BOOK REVIEW: Old problem needs new eyes

Bangkok (The Nation/ANN) - For as long as anybody can remember, the official explanation from the government for the root cause of the conflict in Thailand's Malay-majority south has centred on two items: distorted Islam and distorted history.

In other words, these drug-crazed youths took up arms because they rejected the official version of Thai history and became caught up in a false reading of Islam.

And, between the public's sympathy for officials working in the deep south and indifference to the historical grievances of the Malays of Patani, successive governments were given a free ride in their dealings with the conflict.

From the start of this wave of insurgency, one man who spoke out and told the Thai authorities that they were barking up the wrong tree was Professor Duncan McCargo of Leeds University in England.

In his 2006 book "Tearing Apart the Land", which won praise throughout academia and broadly overseas, McCargo examined the legitimacy of the Thai state in the historical Malay homeland known as Patani. Unless the Thais came to terms with this very sticky issue of legitimacy, he argued, the conflict would never end.

There were high hopes in certain quarters that McCargo's advice would generate fresh thinking among the bureaucrats and policy-makers. What set him apart from others academics was that the man actually spent years in the south. He didn't pretend to have a solution, and he evaluated the situation as he saw it.

As with his other writing on Thailand, McCargo's research in the south generated a great deal of discussion, but the various roundtables were pretty much confined to academics and civil-society activists. Government officials would drop in but resist every appeal to step out of their comfort zone. They stuck to the "distorted history and wrong Islam" line and refused to take a risk.

Thai bureaucrats avoid risks and, similarly, Thai policy-makers lack the political will and courage to push through certain ideas, no matter how sound the ideas might be. However, growing concern in the international community and friendly nudges from friendly countries have led some Thai officials to quietly admit that the official government line is getting old.

For too long they have employed this absurd line whenever asked about the deep south. "I am Thai. You are farang," they say, as if to explain. "You don't understand." It's a pitch that will have to make way for frank discussion about the issue. After all, more than 5,000 people have been killed since January 2004, and the end is nowhere in sight.

It is wishful thinking to hope the separatist militants will surface so that our officials can "talk sense" to them. McCargo, in his previous book and his latest, "Mapping National Anxieties", is saying the Thai state would end up waiting forever, and in vain, for that to happen.

The problem, McCargo argues convincingly, is with the state itself. No matter how successful they might be in dealing with other races and immigrants, the powers-that-be have no luck with the southern Malays, who are fellow Thais. And as long as the Malays of Patani continue to be treated as colonial subjects, they will never buy into the state agenda.

"Mapping National Anxieties" collects McCargo's essays from over the years. It is one of those books best appreciated when read alongside another, in this case "Tearing Apart the Land".

The timing of the release couldn't be better, because the current government, widely regarded as spineless, is actually thinking more in political terms. It's looking at ways to get the country's mainly Buddhist majority to buy into any policies deemed favourable to the Malays in Patani. This won't be easy, McCargo suggests in Chapter 2, "Buddhist Fear".

Gaining the general Thai public's acceptance would require sounds communication. Chapter 5 addresses the inherent difficulties and adds that part of the problem has to do with the chief messenger - the news media. The local media have indeed been too quick to accept any official line unquestioningly.

Meanwhile the fact that the Buddhist majority sympathises with authorities working in the south isn't an endorsement of government PR. It just means the citizenry is indifferent to the Patani Malays' historical grievances. If the government needs the public to accept whatever policy it proposes, it might have to eat its words.

If the government decides to stay the course and adhere to the same handy political explanation - drug-crazed youths led astray by a corrupted form of Islam - it will still have to make way for more sensible discussion. Whether the government will go as far as admitting that the problem lies in its own concocted narrative remains to be seen.

That old explanation was meant to divert public attention from the real root causes, but even after nine years of listening to a broken record, making a new official line sound credible will be a challenge. Someone is bound to ask, "Are the militants no longer on drugs, then?"

"Mapping National Anxieties" is not about "slamming" Thailand, as some officials might perceive. It offers ways for our leaders to rethink the nation-sate construct. Take our notion of citizenship, for example.

McCargo notes that immigrants of Chinese origin are viewed as model citizens, whereas the Patani Malays are castigated for insisting that they are their land's indigenous people and in no way subordinate to a second identity.

It's not clear when Thais authorities will abandon the strategy of trying to turn the citizens of Patani into something they don't want to be. The daily bombings and roadside attacks have yet to convince political leaders and the public that the ambition is hopeless.

The "drug-crazed youths" line is not merely "out of date", McCargo argues. It should never have been uttered in the first place.

The next obvious step for Thailand's leaders, it seems, is to come up with the courage to venture out of their comfort zone and explore other possibilities. Reading "Mapping National Anxieties" would be a good start.

Mapping National Anxieties: Thailand's Southern Conflict by Duncan McCargo; published by Silkworm Books, 2011.

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