Remarks on the Conflict in Southern Thailand

Sarah Sewall
Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights 
Thaksin University
Songkhla, Thailand
March 26, 2016

My name is Sarah Sewall, and I’m very grateful to join you here. And thank you very much Dr. Wichai for the kind introduction and to Thaksin University for hosting me here today.

I really appreciate the chance to talk directly to you, to the next generation, about what’s coming up. As you may have noticed, my title includes the term “Civilian Security.” What that means is that, in my job at the State Department in the United States Government, I’m focused not only on states, but also on the security of people – of civilians. And so it’s very much in that spirit that I feel privileged and honored to be here at the University and to be here in the South.

It is a real gift to be in Thailand after I visited here more than 20 years ago in a very different capacity. Not only has the country changed enormously in so many positive ways; it reminds me how extraordinarily lucky you are as Thais to be in a nation of such diversity.

From Chiang Mai to Hot Yai, the mix of languages, faiths, and flavors makes this country truly marvelous, and it’s that diversity in so many different respects that gives this nation a vibrancy and an energy that has drawn so many American travelers, traders, students, and diplomats over the years – all of them recognizing the enormous promise of this beautiful country.

That’s why, when the United States first looked east for new friendships in the Asia Pacific region, we of course signed our very first treaty in the region with Thailand. That was 183 years ago. And the ties between our people have remained strong ever since.

Some 7,000 Thai students study in the United States, and just this month, our countries launched a new dialogue to strengthen cooperation in science, engineering, and mathematics. U.S.-Thai cooperation has helped produce landmark discoveries to combat diseases like Japanese encephalitis, malaria, and HIV.

Trade between our peoples has grown to over $47 billion dollars annually, or 1.6 trillion bot. And the United States remains one of the largest foreign investors in your economy, supporting hundreds of thousands of jobs.

The American people share a close bond with the people of Thailand, and the people are the true strength of any nation. This is why our Embassy has helped Americans partner with Thai doctors, lawyers, journalists, environmental activists, and entrepreneurs across your country.

And through the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative, the United States engages the next generation by empowering some 8,000 dynamic young Thais with mentorship programs, regional exchanges, and small grants to tackle challenges like climate change and food security.

These investments on the part of the United States reflect our sincere desire for a secure, inclusive, and prosperous Thailand that can continue its tradition of regional leadership on the global stage.

Thailand has led in many respects, for example, on issues of inclusion and advancing the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex people.

Thailand was the first Asian country to prohibit discrimination based on gender identity and is now pioneering community-led initiatives to expand HIV testing and treatment among vulnerable populations that could serve as a model for the rest of the world.

Thailand has also enabled women to fulfill their potential in myriad ways. Women in Thailand were among the first in all of Asia to earn the right to vote, and they have since climbed to the highest levels of both government and business. Over 60 percent of Thai women work outside the home – one of the highest rates in the entire region – and women now outpace men in higher education and represent more than half of all PhD researchers and students.

It’s wonderful to feel so palpably that Thailand’s national identity and laws and practices are embracing and integrating the LGTBI community and women. But of course, the issue of inclusion in a nation is bigger than that of sexual orientation or gender. And inclusion remains a challenge here in Thailand, as it does for many nations, including my own.

One of the United States’ great strengths is its ability to integrate and draw upon its diverse population. And yet even in the United States, some groups feel marginalized. The U.S. presidential campaign features debate about who has benefited and who has lost from economic growth in our country. Despite having elected an African-American president, our nation still struggles with racial inequality. Women in the United States, while they have made many accomplishments, still receive less pay than men for the same work, and they remain underrepresented in our government.

Concerns about exclusion and marginalization here in Thailand are perhaps most pronounced right here, in the South.

As you all know, for over a decade, Southern Thailand has experienced one of the deadliest conflicts in Southeast Asia. Of course, as a representative of a foreign country, I raise this issue with great humility. But it’s clear that this conflict in the South saps not only the affected communities, but the nation as a whole.

The United States, as Thailand’s longtime friend and partner, hopes for a peaceful, just, and lasting resolution to this conflict because this is vital for achieving Thailand’s stability and prosperity. As you know better than I, since 2004, some 6,000 people have died, and more than 11,000 have been injured – from drive-by shootings, roadside bombings, and acts of arson that have become tragically routine.

