3 Nov 2009

Chavalit causes a stir


Two muslim girls raise a national flag at their school in the restive South on May 18, 2009. (AFP Photo)

Peua Thai's Gen Chavalit is in the far South to promote his proposal for some form of autonomy for a 'Pattani City' - sparking instant political controversy, harsh accusations and denials.

Puea Thai Party chairman and former prime minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh on Tuesday travelled to the deep South on Tuesday, saying he would attempt to restore peace in the violence-plagued region - a visit that sparked immediate controversy.

Gen Chavalit said he would meet community leaders in the three southern border provinces of Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala and four districts in Songkhla province where martial law is enforced.

He planned to discuss how best to end the southern insurgency with representatives of civil society groups.

He said he would explain his proposal for an autonomous Pattani City, and ask for their input.

Gen Chavalit denied his proposal for a form of autonomy for the lower South was ''traitorous'', as Democrat Party spokesman Thepthai Senpong claimed.

"I understand Mr Thepthai's concern but I would like to assure him that my intentions in addressing southern issues are good," he said. "The government is not on the right track at the moment."

He said the Pattani City proposal was only an idea and he would listen to the people's views on it.

Gen Chavalit earlier invited 2006 coup leader Sonthi Boonyaratkalin, former Pattani senator Den Tomeena, Matubhumi Party MP Areepen Udonsin, Puea Pandin Party MP for Narathiwat province Jeaming Tohtayong and Democrat MP for Narathiwat Waemahadee Waedaoh to join him on his southern trip.

Gen Sonthi, a former national army chief, and Mr Areepen both declined the invitation.

Gen Sonthi said later that he had made prior commitments.

He did not agree with giving the lowewr South a form of self-rule. That was not what people in the far South wanted, he said.

"At least 90 per cent of the local leaders, along with the provincial governors and district chiefs, are Muslims, and the current type of administration is already ideal for the region," he said.

Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban said Thailand is a single state and therefore cannot be divided.

Gen Chavalit was simply taking the political offensive by promoting the idea, he said, and called on the former prime minister to refrain from causing public confusion or otherwise damaging the country.

Yala Mayor Pongsak Yingchoncharoen also opposed the idea, saying that it was unlikely to end the continuing violence in the region.

The decentralisation of power by the government was already greater than in many other countries in Asia, Mr Pongsak said, adding that each area in the country already has its own self-governing administration.

"The important issue, rather than setting up Pattani City, is to encourage the public to have more say in selecting good leaders to govern their areas," Mr Pongsak said. "Establishing Pattani City would not guarantee that the southern violence would end since the insurgents have not said they will stop creating unrest once they have an autonomous region."

Democrat MP for Narathiwat Jeh-arming Tohtayong said Gen Chavalit's proposal would lead to further social division in the lower South.

“The establishment of Pattani City would be the starting point for a big mistake. The problem of southern unrest stems from injustices inflicted when Gen Chavalit was the prime minister [in 1997],” Mr Jeh-arming said.

Deputy Interior Minister Thaworn Senneam said the idea was just a political ploy to get Gen Chavalit's name in the news.

“It is not possible and it would not lead to an end of the violence in the three southernmost provinces as claimed,” Mr Thaworn said. He called Gen Chavalit’s highly touted trip to the far South "a show, a desperate bid to grab media attention by an old man who had failed in politics."

However, former Pattani senator Den Tohmeena supported the idea said it could bring a real change to Pattani.

"This would show local people that there is a sincere desire to give them a bigger role in running their own affairs,” Mr Den said.

If the proposal was implemented and proved a success then it could be expanded to Yala and Narathiwat provinces, he said.

An adviser to the Young Muslim Association of Thailand, Abdullorsish Tadein, supported the idea of a semi-autonomous zone in the lower South, as it is in line with demands of local organisations and civil sector groups.

“It could be called a special administrative zone because calling it Pattani City could meet strong opposition,” Mr Abdullorsish said, adding that the governor of the zone should also be elected, as in Bangkok and Pattaya.

He said unrest resurfaced in the far South in 2004 and the situation had not improved in the five years since so the government must show the courage needed to change the situation.

Gen Chavalit's idea was just to decentralize state power to local communities in deep South, as the people there had never had real governing authority, he said.

Puea Thai spokesman Prompong Noppariot complained that the government was twisting and misrepresenting the proposal for a self-governing Pattani City.

Gen Chavalit Yongchaiyuth did not propose the southernmost border provinces to be made an independent or autonomous state called Pattani City, as claimed by people in the government.

The Puea Thai chairman meant only the setting up of a special administrative area, similar to Pattaya City, the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration and Chiang Mai City.

As a former senior military officer and former prime minister, it was unthinkable that Gen Chavalit would support an idea that would divide the country, he said.

In the morning, a paramilitary ranger with a special unit providing security for teachers was seriously wounded by a roadside bomb in Pattani, police said.

The bomb was wrapped in a Thai national flag and placed on the side of a village road in tambon Sai Thong of Pattani’s Mai Kaen district and exploded when Corp Prakasit Napongthong stopped to examine the package. He was rushed to a local hospital.

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