Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Thaksin can learn from Indonesia

The Jakarta Post

Thursday, 25 August 2005

By Thang D. Nguyen

JAKARTA—It may sound like a paradox, but there is a lesson about peace that Prime Minister Thaksin Sinawatra should learn from Indonesia and apply to the conflict in southern Thailand. On Aug. 15, two days before Indonesia's 60th Independence Day, the Indonesian government and the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) signed a peace agreement in Helsinki.

Materialized after five rounds of talk, the agreement allows the Acehnese to have economic and political autonomy, to the extent that they may form local political parties, with Jakarta withdrawing the Indonesian military's (TNI) operation in the province.

If implemented successfully, this peace deal could end the three-decade long war between the Indonesian government and GAM, who had been fighting for full independence from Jakarta, and bring about peace in Aceh -- which was hit hardest during the Asian tsunami last year.
To make it work, both Jakarta and GAM have to honor the agreement that they signed in Helsinki.

This means that GAM really has to put down its weapons for once and for all, and Jakarta has to abide by the agreed cease-fire and allow the autonomy process to start in Aceh. Thus, if either party violates this agreement one way or another, all the peace-building efforts so far will be in vain. And, if this happened, war would return.

While we hope that both Jakarta and GAM will succeed with the Helsinki pact, it can serve as an example for Thailand, which is facing a similar challenge with Muslim-Thai separatists in the south.

Since last January, when assailants attacked a military camp in southern Thailand and cleaned out its armory, about 800 Thais have died in this conflict.

The most condemnable bloodshed, however, took place on Oct. 25 last year when 78 Muslim-Thai protesters were arrested and suffocated to death while being transported in police trucks.
"This is typical," said Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra when asked about reports of scores dead in this massacre. "It's about bodies made weak from fasting. Nobody hurt them."

It can only be hoped that Prime Minister Thaksin's knowledge of postmortem forensics has improved since he made this infamous statement. But, alas, he has not softened his violence-based approach to dealing with the conflict in the south, which doesn't seem to get better as time goes by.

To be fair, however, Thaksin has met with Muslim leaders from other countries, namely Indonesia, to seek their advice on how to solve the southern problem. He has also put together a team of experienced and able Thais, such as former foreign minister Surin Pitsuwan, to work on it.

Unfortunately, this team seems ineffective because -- being the autocrat that he is -- Thaksin still calls all the shots when it comes to the southern conflict, or everything else in Thailand for that matter. He sees and approaches it the same way that US President George W. Bush -- whom he admires a lot -- does terrorism.

Obviously, Thaksin's way of dealing with such a multi-dimensional and complex issue as the southern conflict is not working. This is because he is trying to solve this problem with military forces thinking that it will be corrected instead of finding out what its root causes are and treating them with appropriate, preventive measures.

To be sure, the Malay-Muslims in the south have been, and still are, the minority or "underdog" group. They make up about 2.3 million people of Thailand's 63 million population, the majority of whom are Buddhist. Over a century ago, the five southern provinces belonged to the Muslim kingdom of Pattani, which was "annexed" in 1902 by Siam, as Thailand was known then.

The fact is that the discontent among Muslim Thais in the south has been fed by the poor economic opportunities in the region; their distinct culture, history, language and religion from the Buddhist Thai majority; and the human rights violations they have been subject to by Thai troops and police.

This is what Prime Minister Thaksin is not accepting as the truth.

Now, the question remains, what to do to bring peace to the south?

First, Prime Minister Thaksin should admit that he has been wrong with his heavy-handed handling of the southern conflict.

Like an alcoholic who is trying to quit drinking, this first step is most crucial because, if he keeps thinking that he has been doing the right things all this time, he will keep escalating the violence the south and, thereby, worsen the situation on the ground.

Second, as the Indonesians have done with the Acehnese, Prime Minister Thaksin should encourage talks between Bangkok and representatives of the Pattani region that can lead to a peace agreement.

