Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

People's Patron or Patronizing the People? the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Centre in Perspective

Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

People's Patron or Patronizing the People? the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Centre in Perspective

Article excerpt

In December 1997, during an increase in attacks by Malay Muslim separatists, Minister for Interior Sanan Kachornprasat announced that the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Centre (SBPAC) would be dissolved. The SBPAC was established in 1981 to improve and coordinate civilian administration in the far south, a region beset by communist and separatist insurgencies, ethnic and religious cleavages and economic underdevelopment. In cooperation with a joint security-operations agency, the Civilian-Police-Military Command-43 (CPM-43), the SBPAC developed a reputation for improving governance and helping to curb armed separatism. As attacks increased in late 1997, the SBPAC came under critical scrutiny following newspaper reports of high-level dissatisfaction with the Centre's performance. In late November, Deputy Interior Minister Chamni Sakdiset indicated that the SBPAC needed to be overhauled. (1) In mid-December, Chamni suggested dissolving the SBPAC and transferring its responsibilities to local authorities and the police. (2) At the end of the month, Sanan declared, "It's now time to disband the agency. [...] The agency is of no use now." (3) With the SBPAC under threat, local Malay Muslim leaders rallied to its defence: some fifty Muslim religious leaders met with the chairman of the National Security Council (NSC) to register their objection to any planned dissolution. The chairman of the Pattani Provincial Islamic Committee noted that the SBPAC did not have a suppressive capability, and insisted that it played an important role in bridging the divide between the state and the local people. (4) Ultimately, senior defence and internal security officials decided to preserve the SBPAC. Sanan explained that the new SBPAC Director, Palakorn Suwanarrat, would have a chance to prove himself. (5)

This episode prefigures several points about the SBPAC addressed in this article. First, it foreshadowed the dissolution of the SBPAC and CPM-43 by Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in May 2002, which has figured prominently in many analyses of the contemporary insurgency. Early efforts to understand the causes of the insurgency often correlated institutional changes such as the dissolution of the SBPAC and CPM-43 with the onset of heightened violence. The decision to "normalize" the administration of the southern border provinces appeared to flout the lessons of history, which taught that Bangkok's failures to accommodate the distinctiveness of the Malay Muslim border region through special administrative arrangements invited violence. This interpretation has been challenged in recent studies that offer a more ambiguous image of the SBPAC. (6)

Second, the episode reminds us that disagreement about the Centre's proper authority, optimal structure, and even its utility, has a history that predates controversy surrounding its 2002 dissolution and the retrospective assessments of post-2004 accounts. Whereas some Thai officials considered the SBPAC to be ineffective and redundant, some Malay Muslim leaders saw it as an invaluable channel for airing grievances. The episode illustrates how contrasting perceptions of the SBPAC reflect a discrepancy between its mundane bureaucratic functions and its image, its formal authority and symbolic power. While it is easy to understand the enthusiasm of some Malay Muslim leaders for the SBPAC as a product of patronage and government largesse, it is worth emphasizing that improving the image of the Thai state in the eyes of local Muslims was an explicit rationale behind establishing the SBPAC.

Finally, the fact that the SBPAC survived the 1997 debate about its future reflects the perceived validity of its "hearts-and-minds" approach. From 2004 to 2006, the re-establishment of the SBPAC regularly topped the list of prescriptions to control the insurgency. The reinstatement of the SBPAC in October 2006 by Thailand's military-installed government attests to the significance that some attach to the Centre as a symbol of good governance. …

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