In a bid to identify fresh approaches to resolving the insurgency that has spread fear across Thailand's Deep South for almost a decade, local media in Yala recently held an open-air hearing on May 19th to gather the views of residents to find a path to peace, stability and prosperity.
The current unrest, which began in 2004, has cost over 5,000 lives and enormous damage to state and private property. Despite central government efforts that include high annual budgets and a great deal of manpower, the situation on the ground continues to simmer with near-daily acts of violence in the predominantly Malay Muslim provinces of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat.
"Outsiders can send all the good wishes they want. We appreciate their support, but we can't wait for outside help. We have to help ourselves first," Southern Border Provinces Administration Centre (SBPAC) Director Thawee Sodsong told attendees at the event.
The Newspaper Association of Southern Thailand invited a special panel to present their views. The meeting was unprecedented in that the entire spectrum of the local community was encouraged to attend. Panelists included Yala governor Dechrat Simsiri, Yala senator Tuanabdulloah Daaomariyor, Newspaper Association of Southern Thailand President Chaiyoung Maneerongsakul, Thai Chamber of Commerce national committee member Pod Paiboolkasaemsutti and Sombat Yothathip, Dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Yala Rajabhat University.
Sombat also served as the moderator of the panel discussion, which lasted three hours and was attended by over 300 people, with thousands more monitoring live broadcasts.
Education, economic stability seen as key
Taofik Abdul-rawmae, president of the Yala Student Alumni Association, told the panel: "Everyone knows the problems in the southern border provinces stem from three main sources: lack of education, financial problems and misunderstandings between state officials and local residents."
"I think we need to start with education first, because it is the key to all the other problems. There has been considerable development and expansion of educational opportunities locally, with many institutions now offering college-level education for local people," he said.
However, he said, increased educational opportunities have yet to stop the violence because they have yet to bring economic stability to locals.
"We need the government to focus more on professional training that can make people more financially self-reliant," Abdul-rawmae said.
Such efforts should focus on the most financially-distressed communities in the region, making them more stable, he said, adding that efforts to funnel financial aid that didn't include the neediest communities were ultimately unsustainable.
Abdul-rawmae also pointed to lack of rapport between state officials and local residents as an ongoing problem. Misunderstandings occur in part because civil servants are constantly being reshuffled from one province to another, he said. "I think officials can see this problem for themselves. They came and try to establish relationships with local people, but they don't stay long enough before they are transferred to other areas," he said.
"As you well know, confidence, trust and understanding take a long time to foster. Starting from scratch over and over again runs counter to this goal. I would like to call on the government to find ways to make it possible for administrators who prove effective to stay in the region longer."
The thorny path to peace
Maneerongsakul, the newspaper association chairman, said a series of policy "workshops" held in the region over the past few days represents what may be the most promising new approach since the insurgency escalated in 2004.
"However, this is only a first step, so we have to monitor what happens in steps two and three. We have been in the dark for eight years, and the road back to peace is a long one with many thorny obstacles," Maneerongsakul said.
"Government policies are one part of the solution, but for them to work will require three things. First, public sector co-operation. Second, an end to government agencies using the crisis as a way to profit. Third, clear policies by the military that include not trading in (weapons). If we can have these three things, we can resolve the conflict in the southern border region for sure."
On the economic front, Paiboolkasamsutti said the situation that has persisted in the region over the past eight years made it impossible for locals to conduct day-to-day trade like people in the rest of the country.
"So how can we address this problem?" he said. "The first is to get rapid assistance to people who are affected [by violence]. The government has already implemented such a policy, but it still falls short in terms of what is needed, and is slow in terms of the time needed to assess property damage. Most of the incidents affect small businesses, which suffer the most and are the least resilient financially."
Paiboolkasamsutti called on the government to find more efficient ways for victims to borrow capital from financial institutions, rather than having to wait for government handouts that often fall short of their needs.
He also said Thailand must do a more effective job of attracting outside investment to the region.
"In this area we will have only small operators left. We need to think about the year 2015, when the terms of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) go into effect," Paiboolkasamsutti said.
The AEC has as its goal regional economic integration, dynamic markets and a level playing economic field across Southeast Asia. "We still have nothing to help businesses in the area prepare for 2015. Labour issues are a big problem. We need the government to help develop the skills of the local labour force. If they offer such support, it will not only help the economy but also aid in finding an end to the unrest," he said.