BANGKOK — A group often overlooked when considering the Deep South’s ongoing separatist conflict is the kingdom’s majority Thai Buddhists.
When I spoke recently to a senior human rights lawyer facing criminal charges over a report on alleged torture there, he said the Buddhist majority’s poor understanding of the conflict is a profound obstacle to finding solutions in Bangkok.
“They don’t really understand the conflict in the south. It’s a big obstacle to any government, even elected government to solve problems in the south,” Somchai Hom-laor said.
This is further complicated now as the nation’s attention is wrested by the insurgency suspected of unleashing a wave of attacks earlier this month which killed four outside their usual operational area of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat provinces.
“Everyone in the Deep South is being blamed although only a small group of people were involved,” Somchai said.
One of the sickest attitudes among some Thai Buddhists is to declare or state on social media that if these Muslims people in the deep south are not happy, they should feel free to leave Thailand.
It shows a poor understanding of history. In the past, those provinces of Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat and parts of Songkhla, were known as The Sultanate of Patani Darussalam and part of a Malay-Muslim heartland which was vassal state to the Ayutthaya kingdom. That is until Siamese conquest in 1785 and eventual annexation as part of Thailand. (Parts of it became northern Malaysia and Siamese rule was officially acknowledged as recently as 1909 under the Anglo-Siamese Treaty negotiated with the British Empire.)
These Thai-Malay Muslims are not occupiers, they lived there prior to Siamese subjugation, so it is sick and ignorant to tell these people “love it or leave it” when the former means accepting a militarized life where detention without charge for seven days was the norm long before it spread to the rest of the kingdom thanks to the 2014 coup makers.
And to label them Thai Muslims, as many mainstream Thai-language media outlets do, denies their Malay identity, which is still very alive in both language and culture. Why then not refer to them as Thai-Malay Muslims?
To make matters worse, some mainstream mass media continue obfuscating the issue, intentionally or not, by referring to separatist insurgents as “southern bandits” (โจรใต้), such as conservative paper Daily News did in a Thursday editorial. Such references mislead the public into thinking these are just bad folks with no ideology out to steal something, while in fact these “bandits” probably see themselves as freedom fighters. (These are the perceptions, and I don’t condone violence perpetrated by any party in the Deep South and consider Tuesday’s use of an ambulance as a car bomb by alleged separatists a new low.)
Bangkok seems so far away from the weekly violence in the Deep South. We watch it on TV from somewhere remote, and it appears like just another news item. This despite the fact that more than 6,500 people have been killed over the past dozen years and many families have lost loved ones.
It’s clear that a decade-plus of militarization has failed to provide any peaceful solutions, and the situation will likely not change unless a majority of the Thai people become more engaged in the issue instead of leaving it to a few experts and activists.
In a marriage, if one party is not happy, he or she should have the right to divorce. Unfortunately Pattani’s marriage to Thailand was a shotgun wedding, if not rape. People there deserve better.