva. But, said a Western source familiar with the situation, a year after the coup, "the government has not yet started to effectively implement the softer policy ... No one [among Thai security forces] has been arrested or detained in connection with Tak Bai or Kru Sae. Those involved have been promoted. People continue to disappear. So in other words, the policy exists in a rhetorical rather than real sense."

Lack of understanding
At the heart of the problem is an apparent lack of official

understanding of the southern insurgents' long list of complaints and grievances. Prior to being annexed by the Thai state in 1902, the three southern provinces, and some districts in neighboring Songkhla province, were ruled by a local sultan. Patani, as it was called before being carved up into different Thai provinces, had a separate identity, of which religion was only one of many aspects. Significantly, there is no insurgency in the fourth southern province, Satun, which also has a Muslim majority.

Before coming under Thai sovereignty via the Anglo-Siamese Treaty of 1909, Satun was part of the Malay sultanate of Kedah, which remained under British rule and now is part of independent Malaysia. Although currently 80% Muslim, Satun never had the same national identity and has been more successfully integrated into Thailand. Today, Thai is spoken in Satun, not the Malay dialects prominent in the other three southern provinces.

The movement in the south began, as HRW points out in its most recent report, "When Thai officials sought to control the curriculum of Islamic boarding schools (ponoh) through the Education Act of 1921. This put Thai authorities and their policy of compulsory assimilation in direct confrontation with teachers (tok guru) of village-based ponoh, who have for many years taken the role of defenders of the faith and upholders of ethnic-Malay Muslim identity." Unrest against the Thai state and its forced-assimilation policies in the late 1940s and 1950s led to the formation of insurgent armies in the 1960s.

Many commentators have attempted to include Thailand's Muslim southern insurgency to a broader global insurgency with links to such international groups as al-Qaeda. Current spokesmen for the southern movement, including Kasturi Mahkota, strongly dismiss such notions, including any links to radical regional Islamic groups such as the mainly Indonesia-based Jemaah Islamiya: "They have never contacted us," he said, and dismissed as "baseless" suggestions that Arabs from the Middle East and other foreigners are involved in the southern conflict.

He instead emphasized that there are really no differences between his PULO group and the Barisan Revolusi Nasional Patani-Melayu-Koordinasi, or the Patani Malay National Revolutionary Front-Coordinate, which are the main groups active on the ground in the south. "We cooperate at all levels, especially matters concerning the Patani national agenda," said Mahkota.

The main divide appears to be between older, more moderate leaders, many of whom live in exile, like Kasturi, who resides in Sweden, and younger, more militant cadres who have been bitterly influenced by recent abuses suffered at the hands of Thai authorities. Often referred to as Pajuang Kemerdekaan Patani, or Patani Freedom Fighters, they can, to quote an interview with a Muslim villager in the HRW report, be seen patrolling villages in broad daylight "armed with AK-47s ... Many village chiefs have been put in power with their consent and served as their puppets ... If you do not belong to them or listen to their orders, you will be dead."

So even if the tentative talks in Geneva achieve positive results, would the older leaders be able to control the younger generation in implementing an autonomy-granting ceasefire? On that score, Mahkota is optimistic: "As the saying goes, 'age brings wisdom'. Young people in the south respect the older generation." Yet it's still unclear whether that is indeed the case.

None of Thailand's new or old political parties vying for election in national polls scheduled for late December have yet to propose a solution to the southern problem as one of their electoral priorities. Whether the next elected government will have the political tack or will required to sustain the fragile peace process, which in the end could achieve unpopular results among the broader population, is also still unclear. But for the country's sake, a solution must be found to an escalating conflict that so far has produced no winners, no losers, but only victims.

Bertil Lintner is a former correspondent with the Far Eastern Economic Review. He is currently a writer with Asia-Pacific Media Services.

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