Coups Are Bad, but for Thailand, This Takeover May Be Good
Coups Are Bad, but for Thailand, This Takeover May Be Good
Op-Ed / Asia 3 minutes

Coups Are Bad, but for Thailand, This Takeover May Be Good

Thai Coup May Aid Conflict Resolution With Muslims in the South.

All military coups are distasteful, and Thailand's has set back democracy by 15 years, but it may take conflict resolution in the Muslim south a few steps forward.

With the dissolution of the Parliament and constitution, many Thais are going to be focusing their attention on rebuilding democratic institutions and organizing fresh elections.

But the coup also offers an opportunity to rethink policy on the insurgency that has claimed more than 1,750 lives since January 2004.

Deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was part of the problem.

His rivalry with the military was a major obstacle to working out effective policies for dealing with an increasingly violent insurgency, and his aggressive tactics only alienated the local population.

By contrast, coup leader Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratkalin has stressed the need for strategies to win hearts and minds since he became armed forces commander last October.

Now he has a chance to do just that, and he could start by implementing some of the recommendations of the National Reconciliation Commission that Thaksin, who appointed the body, ignored.

The origins of the violence rest in historical grievances stemming from discrimination and neglect of the local ethnic Malay Muslims, and attempts at forced assimilation by successive governments in Bangkok.

Armed separatists have been active in the region since the 1960s, but political and economic reforms in the 1980s eased tensions and violence dropped off substantially.

When it surged again in January 2004, after a lull of more than a decade, the Thaksin government was ill-equipped to deal with it.

It had dismantled the only institution with a track record in conflict management and refused to acknowledge the political nature of the conflict, dismissing the almost daily attacks as the work of bandits and criminals.

A series of ill-conceived policy initiatives, ranging from bizarre (air dropping millions of origami birds from military aircraft and offering free cable television to disaffected youths) to disastrous (heavy-handed military crackdowns, blacklisting of suspects, widespread arbitrary arrests, and immunity from prosecution for security forces with a history of abusive behavior), only worsened the problem.

The almost daily shootings and bombings are perpetrated by a shadowy group of militants who have not yet claimed responsibility for a single attack, let alone articulated clear political demands.

The militants, loosely grouped under the banner of the Barisan Revolusi Nasional - Coordinate [National Revolutionary Front - Coordinate faction] are fighting for the restoration of an independent Muslim sultanate.

They enforce their control through fear as well as politics, increasingly targeting Muslim civilians cooperating with the government.

But there are substantial pockets of support for the movement. The combination of historical grievances and government missteps has been effectively manipulated to mobilize young men - and some women - against the Thai state.

The National Reconciliation Commission spent more than a year consulting intensively with southern community and religious leaders about how best to address these grievances, and presented its report and recommendations to the government in June.

Key recommendations included designating the local Malay dialect as an additional working language for government offices in the south; introducing bilingual primary education; establishing unarmed peace units to mediate disputes before they escalate into violence; providing justice for past abuses by security forces; and setting up a regional development council and a policy coordination body to replace the one Thaksin dismantled in 2002.

This policy coordination center would be empowered to remove errant officials - something locals have frequently demanded.

The commission also called on the government to remain open to the possibility of dialogue with insurgent leaders.

Although the commission's report shies away from the critical question of decentralization, the measures it recommends, if implemented, would be a good first step toward rebuilding trust between the government and the Malay minority.

The proposals received support from key officials in the National Security Council, justice and education ministries, but went nowhere as Thaksin was preoccupied with his own political survival.

Boonyaratkalin, on the other hand, welcomed the recommendations and expressed openness to dialogue with the insurgents.

After an unprecedented series of coordinated bomb attacks in mid-June, Thaksin gave Boonyaratkalin additional powers to manage the conflict, a move that was welcomed in the south.

Southerners are prepared to give Boonyaratkalin, a Muslim, a chance, and many have heralded the coup as an opportunity to restore peace to the region.

The National Reconciliation Commission has provided a blueprint for policies to address the underlying cultural and economic grievances driving the insurgency.

With Thaksin out of the picture, and the military in full control, operational cohesion may also improve. It is now up to the generals to move forward with the much-needed policy overhaul.

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