Space needed for honest debate


In terms of political context, there is a great deal of difference when one compares the recent incidents involving female students at the Prince of Songkhla University in Pattani, and the headlocking of a male student at Chulalongkorn University by an academic who was upset with his student for walking out of a ceremony that he didn’t believe in.


The Chulalongkorn University student who was put in a headlock was part of a civil disobedience act. He challenged the tradition knowing that his act would invite a harsh response. Fault can be found with how the academic responded to his act, as well as the pathetic answer the university came up with as they tried hard to clear up the embarrassment. One way of looking at the incident and response was that the university fell into the trap of the protesting students.


The incident attracted a great deal of attention from the general public. Perhaps that is because the university carries with it a long-standing name, or perhaps the debate gets to the heart of what kind of country people want Thailand to be and the narrative that it embraces.


In contrast, not much fanfare was generated about an incident in the far South where the vast majority of the local residents identify themselves as Malay. This time, a government soldier, Sergeant Preecha Intharangsi, fired shots at two local female students following an argument stemming from a minor road accident. 


The two Muslim students were said to have run for their lives as soldiers fired three shots in their direction. The last two shots were said to have been fired into the sky, apparently to scare off anybody thinking of interfering in the dispute.


The soldier apparently had little or no regard for the eyewitnesses as the incident unfolded in the heart of Pattani town.


While the incident generated a great deal of criticism on social media, the scope and audience were pretty much confined to this restive region, where an ongoing ethnic-nationalist insurgency has claimed nearly 7,000 lives since January 2004.


Bordin Waelateh, vice-president of Prince of Songkla University’s (PSU) Pattani campus, condemned the incident and called on the military to ensure safety for students. A Malay youth leader separately, called for legal action against the soldier, who pleaded for understanding because he was drunk following an argument with his wife.


Taking the same line as the Chulalongkorn University administration, Preecha’s superior, Maj-General Jatuporn Klampasut, commander of the 22nd Pattani Rangers Task Force Unit, pleaded for understanding at an August 9 press conference at the Ingkha Yuttha Borihan camp in Nong Chik district.


He said Preecha was emotionally agitated from an argument with his wife, which triggered his actions. The soldier will face the harshest military punishment, Jatuporn added.


While the two incidents each involved physical intimidation of university students, local residents in the far South were turned off by the indifference among the media and the general public about what had happened to the two Malay Muslim students in Pattani.


Sad to say, our indifference to the incident threatening the two Muslims reflects an attitude that the lives and well-being of the people of the far South are not as important as the people living in other parts of the country.


Gauging the extent of the resentment held by local people is difficult because of the lack of public space for citizens to debate honestly with authorities and policy makers about their plight and grievances.


The culture of impunity among security officials continues to be a problem and will continue to undermine the trust between local Muslims and the state agencies that administer over them.

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