IT WAS billed as a significant step – some even called it a breakthrough – but the announcement on Tuesday that the Thai government and Malay Muslim separatists from the far South has agreed on a “safety zone” is still a pipe dream because the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), the group that controls virtually all of the combatants on the ground, is not onboard.
If the recent past is any lesson, the BRN stands ready to discredit any so-called progress made by the two sides – Thai government negotiators and MARA Patani, an umbrella organisation made up of long-standing separatist movements besides the BRN.
For example, just a year ago, when a Thai official leaked to the local press that the two sides had agreed to designate Narathiwat’s Joh I Rong district as a “safety zone”, BRN combatants dispatched about 40 combatants to take over the district hospital and launched an assault on the Paramilitary Ranger camp next door. CCTV cameras captured the group’s movements, which was exactly what it wanted – to send a stern warning to the government and MARA Patani of its capabilities.
Government and MARA Patani lead negotiators came together this past Tuesday to rubber stamp the work of senior officials from both sides who had been working on various technical issues such as the scope, definition, mechanism and framework for formal talks.
The task at this point is to set the stage for formal negotiations that will take place if and when the two sides decide the time is right. For now, they have agreed in principle to bring five districts – one in Pattani, two in Yala and two in Narathiwat – under a “safety zone”. But they have yet to designate the specific districts.
It’s a small step forward and it was done in a way that MARA Patani would not suffer humiliation in the same manner as after the Joh I Rong retaliation.
But the right time to elevate this ongoing dialogue into formal negotiations may not depend on the preparations of the technical team. It has more to do with the BRN’s willingness to come to the table.
Discussion on how to bring the real BRN to the table has been carried out in back channels. But, so far, the BRN has not budged. One of the factions within the Patani United Liberation Organisation (Pulo) led by Samsudine Khan, who is based in Sweden, is taking the same wait-and-see approach.
One month after the Joh I Rong operation, MARA Patani was forced to swallow its pride in April 2016 when Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha said he could not formally recognise the umbrella organisation because it was associated with “criminals”.
Some officials say it was Prayut’s way of keeping MARA Patani at bay until the real BRN comes to the table. Others think Prayut realised that it is virtually impossible to reach any sort of formal agreement with the rebels during his time in office and he was not willing to make any meaningful concession because he was concerned about his legacy. He did not want to be remembered as the leader who gave away Patani, they said.
MARA Patani wants the dialogue process it conducts to be official and binding, as well as assurances that its negotiators and technicians will be granted legal immunity. Such demands are understandable in any conflict resolution process.
The rejection only reinforces the belief among BRN leaders that the Thai government side is not willing to make concessions and that coming to the table at this juncture would be a waste of time.