Overwhelmingly, the victims in this conflict are not soldiers or insurgents – but innocent civilians. Even doctors and teachers have become caught in the crossfire. In the past twelve years, 27 community health centers have come under attack, and over a hundred public health workers and hospital staff have been killed.

Over the same time, the conflict has killed more than 200 teachers, students, and educational staff, and 30 schools have been burned to the ground. Private schools and pondoks have been raided, and in some cases, students and teachers detained without charge. As the conflict continues, armed groups have turned hospitals and schools into bases to launch strikes and counterstrikes.

Now, this is a huge problem, and it’s a problem that goes beyond this region. Because when children cannot learn, and when doctors cannot heal, when provinces are gripped with violence – that holds back all of Thailand.

There are no easy answers. But I am sure everyone here would agree that the violence must end.

And let me be clear: there is no excuse for violence and crimes perpetrated by various insurgent and criminal groups, including indiscriminate attacks against civilians or school bombings, or the recent use of a hospital in Narathiwat to strike a nearby army camp. The United States condemns all of these acts, which violate human decency as well as national and international law.

At the same time, we recognize that a lasting peace requires addressing grievances among many in the South, including perceptions that a distinct ethnic and religious identity is not fully respected.

Some feel that they do not have a real voice in how their communities are governed or even how their children are taught. And others have an even different perspective, believing that the government has ignored their interests in favor of the local majority.

After more than a decade of conflict, it is clear that these underlying issues cannot be addressed effectively with force alone. We call on all sides to take actions that rebuild the bonds of trust between government and the people instead of undermining that trust.

Actions that undermine trust – whether extra-judicial violence against detained suspects, or attacks on civilian facilities such as hospitals – breed skepticism about the sincerity of, and prospects for, dialogue.

And that’s why the United States urges all local political actors to seek nonviolent ways to express their concerns, and the United States urges the government to allow those voices to be heard.

The solution to this conflict is an internal issue for Thailand, but it’s clear, some twelve years on, that the solution ultimately must come through dialogue, compromise, and mutual respect.

The United States therefore applauds the ongoing dialogue between the Thai government and insurgent groups, and we urge the additional inclusion of women, civil society, and other community representatives in the hopes of moving toward an inclusive and durable peace.

Even as the conflict has torn apart lives across the South, many women have emerged as leaders to build peace. Just at lunch, I met a woman from the South who traveled throughout the region to assist others aggrieved by loss and desperation, and also to counsel them against taking up violence themselves.

Despite these examples of local leaders, it is my understanding that there is not a single woman, nor even a civil society representative, engaged in the current talks. I might pointedly ask how can a comprehensive peace negotiation exclude representation of half of the population? History teaches us that successful peace negotiations include all relevant stakeholders.

But, of course, inclusion means more than just inviting everyone to participate in a formal process – be it a peace negotiation, a constitutional referendum, or an election.

People also need the freedom to speak their minds, without fear of reprisal, not only at the negotiating table, but also in the streets, in the press, and in their homes.

This is not just a challenge for the South. The United States believes that the all the people of Thailand – North and South – need the freedom to speak out and shape their futures at this historic juncture for the country.

That’s why the United States continues to call for a return to democracy and restoration of the fundamental rights of all people in Thailand. Leading up to the planned referendum in August, we hope that all Thais will be able to openly and vigorously debate the draft constitution, because open debate is a critical part of the path to sustainable democracy.

The stakes of inclusion and freedom are more than a democratic process and universal human rights; at issue is Thailand’s success in the 21st century. Free and open societies, empowered citizens, and responsive governments are what make countries dynamic, adaptive, and nimble in the modern era.

Today more than ever, citizens expect their government to be as connected, transparent, and responsive as the digital world now at their fingertips.

That’s certainly been the experience of the United States, but also countries like Japan, which use active democracy, respect for human rights, and the rule of law to unleash the full talents of their people.

This is a moment of change and opportunity in all of Asia, but for Thailand in particular.

The world is watching to see whether Thailand will resume its path toward openness, prosperity, and long-term stability by returning to democratic governance, ensuring the fundamental rights of the Thai people, and working to achieve a just and lasting peace in the South.

And as a friend and partner to Thailand, the United States hopes that all of Thailand’s citizens will be allowed to achieve their full potential and contribute to their nation’s continued success.

So, to the people of Thailand who are committed to peaceful advocacy for their rights and to building their nation’s strong future, I’m here to reiterate that the United States stands with you.

Thank you very much.