But Thai military’s fear of scrutiny is blocking the path to peace
Sergeant Chaiwat (not his real name) wondered out loud, with a hint of sarcasm, why violence in Thailand’s southernmost provinces hasn’t subsided in spite of the fact that the country’s leaders – who he called “the bosses” – have been engaging in talks with the rebels for as long as he could remember.
He had reason to be agitated; his operational area was put on high alert on Tuesday after insurgents carried out simultaneous pre-dawn attacks against one police station and four military outposts.
“Ramadan starts tomorrow and the militants probably want to let off some steam before they observe the holy month,” Chaiwat said. “But it doesn’t mean they don’t carry out attacks during Ramadan. They’re just not as frequent and intense.”
Like many security officials on the front line in this historically contested region, where Muslim militants have taken up arms against the Thai state to carve out a separate state for the local Malays, Chaiwat is wondering if the “bosses” are talking to the right people.
While peace negotiations are something way above his pay grade, Chaiwat said he feels a strong disconnect between the policy level and the actual security operations.
Chaiwat said he is confused over a number of things, including the so-called Safety Zone pilot project under the directive of Aksara Kherdphol, a retired army general who is also leading a team of negotiators – the so-called Dialogue Panel – at the table with MARA Patani, an umbrella organisation made up of several longstanding Patani Malay separatist movements.
Chaiwat said he is just as puzzled at the war of words between Aksara and the commander of the Fourth Army Area, Lt-General Piyawat Nakwanich, who is in charge of day-to-day security in the far South.
The two men don’t see eye-to-eye, said security officials in Bangkok, pointing to a turf war and inter-agency rivalries.
Aksara, who sits in Bangkok, has been working hard on his Safety Zone, a pilot project in which both warring sides must observe a ceasefire in a designated district. The project comes with a “Safe House” where representatives from both sides are to sit and work together on various issues, including monitoring the Safe Zone itself.
Piyawat, who lives in the conflict-affected region under heavy guard, was quick to dismiss the Dialogue Panel’s initiative, saying, “I’ve got 14 Safety Zones of my own.”
One Bangkok-based security official commented: “Instead of talking it over, they go the media to discredit one another,” adding that when they finally meet for lunch in Bangkok, the damage has already been done.
Further complicating discussions, civic groups in the far South have been calling on the separatist militants and Thai forces to respect “Safe Spaces” – designated public areas such as market and school they say should be demilitarised.
Like many observers of this conflict, Chaiwat is not really sure what the fuss is about. After all, victory is still nowhere in sight.
The number of insurgent attacks may have dropped sharply since 2007, but the militants have demonstrated that they still have the capability to hit government targets, Chaiwat said. On Tuesday militants with machine guns and grenade launchers attacked five military and police positions in Krong Pinang and nearby Yaha district.
An unregistered drone had been spotted just days earlier hovering over one of the targets, a Ranger outpost.
Needless to say, the ongoing violence and the “spitting contest” between the two top brasses do nothing to help the argument that Thailand is moving in the right direction.
In fact, peace talks have hit a snag because MARA Patani felt insulted by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha for “jumping the gun” by announcing the much-hyped Safety Zone.
MARA Patani was expecting a more formal launch after what they considered a “breakthrough”, in spite of the fact that the Safety Zone is not considered a game-changer in the overall scheme of things.
Realising his boss had committed a blunder, Aksara went into damage-control mode and went public about the pending release of three insurgent prisoners as demanded by MARA Patani. He was suggesting to the umbrella group that all was not lost.
The three will be transferred to the so-called “safe house” in Pattani where they will be guarded by Thai soldiers until further notice.
For the talks to resume, said a source from one of the MARA Patani groups, the Thai government would have to reiterate its commitment to the peace process in the same way that the Yingluck Shinawatra government had done when her administration launched this peace initiative in February 2013.
One reason why Thai leaders don’t take MARA Patani seriously is their conviction that the umbrella organisation does not have any influence on the combatants, say Thai government officials.
Bangkok is hoping that the group with actual control over the combatants, the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), will join MARA Patani at the table. But the only tangible thing Thailand and MARA Patani have received from the BRN is an assurance they will observe the ceasefire in the designated Safety Zone.
The BRN said they would only negotiate directly with Bangkok when they are ready and properly trained. The talks, BRN sources insisted, must be in line with international best practices, which means having members of the international community mediate the negotiations.
Over recent months, Bangkok has begun to ease up on its zero-sum mentality. A green light has been given to members of the international community to work with the BRN and local civil society organisations (CSOs), including those who are critical of the state, to help them with capacity building and familiarise them with concepts such as International Humanitarian Law and other international norms.
Bangkok thinks more progressive CSOs and BRN members will be good for conflict resolution. The best-case scenario would be creation of a rift within the BRN movement, between the military hardliners and the more progressive camp.
But the Thai military, especially the Fourth Army, is not keen on giving foreign organisations or governments access to affairs in the far South.
Thai military officials said they don’t want the headache, but local CSOs said the Army is afraid of having to explain to outsiders their questionable tactics and conduct in this restive region.
They pointed to mounting allegations of human rights abuses and harassment of CSO leaders, including the recent raid on the home two young Patani Malay activists, Artef Sohko and Arfan Wattana, by some 60 armed security officers. The activists were not at home.
“My little brother asked them if they had a search warrant and they told him to shut up and to inform me that there’s no way I’m going to win this case because they have the power to do what they do,” said Arfan.
Officers stopped Arfan’s brother from photographing them; meanwhile a police officer took a selfie at the scene which he posted on Facebook with a complaint about the weather and long working hours.
Like the Army, Aksara is not keen on the idea of outsiders working with the BRN directly. In his mind, ongoing talks between his Dialogue Panel and MARA Patani is the only legitimate process and anybody who wants to work on conflict resolution in the far South needs to come and see him.
But non-military personnel said the only way to move forward is to give in to BRN’s demand of internationalising the process.
One reason why some in Bangkok policymaking circles favour the idea of permitting foreign countries to work with the BRN is that they believe the government holds the moral high ground in the eyes of the international community, which is supportive of their policy for the far South.
The BRN, on the other hand, said Thailand is only interested in reducing the violence to justify their counter-insurgency programmes but won’t talk about historical grievances and root causes of the regional conflict. The positions of the two sides, it seems, are just as wide apart as ever
Don Pathan is a security consultant and member of the Patani Forum (www.pataniforum.com), a civil society organisation dedicated to critical discussion on the conflict in Thailand’s far South.