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Thailand’s testy ties with its minorities

Updated On: Aug 07, 2007

Much has been written about what the Thai government ought to do about the situation in the South.

Although it has often been reported that the government is undertaking renewed efforts to promote peace and reconciliation with the Southern Muslims, it is also acknowledged that no real efficacy has been witnessed.

Now interim PM Surayud Chulanont has come out to vow that “although the southern unrest could not be brought to an end during his government's tenure, he was determined to lay sturdy foundations for peace that the next administration could build upon”. This seems to be the firmest and humblest statement of resolution thus far, free from boastfulness or over-optimism of an improving situation heard in declarations by other state officials.

There may be signs that Thailand is realizing that the Southern insurgency is way beyond its capacity to quell, thus it is taking foreign assistance more seriously. Voice of America reported that the Thai government intends to “pursue closer ties with Muslim countries, especially Malaysia and Indonesia”, as well as international Muslim organizations and foundations on the basis that “the Muslim country or the Muslim leader [approached] will help to solve the problem”. Nitti Hassan, president of the Council of Muslim Organizations of Thailand, says the government is casting a wide net in hopes of attracting Muslim help, so it “has invited the [religious] leader from Egypt, from Saudi Arabia, also Indonesia, and from Malaysia also”. Such indirect “external measures” are to bolster the current military operations going on in the South. The Thai army has rounded up about 2,000 suspected militants to date.

It is said that this double-barrelled strategy “aims to give the government a better picture of how and where the separatists are receiving their support”. Panitan Wattanayagorn, a political scientist at Bangkok'sChulalongkorn University, says, “The network in the South has been known to be connected to overseas foundations [so] another strategy is to engage those countries –those foundations and those individuals –to understand what's going on and to get some cooperation and assistance as to how to contain or disconnect some of these linkages.”

The attempt to understand the militant movements and the aspirations of the Muslim South are long overdue. However, Thailand continues to be nationalistic and serious consideration for its other minority groups is lacking. An Al Jazeera special has picked up on how Thailand treats its sizeable stateless population.  For instance, there are seven hill tribes that live in northern Thailand, near the border withMyanmar and Laos, which are one of its biggest tourist attractions, bringing in millions of dollars each year. However, nearly one million people of them are still not accepted as citizens. They are treated like illegal immigrants – denied equal access to schooling and medical care, and without proper identification documents their freedom of movement is greatly limited. Even Thailand they are vulnerable to arrest and deportation.

While the authorities suspect that these minority people are making up claims to belong to Thailand, Somchart Piphatraradon, who runs a hill tribe citizenship project, says that the issue is more complex, rife with prejudice against non-Thai races, corruption and the belief that the ethnic minority citizenship is not important.

Perhaps the current controversy in Thailand to repatriate the Hmong people to Laos reflects this well. Despite appeals by U.S. Congressmen and the United Nations, Surayud stated firmly that Thailand would continue doing so as it was not deportation but repatriation. He said, “There have been repatriations as they hold the nationality of our neighbour. The process is under the care of third countries to ensure no human rights are violated after their return. If this situation is allowed to continue without any clear solutions found, we will be the country left to accept these illegal immigrants and to carry all the burdens.” (6 August 2007)

Sources:

Thailand to keep on repatriating Hmong – PM (Reuters, 6 August 2007)

Caught without a country (Al Jazeera, 6 August 2007)

PM eyes end to southern conflict (Bangkok Post, 5 August 2007)

American lawmakers plead with King to save Hmong (Nation, 5 August 2007)

Last batch of 20 Rohingya Muslims forced back home (Bangkok Post, 5 August 2007)

American lawmakers plead with King to save Hmong (Nation, 5 August 2007)

Thailand Seeks Closer Ties with Muslim Nations (Voice of America3 August 2007)