These talks, which can take place in another country and be mediated by a third party, will allow Bangkok and the leadership of the Pattani region to put on the table their needs or demands that must be mutually met, so that peace may come to the south.

This part is quite challenging in the sense that, unlike GAM in Aceh, no individual leader or organization in the south has claimed the leadership to represent the people of the south. It is, however, doable if Bangkok can show its willingness and ability to hold talks with representatives from the south.

Finally, if a peace pact can ever be made between Bangkok and the south, both the Thaksin government and the leadership of the south -- whoever it may be -- must carry out the terms of peace that are mutually agreed.

Peace in southern Thailand is possible. But, it won't be won with violence. Rather, it will require the Thai government to win the hearts and minds of the people in the south. But most importantly, peace is only possible when it is honored.

The writer is a Jakarta-based columnist (whose writing can be read at Currently, he is editing a book on Thailand.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Aceh pact a birthday gift for Indonesia


Wednesday • August 17, 2005

Thang D Nguyen

AS INDONESIA celebrates its 60th Independence Day today, the nation cannot give itself a more meaningful gift for its birthday than the peace agreement that was signed between the Indonesian government and the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) in Helsinki on Monday.

The deal, clinched after five rounds of talks, allows the Acehnese political autonomy, the setting up of local political parties and the eventual pullout of the Indonesian military (TNI) from the province.

Some caution is advised as similar agreements have been signed in the course of this long-running conflict, but they did not result in peace.

In 2002 a peace agreement mediated by the Henry Dunant Center was signed in Geneva, giving the Acehnese special autonomy, but not full independence.

Unfortunately, former President Abdurrahman Wahid (also known as Gus Dur) did not prepare for the talks, and the signing of the agreement with the Acehnese rebels was a blunder.

Fighting continued in Aceh and the rebels expanded their operations there. Gus Dur's successor, former President Megawati Sukarnoputri, declared martial law in Aceh and sent 35,000 troops to the province in May 2003.

This was the largest military operation in Indonesia's history since its invasion of the now independent Timor Leste. The aim of the deployment was, in the words of former TNI chief Endriartono Sutarto, "to destroy the armed forces of GAM through [sic] their roots."

The government and GAM have to honour the Helsinki agreement to avoid repeating history. In other words, GAM has to put down its weapons once and for all, and Jakarta has to abide by the ceasefire and allow local political autonomy to take hold in Aceh.

Another reason for Indonesia to be careful with the Helsinki deal is that it has given rise to jealousy among provinces such as Papua, which faces political conflicts and poverty, despite its natural resources.

Papuans believe that their elders' vote to join the Republic of Indonesia in 1969 was fraudulent. The Papuans — especially those of Melanesian origin — are now calling on Jakarta to honour the law on special autonomy that it signed in 2001, saying that it has not been well implemented.

This law was expected to bring about policies of affirmative action for indigenous Papuans, the establishment of the Papuan People's Assembly (MRP) and peace. But none of the promises have been fulfilled.

As it has done in Aceh, Jakarta is meeting local challenges in Papua with TNI forces. Unfortunately, this treatment only further widens the existing distrust between the Papuans and Jakarta. To avoid further conflicts in Papua, Jakarta should honour the special autonomy law.

The United States, which expressed interest in Papua's plight, has said that it will not interfere in ways that would affect Indonesia's unity, but will help the government to fulfil the special autonomy law.

Likewise, both the Indonesian government and GAM will need support to implement the Helsinki pact successfully.

While Indonesia has made progress, its journey to peace and unity is far from over. If it succeeds in implementing peace deals like the Helsinki accord, not only will it become a more peaceful and united nation, but it can also be a shining example of peace-building for other nations, such as Thailand and the Philippines, which face similar challenges.

The lesson goes: War does not bring about peace; it only begets itself. And to end war, peace must be honoured.

The writer is a Jakarta-based columnist and has published two books about Indonesia.