For 15 years, the Thai army has been doing the same things over and over and expecting different results. It’s time for change.
On the surface, the Fourth Army Command has it right – the conflict in the Muslim-majority far South is a battle for hearts and minds.
But the command has gone overboard with its latest plan, which requires government soldiers to live alongside villagers to reduce insurgents’ influence on civilian residents.
Fourth Army Area commander Lieutenant General Pornsak Poonsawat said the soldiers assigned to live in villages in Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat had gone through proper training.
Meant to reassure, those words were instead a dismal echo of statements made by his predecessors over the past decade. During this time, tensions between local residents and Thai security forces have remained unchanged.
The army says the presence of the soldiers will undermine insurgents’ influence over the villagers, the vast majority of whom identify themselves as Malay Muslims.
How the troops might achieve that mission goal is unclear. It shares the same haziness of purpose and potential risks as a similar plan, in which school grounds were used as camps for Paramilitary Ranger units, potentially placing children in the line of fire and their classrooms in the crosshairs.
The army claims that its core mission in the South is to restore confidence and bolster measures to protect civilians, including Buddhist villagers.
However, this military “solution” to the violence has been employed for 15 years now, without success.
It’s time for the troops to step back from the “us v them” mentality that has alienated the local Malay-Muslim population and instead offer a “safe space” in which the two sides can forge trust and strengthen their relationship.
Thai security forces must now acknowledge that they are not perceived as honest brokers in the far South. No matter how benevolent they try to be, they remain colonial masters in the eyes of the local Malay Muslim population.
Meanwhile, a serious campaign to promote civility and norms, namely International Humanitarian Law (IHL), is necessary to cool tempers on both sides of the armed conflict.
However, the Thai top brass are uncomfortable with the IHL concept as they fear it would help further legitimise the cause of the insurgent militants.
The militants have already succeeded where the Thai government has failed – in capturing the hearts and minds of local Malay Muslims who constitute more than 85 per cent of residents in the far South.
Thai military leaders prefer to treat the violence as criminal rather than political. In their eyes, to acknowledge the crisis as a historical conflict governed by IHL would be effectively legitimise the insurgents.
Whatever label one uses to describe violence that has claimed 7,000 lives since January 2004, one can’t deny that people on both sides are being killed.
The victims include security officials who fall under the command of a top brass who forge this self-serving policy.
Another example of military short-sightedness is the push to have religious leaders in the South issue fatwas that separatist insurgents do not have religious legitimacy to take up arms.
This strategy is doomed to fail since the conflict is not rooted in Islam or religion per se.
The separatists’ cause has always been an ethno-nationalist one.
Religion can be used for positive gains, but should not be exploited for short-term political and security gains.
Besides, such an approach risks the lives and security of Muslim leaders.
The Thai state could use this period of political transition to pause and review its peace-building efforts and strategy in the deep South.
More than a decade and a half into this latest wave of insurgency, Thai security planners are no closer to bringing peace and reconciliation to this historically contested region.
A change in strategy is needed that opens a path to genuine peace. The nation (Thailand/Asia News Network