Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak’s landmark tour to the troubled southern Thailand along with his Thai counterpart Abhisit Vejjajiva is a positive initiative that could eventually pave the way for peaceful resolution of the six-year old conflict.
The visit, which reflects the seriousness of the Thai government to curb the violence in Muslim majority region, is not only a welcome move for the people of southern Thailand but also for the people of Malaysia and Thailand in general as the ties between the two neighbours are improving significantly. This is in sharp contrast to the recent past when Bangkok had been accusing Malaysia of fuelling Thai insurgency. During their historic visit, the two Prime Ministers also officially named a “Friendship Bridge” spanning their shared 650km border.
The seriousness of the problem is evident from the fact that five bomb blasts were witnessed on Wednesday- the very day when the two Prime Ministers visited the restive south- where the violence has left more than 4,000 dead during last six years. A spike in the deadly bombings and shootings has left 10 people dead since Monday, underscoring the magnitude of the issue.
Everyone must understand that the peace process is not going to be easy as the conflict is deep-rooted with cultural and historical dimensions. The provinces of Narathiwat, Pattani, Yala and parts of Songkhla were formerly part of an autonomous Malay Muslim sultanate. Tensions have been simmering in the region since 1902 when the sultanate was annexed by mainly Buddhist Thailand.
The situation became worse during the time of former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra who favoured strong-arm tactics. He gave army sweeping powers to crush the uprising.
Reputed International organistaions including the US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) have been accusing Thai army of gross rights violation in the region. In June this year, gunmen attacked a mosque in Narathiwat, killing 11 Muslims. According to HRW, investigators found gunmen from a Buddhist pro-government militia responsible for the attack. But it took two months for authorities to issue an arrest warrant for the alleged mastermind and he still remains at large.
After coming to power a year ago, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva vowed to find a political solution to the problem but so far he has been unable to fulfil his promises. Despite pledges to find a different course, Abhisit has repeatedly renewed emergency laws that give the 60,000 security forces in the region a broad immunity from prosecution. Most of the area continues to be administered under martial law and recent incidents have heightened dismay among ethnic Malays.
However, it is heartening to note that the Thai government has now realised that the best way to tackle the problem is to find a political situation. The joint visit seems to be a serious step towards achieving this goal.
Although Najib Razak has clarified that the conflict remains essentially the internal affair of Thailand, yet we believe that the involvement of Malaysia-which has strong cultural and historical ties with the region’s Malay population- would definitely give credence to the process. Najib had also been advocating some sort of autonomy for the under-developed region, as a way to address the grievances of the Muslim population.
We hope that joint Thai-Malaysia economic development projects and political empowerment of the Muslim population will help stem the bloodshed in the region. The Thai government also needs to accelerate the pace of development in the area.
On the other hand, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva would have to assert his control over strong military establishment to curb the rights violation in the area. To what extent, he will be able to do this, still remains to be seen.