In exactly 60 days, the 53-year-old separatist movement has been thrust into the regional and international limelight which eluded them for decades. Never mind whether these high-stake demands – including recognition as a liberation movement, presumably with liberated areas inside Thailand-- could be realised.
The BRN’s main objective is to win the hearts and minds of young insurgents who continue to raise havoc in the southern provinces of Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala. These insurgents are survivors, relatives and friends of those unjustly killed during the Takbai incident, as well as other less well-known atrocities.
That helps explain why the Thai delegates were put in embarrassing positions when some came out to defend the BRN, saying that bombing incidents immediately after the second round were not linked to them. Indeed, they tried to preserve a very thin common ground which was set out in the February 28 joint statement. Obviously, at this juncture the insurgents have the upper hand both at the diplomatic level and on the ground. Above all, they have asked Malaysia to serve as a mediator, including the call for Asean and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to get involved. The Thai delegation was caught unprepared for such demands.
When the BRN called for an upgrade of Malaysia’s role from that of a facilitator to a mediator, it was a brilliant tactical move. After all, Prime Minister Najib Razak was one of the key players in the peace process, which he forged with Thaksin Shinawatra.
Doing so ahead of the election was meant to raise the profile of Najib and Malaysia as a whole. It also aimed at preempting any effort to erode Kuala Lumpur’s current status. Earlier, a senior Thai official said that Thailand had requested Indonesia’s help with the peace process that could affect the exclusive role supposed to be played by Malaysia. For the time being, there has not been any official Thai request to Jakarta.
Although the Barisan Nasional won the majority in the election of May 5, the future of Najib as prime minister is still uncertain as it will depend on the election within the United Malay National Organization (UMNO) in the fall. With the current poll result and UMNO’s political infighting, it would take lots of brinksmanship for Najib to continue leading his country and his party. Without Najib’s personal conviction, or rather intervention, the peace process could be stalled as key insurgents across the border might not come forward.
The February 28 statement clearly spelled out the parameters of the dialogue to be conducted within the Thai constitution. Now, the 17 Thai inter-government agencies are grappling with the BRN’s latest position as to whether they’re consistent with the agreement, or they have gone beyond the limits. If the latter’s the case, the whole peace process could not move forward.
As the Thai government tries hard to keep the ongoing dialogue an internal matter for Thailand, the so-called “regionalisation and internationalisation” has swiftly gained currency. In the near future, unless there are new strategies, Thailand could gradually lose ownership of the process. During the past two dialogue sessions, there were no representatives from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which has institutional memories and well-stated positions regarding the situation in the southern provinces. The ministry has been kept out from the very beginning for fear it would render legitimacy if its officials were present at this stage. At this point, it is a mute proposition.
For instance, when the BRN called for the OIC to get involved, the Thai delegate should have known that as early as May 2007, the OIC and Thailand jointly issued a statement respecting Thai territorial integrity as a unitary state and treated the conflict as an internal affair. The visit of the OIC, Secretary-General Prof Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu set the stage for further peaceful engagements between Thailand and the insurgents. Soon after, Prime Minister General Surayud Chulanont made a public apology for the atrocities committed against the Malays of Patani by the state apparatus. It was a promise—the first time by a Thai prime minister – that such atrocities would never happen again. That deed earned lots of goodwill and applause both at home and overseas. However, the subsequent government’s tackling of the root causes and administration of justice following the apology was sluggish due to bureaucratic red tape and a tedious judicial process. Thus, the momentum was forever lost.
For the foreseeable future, the BRN will strive for an official status recognised by the OIC and the Parliamentary Union of Islamic Cooperation, like the Moro National Liberation Front had in the past. At the moment, the movement can only circulate documents at OIC meetings without attending them.
Since joining the OIC as an observer in 1988, Thailand has used every opportunity to explain the situation in the troubled South, including invitations for the OIC delegates to fact-finding visits. It is strange that the BRN called on Asean to get involved in the peace process.
If the grouping’s history is any judge, it is not possible for Asean to engage in the settlement of an intra-Asean conflict. Indonesia was given a mandate to serve as observers of the ceasefire between Thailand and Cambodia as the Asean chair in 2011. But so far, the terms of reference have yet to be approved. That is the maximum action Asean is willing to take. The ongoing dispute between the Philippines and Malaysia over Sabah is another case in point. Malaysia made clear that the issue must not be on any Asean agenda when the Asean leaders met last month in Bandar Seri Begawan.
Finally, to save the peace process, Thailand has to be more cautious with the narratives used in public and during press conferences. Quite often, the desire to show off whatever progress, imagined or real, for political ends, further hampers future negotiations and unnecessarily weakens the country’s position.