Malaysian Premier Mahathir Mohamad pledged to help Thailand resolve the 14-year bloody conflict in the country’s predominantly Malay-Muslim South during his two-day visit to Bangkok last week.
The time now seems ripe to take stock of why the peace dialogue in southern Thailand has made virtually no progress for the past four years.
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha resumed the Kuala Lumpur-facilitated peace talks in December 2014, after their launch by the civilian Yingluck Shinawatra government in February 2013. This is the first time the Thai state has formally talked peace with the rebels, who have waged armed rebellion in the South since the 1960s. The latest wave of violence erupted in 2004 and has claimed nearly 7,000 lives. The composition of dialogue parties has significantly changed on both sides under Prayut’s leadership. The military is in the driving seat of the Thai dialogue team, while the rebels are led by a new umbrella group called MARA Patani. Refusing to take part in the military-led talks is the Patani-Malay National Revolutionary Front (BRN), which controls most insurgent militia, although some of its members have joined MARA Patani on their own personal initiative.
The three obstacles
Mahathir has appointed Abdul Rahim Noor, former national police chief and head of the special branch, as the talks’ new facilitator. Abdul Rahim is an old hand who worked with Bangkok to secure peace with the Communist Party of Malaya while also holding secret talks with previous generations of southern separatists, particularly the Patani United Liberation Front (PULO). In response, Bangkok replaced its negotiations leader, General Aksara Kerdphol, with General Udomchai Thammasarorat, former Army commander in charge of the South. But this switch is unlikely to break the deadlock without a wider change in the talks’ parameters.
The peace effort faces three major obstacles: its limited aims, MARA Patani’s command and control over militants, and the BRN’s involvement.
First, the Thai government has to admit that four years has been lost without any tangible achievement, primarily because parameters have been set to serve only Bangkok’s agenda. Aksara claimed success in reducing violence and in the setting up of a “safety zone” in Narathiwat’s Cho Airong district. The decline of violence, however, apparently stems from the BRN’s changing strategy to increase its legitimacy in the eyes of the international community, rather than the peace talks or counterinsurgency operations.
It seems the military government regards the peace talks mainly as a way of controlling the violence. Prayut has said the dialogue is not about negotiations. Government security adviser Panitan Wattanayakorn stated, “The Thai government is open to peace dialogue as long as it does not involve secession and autonomy.”
Which begs the question: what ultimate goal does the Thai government have for the peace talk? The BRN will definitely not take part in talks that only serve Bangkok’s agenda. As Mahathir declared during his visit, Thailand must be prepared to “win some and lose some”. Unless Bangkok is unwilling to broaden its security focus and discuss fundamental political issues, a new facilitator and new Thai chief negotiator won’t be enough to secure lasting peace in the South.
Second, MARA Patani’s credibility has been badly undermined by questions over its command and control of insurgent fighters. The umbrella group comprises the Patani Islamic Liberation Front (BIPP), Patani Islamic Mujahideen Movement (GMIP), PULO and some BRN members. BIPP admits it has ceased military operations, whereas the PULO and GMIP’s military wings are believed fairly small. MARA Patani spokesman Abu Hafez Al-Hakim has stated that the next step is to call a ceasefire, but admitted it would be “difficult, if not impossible” without the participation of the BRN’s military wing. The relationship between MARA Patani and BRN has been viewed as hostile. Yet BRN spokesman Abdul Karim Klalid recently told BBC Thai that Mara Patani “is part of us”.
MARA Patani has made moves to unite with the BRN, including a proposal to change the umbrella organisation’s name. These ongoing efforts indicate the liberation groups may yet be able to form a united front.
Third, the biggest obstacle is how to engage the BRN in talks. The junta government has thus far refused to consider the BRN’s demands. The BRN recently stated five points: it does not oppose using political means to resolve the conflict; the talks must include international observers and an impartial facilitator, voluntarily agreed upon by both parties; the framework and roadmap of the dialogue as well as the facilitator’s terms of reference need to be agreed by both parties; Bangkok and the BRN must be the main dialogue partners but voices of other stakeholders should be included; and all sides must take lessons from other peace processes.
Another daunting obstacle is the BRN’s call for international observers. The Thais fear this would lead to further internationalisation of the conflict, which may open the door to secession. The Thai military cites East Timor as an example where UN intervention opened the way for independence from Indonesia – though this is debatable. In fact, there are several countries that have successfully ended separatist conflict through peace processes without resulting in separation. Take for example Indonesia with Aceh, and the southern Philippines. The crux of the matter is that the government must be ready to negotiate substantive political issues, particularly the re-arrangement of power between Bangkok and residents of the deep South in aspects such as education, culture, resource management, the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims, and local administration.
The BRN spokesman says the group has “slowed down its military operations as it is pursuing the political way”, which seems to be a positive gesture. Now, the Thai government and perhaps Thai society at large have to ask themselves how far they are willing to go to secure peace.
Rungrawee Chalermsripinyorat is an independent analyst monitoring the conflict in southern Thailand.