Bringing peace to Thailand’s troubled South

By AZLAN JAAFAR / Pic By AFP

Let’s admit it. A lot has changed since Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad last visited Thailand in his capacity as Malaysian prime minister (PM).

Thaksin Shinawatra was still the PM then, and Malaysia’s GDP in nominal value was bigger than its northern neighbour.

With RM1, you would get 10 baht. Shopping and those famous Thai massages did not cause a huge hole to the pocket. Malaysia was glowing. Considered as the Asian tiger, its roars were heard on the international stage.

The country cemented the roadmap for industrialisation revolution in the region, creating the base of low manufacturing facilities, offering affordable labour and knowledgeable citizens. Thailand was just behind.

But those realities now seem so distant, vividly remembered by only a few. Thailand, with its often turbulent political culture, had 10 PMs including two acting leaders during Dr Mahathir’s 15-year absence from mainstream politics.

Two former Thai PMs were sentenced to jail in absentia for abuse of power. Since May 2014, the government is administered by the military junta with General Prayut Chan-o-cha as the PM. The National Council for Peace and Order was established to govern the nation of almost 70 million people.

Despite all the political problems and repeated military takeovers, the Land of Smiles continued to shine in the last 15 years.

Thailand is now recognised as a new industrialised country. Its GDP reached 15.45 trillion baht (RM1.89 trillion). It has transformed into Asia’s eighth-largest economy.

Within Asean, Thailand had overtaken its two southern neighbours in term of GDP value and become the second-largest economy estimated to reach US$490 billion (RM2.04 trillion)this year. Malaysia and Singapore’s GDP shy Bangkok’s performance with US$347 billion and US$346 billion respectively.

Despite trailing Singapore and Malaysia in GDP per capita, Thailand is expected to register a strong growth on a larger slice of the economic pie.

Under the military rule, Thailand had posted 4.8% growth in the first quarter of this year, the highest in five years. The World Bank revised its growth projection for Thailand to 4.5% this year compared to 4.1% previously.

The country’s “production capacity utilisation rate”, which measures the running of the nation’s economy, posted a significant jump this year, propelling the country further.

Tourist arrivals rose to 35 million last year from 25 million in 2014. Tourist money and export growth ensure the country, which was linked to the origin of the 1997/98 financial crisis, remains strong.

Such is the strength of the economy that RM1 now only gets you 7.2 baht at a money changer in downtown Bangkok.

But when Dr Mahathir arrives at the Air Force Wing 6 Airbase in Bangkok this morning and given a state reception by Prayut later today, strengthening economic ties will not be the only concern for Malaysia’s elderly statesman.

The insurgency in South Thailand will feature prominently when the two leaders meet behind closed doors at Government House.

Violence over the last 14 years in Thailand’s three southern provinces of Patani, Yala and Narathiwat had killed more than 6,500 people and left thousands injured. It had dragged the people in the areas to sustained poverty and hardship.

Malaysia had highlighted that backwardness and underdevelopment had been among the reasons the separatists were taking up arms against Bangkok.

The Muslim-majority region is demanding for a separate state, or an autonomy to rule, an idea which has been shot down by Bangkok’s past administrations.

Dr Mahathir, during his first stint as the PM, had resonated the need to a peaceful resolution in Thailand’s troubled South. Malaysia believes that lasting peace within the areas that both nations share over a 400-mile (644km) border, will bring significant economic and social wellbeing.

And Dr Mahathir has taken steps to push for a conclusive resolution within his borrowed “two-year” leadership. The PM appointed Tan Sri Abdul Rahim Noor to spearhead talks despite the heavy criticism he received, including from within his administration. But Putrajaya believes this will be the right course to peace.

“Abdul Rahim is accepted by the Thai side and the former IGP knows the undercurrents related to the turmoil. So, it is a bet worth taking by Dr Mahathir,” said an internal source within the government.

Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok have always reflected the aphorism of examplary neighbours. And Dr Mahathir intends to make his second return to Putrajaya triumphant by bringing a resolution to the troubled southern Thailand as one of his missions. For Bangkok, a lasting peace will be the final jigsaw to complete a miraculous turnaround of a nation.

  • Mohamad Azlan Jaafar is the deputy editor-in-chief of The Malaysian Reserve.