Hint of ‘self-determination’ in Thai south rankles

PATTANI, Thailand – A recent seminar on rights to self-determination by a newly formed student movement in Thailand’s Malay-speaking south got people running for cover after the Thai Army threatened legal action against a mock vote asking the participants whether they would support a referendum that could pave the way toward a separate state for the Muslim-majority region. The plebiscite would ask: “Do you agree with the ‘right to self-determination’ as the underlying principle behind a referendum that would allow the voice of the Patani people to be heard so they can vote for independence through legal means?“ The army was offended and is thinking about taking legal action. Most Thai officials equate “right to self-determination” in the Muslim-majority far south to separatism. More than 7,300 people have died from insurgency-related violence since January 2004 and the end is still nowhere in sight in spite of a series of peace talks that have yet to move beyond confidence-building measures.   The deputy leader of the Prachachat Party, Worawit Baru, one of the speakers at last week’s seminar, was quick to distance himself from any call for a referendum, saying he was only speaking about such rights in general terms. Other parties also ran for cover. Particularly disappointing to many participants was the leader of the Fair Party, Pitipong Temcharoen, whose party campaigns heavily in the far south, playing up local identity, freedom of speech, justice and equality for the Malay people and their cultural narrative.  Instead of supporting free speech and freedom of expression, Pitipong’s first move was to save his own skin. He posted on Facebook that his party does not support separatism and anybody who embraces such ideas or engaged in such activities should face disciplinary action.  Fair Party deputy secretary general Hakim Pongtigor, an ethnic Malay in the far south and a strong supporter of the right to self-determination who spoke at the event, has been under heavy pressure from his supporters to leave the party because of what Pitipong posted.  “Declaring Patani an independent state is a crime, but talking about it should not be,” Hakim said. (The term “Patani,” spelled in English without the double “t,” refers to Deep South region of Thailand.) Artef Sohko, president of The Patani political movement and one of the speakers at the seminar, said the aftermath of the event was a moment of truth for all the so-called pro-democracy political parties currently trying to form a coalition government. “Instead of standing up to the right-wing media and the government’s information operation as it tries to twist the seminar into some sort of a criminal event, some of these political figures were quick to distance themselves from the event for fear of being labeled as pro-separatist. All the students were asking is whether there should be a referendum for on the right to self-determination. They didn’t call for a separate state,” Artef said. Seeds of separatist sentiment Obviously, the student movement that organized the seminar was pushing that line. Given the new political atmosphere in the country, they felt the need to test the waters. As people who grew up with the constant threat of martial law and emergency decrees, legislation that former prime minister Anand Panyaranchun once called a “license to kill,” these students have observed the changing political landscape in Thailand and believe important issues such as the right to self-determination and referenda should no longer be discussed in the dark. They also know that declaring independence for any region is a crime under Thai law. But judging from the reaction from the Fourth Army Area, the command that oversees the day-to-day security situation in the far south, it appeared that the military will not let the new political landscape take over without a fight.  Indeed, the battle has always been over narratives. On one side, the Malay-speaking far south is an integral part of Thailand. On the other side, the Patani region belongs to the Malays and that the Muslims here have the moral obligation to liberate this historical homeland from the invaders.  One of the speakers at the event, Associate Professor Mark Tamthai, who spoke via video streaming from Chiang Mai, said both sides have always claimed that the people are with them. But there is no concrete evidence, such as a referendum, to support their claim. Tamthai was the chief negotiator for the southern peace negotiation during the Abhisit Vejjajiva government. The recently concluded Thai general election saw democracy and Malay nationalism came up quite prominently in the Patani region. But politicians had their priorities elsewhere; Patani nationalism and talks of a peace process don’t win votes. But they can dodge the issue for only so long. At a recent press conference, Pita Limjaroenrat, the leader of the Move Forward Party and

Hint of ‘self-determination’ in Thai south rankles

PATTANI, Thailand – A recent seminar on rights to self-determination by a newly formed student movement in Thailand’s Malay-speaking south got people running for cover after the Thai Army threatened legal action against a mock vote asking the participants whether they would support a referendum that could pave the way toward a separate state for the Muslim-majority region.

The plebiscite would ask: “Do you agree with the ‘right to self-determination’ as the underlying principle behind a referendum that would allow the voice of the Patani people to be heard so they can vote for independence through legal means?“

The army was offended and is thinking about taking legal action. Most Thai officials equate “right to self-determination” in the Muslim-majority far south to separatism.

More than 7,300 people have died from insurgency-related violence since January 2004 and the end is still nowhere in sight in spite of a series of peace talks that have yet to move beyond confidence-building measures.  

The deputy leader of the Prachachat Party, Worawit Baru, one of the speakers at last week’s seminar, was quick to distance himself from any call for a referendum, saying he was only speaking about such rights in general terms.

Other parties also ran for cover. Particularly disappointing to many participants was the leader of the Fair Party, Pitipong Temcharoen, whose party campaigns heavily in the far south, playing up local identity, freedom of speech, justice and equality for the Malay people and their cultural narrative. 

