Sunday, February 20, 2005

Thaksin's Strong-arm Tactics

It was useful to be in Thailand and get a first-hand sense of just what the prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, is up to in the south of the country. On Wednesday he announced the drastic step of denying funds to villages whose administrations are believed to be sympathetic to Muslim separatists. More than 300 villages and areas deemed to be in the category have been labelled "red zones". Meanwhile villages in the so-called "green zone" - obedient to the military authorities - will be rewarded with money. The measures are reminiscent of the anti-communist offensive pursued by military in the 1970s and 1980s and consistent with Thaksin's own brand of authoritarianism. His strategic thinking is chilling:
If the money sanctions do not work, I will send soldiers to lay siege to the red zone villages and put more pressure on them. I will never allow anyone to separate even one square inch from this country, even though this land will have to be soaked with blood.
For someone who has just won a landslide election Thaksin has had to face a surprising barrage of criticism which may point to the robustness of Thai democracy. The Nation's editorial on Friday said that his ideas were "half-baked" and "simplistic". It didn't mince its words:
The prime minister's crude approach is tantamount to treating Thai Muslims of Malay descent like circus animals, rewarding the obedient ones with food while cracking the whip at the wayward ones as punishment. But Thaksin needs to be told by his advisers or handlers that such silly, childish games will not only never work out as planned, but will also create a stumbling block that could exacerbate the already worsening situation in the deep South.
Today's press is suggesting that there is a strong possibility of a legal challenge to the zoning policy. The National Human Commissioner, Pradit Charoenthaithawee, is saying that
[t]he policy is discrimination. It violates human rights and is unconstitutional.
Meanwhile, academic critics are highlighting some of the likely consequences if Thaksin goes ahead:
The policy is cruel and will indirectly kill people. Not only it does not solve the problem, it will escalate violence in the South.
And one of the country's leading commentators, Sopon Onkgara, is likening Thaksin's measures to those of a CEO (the prime minister's preferred moniker) who is set on "liquidating" those villages he considers to be serious "liabilities". Even former military leaders have labelled the strong-arm tactics as imprudent.
The weight and cogency of opposition to Thaksin is significant and calls on arguments both of principle and prudence. But he is unlikely to listen. Sopon's conclusion is a bleak one:
As of now, nobody is in a position to put an end to the crisis in the South, just as no one is in a position to prevent Thaksin from floating more bad policies, decisions and actions.
The chances of even contemplating a cessation to the vicious cycle of terrorist and military violence has taken a big step backwards.


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