The people of the Deep South of Thailand, where unrest has led to the death of about 7,000 people since 2004, want peace and security. That was the message from local government officials, academics, businessmen and activists in the Thai provinces of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat. When asked how security was to be returned to the region, Saudi Gazette was told that all parties must sit down at the negotiating table.
In fact, negotiations to find a solution to the decades-long insurgency in the region have been underway since 2013 between the Thai government and the Mara Patani, an umbrella group that claims to speak for insurgent factions. On Feb. 23 of this year, it was announced that negotiations, which are facilitated by Malaysia, had led to an agreement on a series of steps to be taken to increase regional security. However, it remains unclear if that agreement will hold, especially in light of some insurgent attacks that have taken place since the agreement was announced.
Mr. Panu Uthairat, former Secretary General of the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Center and member of the National Legislative Assembly, told Saudi Gazette that there were four main ways to reestablish security in the region:
Everyone must be willing to talk and must sit down at the negotiating table,
The talks must be about solving the security problem,
Any proposed solution must be within the law, and
All parties must negotiate in good faith.
Mr. Muhammad Ayub Pathan, Chairman of the Civil Society Council of Southernmost Thailand, said that the majority of the people in the region are concerned about peace and security. He said: “People talk about safety for themselves and their families. In seminars and women’s groups and other meetings in society, people are only talking about how to make their lives more secure.”
He added: “That’s why you have to listen to the people from the area. You have the Thai government and the Mara Patani negotiating, but you have to listen to what the people of the region want.”
Dr. Ismaillutfi Japakiya, Rector of Fatoni University in Yala, said: “The only thing that can bring everyone together is peace. Talk and dialogue is the only way to bring people together. Even if you are one person, you can talk about peace to thousands of others. Peace is different than weapons. Violence has been tried for many years, but it does not work. It is not a solution.”
Dr. Ismaillutfi added: “Since I opened the university in 1998, before 9/11, I have taught students about peace. As former Co-Chairman of the Inter-religious Council of Thailand, he stated: “We have no conflict because of religion in Thailand.”
Dr. Sukree Langputeh, Vice Rector of Fatoni University, explained how the university is attempting to find solutions to the region’s problems.
He said that the rector of the university had come up with the idea of a compulsory peace studies program. He said: “It was initially introduced in courses for first year students to give them the basic ideas about peace, but the program failed because students needed to be able to engage with more critical thinking.
“So we sat down and revised the curriculum and put the peace studies program in the third year. It is taught to all students in English, Thai, Arabic and Malay because these are the four languages used in various departments of the university. The language used to teach peace studies corresponds to the language of the department in which the student is studying.”
At Fatoni University, students study the concept of peace in Islam, Christianity, Buddhism and other religions. Students then put these concepts into practice outside the university. Students visit communities to see how people of different faiths are living together. The program is a compulsory three-credit course, 16 weeks in length at three hours per week. Students spend a portion of that time doing fieldwork in the community.
Dr. Sukree said that at the end of the course, students participate in a seminar and present the findings and results of their fieldwork. “At the seminar, people from different parts of society, including the military, are represented to give their ideas about peace,” he explained.
While peace studies may have been offered at other universities before, it was always an elective subject, but at Fatoni University, it is compulsory and all students must pass the peace studies course in order to graduate “We have students from 22 countries studying at the university,” Dr. Sukree said, “and all of them must take the peace studies course.”
Dr. Ismaillutfi said that he thought that Fatoni University was possibly the first to make peace studies a compulsory subject. “We are ready to hold classes and seminars on peace for everyone. Even people from the military are welcome,” he said.
Mr. Suphanat Sirunthawinati, Secretary General of the Southern Border Provinces Administration Center, explained to Saudi Gazette what the Thai government is doing to help Muslims in the Deep South.
He said that Muslim students who graduate from high school are provided scholarships to study abroad in Indonesia or Egypt or to study in universities in other parts of Thailand. And when Muslim students graduate, SBPAC will try to help them find work in the region.
Mr. Suphanat has worked in the Deep South for 36 years and has seen many positive changes. He said: “One positive change that has taken place is that unlike in the past Thai Muslims in the Deep South now occupy at least 80 percent of local government administrative positions. In education, Muslim teachers represent around 80 percent of the teachers in schools in the Deep South. There has also been greater understanding among Muslims and Buddhists living in the same communities.”
He added: “Furthermore, SBPAC supports Thai Muslims who wish to go for Haj. SBPAC sponsors 200 Thai Muslims every year paying all of their expenses to perform Haj in Saudi Arabia. It also supplies a medical team to take care of any health needs during Haj.”
The SBPAC Supervisor General explained that the 200 Muslims are nominated at the subdistrict and village level and are selected by a committee that determines who are the most deserving candidates. Also taken into consideration in the selection process is helping those who have been victims of security incidents or family members of those injured or killed in such incidents.
He said: “Apart from Muslims being selected to be sent for Haj, Thai Buddhists are also selected to be sent to India and Thai Chinese are sent to China for religious purposes. They are also selected from members of families who have been victims of insecurity. This program of sending pilgrims abroad and paying all of their expenses is only done by the Thai government in the Deep South region.”
Apart from education, great emphasis is being placed on the economic development of the region. Mr. Panu, the former SBPAC secretary general, explained that there are plans to create an economic triangle to develop the Deep South region. Three districts will be turned into models of development that will boost the local economy and increase security. This triangle city model will include investments in power plants, new tourist attractions, agricultural projects and the construction of a new airport in the region.
He said that efforts are being made to help farmers make the best use of their land. He said, “We bring farmers together and arrange seminars for them so that they can learn the best agricultural techniques for using their land. We put it in terms of if they grow rice, bananas, cassava or other products, how long they would have to grow these products in order to earn enough to be able to send their fathers to perform Haj or Umrah.
Efforts are also being made to develop civil society in the region, and Mr. Muhammad Ayub Pathan told Saudi Gazette that such efforts have made a change. He said: “In the last three or four years, there has been a big development in civil society. Unlike in the past, there are now many women’s groups. And now women in hijab go around to villages and talk about peace. Women are working with civil society or other organizations or women’s groups. This indicates that many people from all walks of life are interested in playing a part in finding solutions to the region’s problems.”
He said that tourism in the region that was dead for many years has started to revive with people coming to visit local landmarks as well as the beach areas. This has started in the last three years.
He added: “As a result, local people feel that they have to adjust as well; that women must go out and talk to others. Unlike in the past, there are now many public question and answer sessions with officials. There are seminars in which everyone can come and talk and share their ideas on what should be done. The military holds these sessions as well as SBPAC.”
When asked if there has been an increased use of social media in the region, he said: “In the last three to four years, social media has been very influential. People in almost every walk of life use it and even if the negotiating parties move slowly, social media continues to exert pressure on them to come up with solutions.”
Mr. Pathan pointed out that the presence of violence from time to time does not mean that peace is impossible and that the situation is not improving. He emphasized that people in the region want peace and they want security restored and that in the end if enough people want to give peace a chance, no one will be able to stop them.