An example to emulate

In 1959, young anti-Spain nationalists broke with decades of peaceful resistance and formed a terrorist group. Their group, Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (Basque Country and Freedom) is known as ETA. It has demanded separation and independence for regions sandwiched between northern Spain and southwestern France. In 2010 it renounced all violence and now has declared it will turn all weapons over to French and Spanish authorities on April 8.

The violent Basque war has much in common with Thailand's separatists, who refuse however to come to the same rational and peaceful conclusion. The Barisan Revolusi Nasional Melayu Patani (Patani Malay National Revolutionary Front) is known as the BRN, but more commonly separatists or "southern insurgents". It has demanded separation and independence for three provinces and part of a fourth in the deep South. It refuses to renounce violence, let alone surrender war weapons to either Thailand or Malaysia.

The low-level wars that these two pseudo-independence bodies conducted have been different. ETA opted for infrequent, flashy attacks inside Spain and France. The Thai separatists have kept their far more-frequent attacks almost exclusively within the southernmost provinces. ETA used car bombs and ambushes as their chief weapon, and their terrorism killed 829 people, most of them innocents. The Thai separatists have employed terrorism and paramilitary attacks far more frequently, and their toll is nearly 7,000, mostly civilians and bystanders.

Comparisons are never exact, and there certainly are many differences between the Basque and the Thai-Malay separatists. But their formation and determination to kill for their unrealistic ambitions are strikingly similar. In both cases, it was clear decades ago that neither ETA nor the BRN would ever gather the forces or military strength to challenge central power. The Thai government, just like Spain and France, never will yield in the face of armed and disloyal opposition.

Nor should they. This column has agreed for decades that the people of the deep South have legitimate complaints about their treatment at the hands of successive Bangkok governments. But there are two over-riding and important points. The first is that every region of Thailand has local and specific problems about their treatment by centralised authority. The other is that as a matter of principle -- armed rebellion of any kind cannot be allowed to gain the upper hand.

It is worth noting that the ETA surrender is not entirely or even mostly because of an epiphany by the Basque group that negotiation beats confrontation. The truth is that ETA was badly beaten in its declared war. Spain and France cooperated in this. ETA members got no sanctuary or sympathy in either country. Police of both countries worked relentlessly to infiltrate agents into ETA, then expose and neutralise its members. Hundreds were arrested, and in turn they received no sympathy from judges.

Events work differently in the Thai South of course. Malaysia has never supported the BRN or separatism. But officials up to the Malaysian state level have. Malaysia never has been helpful over the issue of dual nationality. This has given the separatist movement in Thailand an effective means of sanctuary. Malaysia is not known to pursue Thai separatists except on the rare occasion those people violate Malaysian laws.

Still, the situation in the Basque homeland presents strong, teachable and irrefutable lessons for their Thai counterparts. Neither the Thai government nor the vast majority of people in the deep South will ever accept murders as the proper way to present grievances and petitions. The sooner Thai separatists lay down their arms, the sooner the government can start helping that region recover from so many lost years.


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