Instead of supporting free speech and freedom of expression, Pitipong’s first move was to save his own skin. He posted on Facebook that his party does not support separatism and anybody who embraces such ideas or engaged in such activities should face disciplinary action. 

Fair Party deputy secretary general Hakim Pongtigor, an ethnic Malay in the far south and a strong supporter of the right to self-determination who spoke at the event, has been under heavy pressure from his supporters to leave the party because of what Pitipong posted. 

“Declaring Patani an independent state is a crime, but talking about it should not be,” Hakim said. (The term “Patani,” spelled in English without the double “t,” refers to Deep South region of Thailand.)

Artef Sohko, president of The Patani political movement and one of the speakers at the seminar, said the aftermath of the event was a moment of truth for all the so-called pro-democracy political parties currently trying to form a coalition government.

“Instead of standing up to the right-wing media and the government’s information operation as it tries to twist the seminar into some sort of a criminal event, some of these political figures were quick to distance themselves from the event for fear of being labeled as pro-separatist. All the students were asking is whether there should be a referendum for on the right to self-determination. They didn’t call for a separate state,” Artef said.

Seeds of separatist sentiment

Obviously, the student movement that organized the seminar was pushing that line. Given the new political atmosphere in the country, they felt the need to test the waters.

As people who grew up with the constant threat of martial law and emergency decrees, legislation that former prime minister Anand Panyaranchun once called a “license to kill,” these students have observed the changing political landscape in Thailand and believe important issues such as the right to self-determination and referenda should no longer be discussed in the dark.

They also know that declaring independence for any region is a crime under Thai law.

But judging from the reaction from the Fourth Army Area, the command that oversees the day-to-day security situation in the far south, it appeared that the military will not let the new political landscape take over without a fight. 

Indeed, the battle has always been over narratives. On one side, the Malay-speaking far south is an integral part of Thailand. On the other side, the Patani region belongs to the Malays and that the Muslims here have the moral obligation to liberate this historical homeland from the invaders. 

One of the speakers at the event, Associate Professor Mark Tamthai, who spoke via video streaming from Chiang Mai, said both sides have always claimed that the people are with them. But there is no concrete evidence, such as a referendum, to support their claim.

Tamthai was the chief negotiator for the southern peace negotiation during the Abhisit Vejjajiva government.

The recently concluded Thai general election saw democracy and Malay nationalism came up quite prominently in the Patani region. But politicians had their priorities elsewhere; Patani nationalism and talks of a peace process don’t win votes.

But they can dodge the issue for only so long. At a recent press conference, Pita Limjaroenrat, the leader of the Move Forward Party and currently the frontrunner for the prime minister’s post, was put on the spot when asked if a government under his leadership would allow the far south go independent. 

Pita tried to play it safe and suggested that the conflict was rooted in the region’s livelihood, public health, and economy. His party’s anti-military stance blinded him from reaching a thorough and deeper understanding of this century-old conflict that continues to surface generation after generation.

The fact that Pita doesn’t have any Melayu (ethnic Malays) in any key position working on conflict resolution in Patani suggested that he doesn’t understand the sentiment of the people here. In this respect, Move Forward is not much different from other parties. 

The army’s critics like to point to the mistakes and atrocities committed by the state to explain the reasons for armed rebellion. But a new generation of fighters were being groomed in the 1990s when the situation was quite calm. They would surface in mid-2001 but were dismissed by the government of Thaksin Shinawatra as “sparrow bandits.”

An arms heist on January 4, 2004, from which combatants from the separatist Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) made off with more than 350 weapons, forced the government in Bangkok to acknowledge their presence. 

In fact, the narrative that ethnic Malays have a moral obligation to liberate their homeland from the invading Siamese has never died. 

The new crop of incoming Thai political leaders should know that their good intentions will not end the conflict or get the Malays to stop dreaming about Merdeka. They can be as benevolent they want. But a benevolent colonial master is still a colonial master.

While Pita’s off-the-wall statement could be excused because he is not familiar with the conflict and its complexity, Fair Party secretary general Kannavee Suebsang jolted a lot of people with his statement about the need to replace Malaysia with Indonesia as the mediator for the peace talks with BRN, the group that controls the combatants on the ground.

Textbooks on conflict studies may suggest that Malaysia is not qualified as an honest broker because its geographical proximity to Thailand’s Patani region. But nobody in Southeast Asia cares much about what the textbooks say, do they?

There is no honest broker anywhere in Southeast Asia, a region where states are fraught with overlapping claims and territorial disputes – a legacy of the colonial powers.

Whoever comes into the next Thai government should ask the people of Patani, regardless of ethnicity and race, what they really want. If they opt for independence, then the state will know that it has to work that much harder to win them over.

Who knows, the right to self-determination could be that missing term of endearment needed for peaceful co-existence. Indeed, nobody ever said governing was easy.