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Unable to break the cycle of violence and ignorance caused by ultra-nationalism, many Thais appear trapped, as melodramatic tragedy in the three provinces of the deep South unfolds yet again.

Last week's attack on an Army outpost in Narathiwat province by alleged separatist militants that led to four deaths, at least seven injuries and the theft of dozens of guns is another classic example which is bound to repeat itself.

This time Army Captain Krit Kampirayan, who was among those killed, was the main "protagonist" to be dramatised by the Thai media.

In the following days, thanks to the mainstream media, we learned quite a bit about his personal life, his soon-to-be-completed PhD studies, his fiancee, his family and even his honeymoon plans. And so the public wept for him.

Little is known about the lower-ranking officers killed or injured, however. And whenever alleged separatists are killed or captured, they are treated by the media as if they are statistics.

The cycle then continues: a new "protagonist" is killed, eulogised in a melodramatic way for a few days by the media and then it's "over". The only differences may be the province where the tragedy takes place and the number of those killed. Then we're ready for the cycle to repeat itself anew with little or no change in the psyche of the Thai public.

The majority of the public will somehow never learn to ask how the distorted Bangkok-centric history of Thailand and Pattani we learned at school shaped our view that more suppression, distrust and denial of local people's rights is the answer.

People will continue to fail to connect this with the fact that schoolteachers in the deep South are so often targeted by separatists - as if education cannot be used as a propaganda tool.

The mainstream media, especially the Thai-language media, will continue to refer to the majority of people in the deep South not as Thai-Malay Muslims, but merely as Thai Muslims, denying their living Malay identity.

Separatists, meanwhile, will continue to be branded by the media as "southern goons" or "jon tai" in Thai, as if they have no political ideology whatsoever.

A few years back this writer asked a senior police officer in Pattani if an elected governor might help alleviate the sense of alienation among Thai-Malay Muslims, who since being co-opted into Thailand a century ago have had to put up with governors appointed by Bangkok. The answer was a definite "no".

"This will surely become a highway to secession," the officer replied.

Given these circumstances, the question we ought to ask is this: How many more will have to die before we come to our senses and recognise that the problem is rooted in the fact that Pattani did not willingly join Siam and was never really treated as equal?

In any marriage, people ought to have the right to divorce if one or both parties are unhappy. But this was a rape. If we fail to ensure that a decent level of respect and rights are accorded to the Thai-Malay Muslims of today, what's the point in hanging on?

The melodramas played out in the aftermath of tragedy will continue until there is a substantial change in the public and the government's attitude to addressing the issue.

As long as Pattani and the surrounding areas continue to be treated as an internal colony of Thailand ruled by the military, as long as arrest without charge and re-training camps are acceptable, as long as torture and forced disappearances continue, there will be no ending to this melodramatic cycle of tragedy.

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