Political meddling has always foiled chances for peace in the deep South - but the junta can now take a leap toward ending the insurgency
The National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) is being bombarded by advice on all sorts of issues, but hardly anyone is talking about the conflict in the southernmost provinces, where a decade-old insurgency has claimed more than 5,000 lives.
Plainly, this sub-national conflict is not at the top of the NCPO list of priorities. Nevertheless, an opportunity to aid peace efforts in the deep South is knocking at the door of the junta, which is working with a clean slate, without having to worry about opposition parties, Parliament and so on.
To seize that opportunity, an advisory committee should be created and tasked with selecting a team to work on a solution for the region and perhaps initiate a peace process with the rebels.
The last peace talks, launched on February 28, 2012, in Kuala Lumpur and facilitated by Malaysia, have been ditched by the current military regime because the Army and key government ministries were being held at arm’s length from the process.
Meanwhile no one yet knows how the current crop of leaders in Bangkok will tackle the southern conflict and whether Kuala Lumpur will continue to mediate efforts toward peace. Adding to difficulties is that the self-proclaimed representatives of the separatists, the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) led by Hasan Taib, threw in the towel late last year. So now Bangkok will have to find other groups or factions willing to talk peace – should it want to go that route.
The process should start somewhere, regardless of whether the so-called rebels at the table have much sway over armed insurgents actually doing the fighting.
The junta can also learn from the mistakes of the Yingluck Shinawatra government, which kept the peace initiative so close to its chest that many key government agencies were taken by surprise when the talks were announced.
The NCPO needs to make its initiative as inclusive as possible – at least during the planning stage – and select the best-available team to lead the process. In contrast, Yingluck’s key people were bureaucrats with close links to her and her brother.
While loyalty and experience are important, the NCPO should understand that prospective team members deemed “problematic” by the rebels or mediator should be kept out of the talks.
The NCPO could also exploit the lessons of past initiatives, and take up recommendations from the 2005-06 National Reconciliation Commission on peace in the South headed by Anand Panyarachun, or examine the ways in which the post-2006-coup government of General Surayud Chulanont addressed the insurgency.
Surayud apologised publicly for the 2004 Tak Bai massacre and other atrocities committed by the state against the Malays of Patani. But the majority of the country and its bureaucrats remained largely indifferent to the plight and different historical narrative of the Patani Malays, so nothing constructive ever developed from that apology.
Surayud also sought help from neighbouring countries and the international community, and permitted Switzerland-based professional mediators to work with the National Security Council.
But he didn’t see eye to eye with the people who appointed him, partly because the military-assigned government’s priority was not the South, but ridding politics and the bureaucracy of Thaksin Shinawatra’s influence.
Surayud, on the other hand, wanted to employ non-military means to bring about permanent peace in this restive, historically contested region.
His successors have faced a great deal of criticism for their decision to seize power with last month’s coup. But the junta can now redeem itself and justify that move by grasping the opportunity to push through constructive reforms and initiatives in areas where they are needed. One place crying out for such help is the conflict-hit deep South.