Until Thailand achieves greater political stability, there's little hope for any peace initiative
Nobody was surprised when one of the first things the Thai generals did after launching their coup was to remove the secretary-general of the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Centre (SBPAC), Thawee Sodsong, from his post.
Thawee was deemed too close to fugitive ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra, the de facto leader of the Pheu Thai-led government ousted by the military. Thaksin had seen in Thawee an opportunity to heal the rift between the Thai state and the Malay Muslims of the southernmost provinces. Thawee was told to be generous and to give the Malays whatever they wanted. According to his supporters, it was Thaksin’s way of showing gratitude to the Muslim world for giving him refuge after he went into exile.
No one is sure if Thaksin’s supporters actually believe this rationale, especially as there is little indication that the United Arab Emirates and other Middle Eastern countries are remotely interested in the conflict in Thailand’s deep South. The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) did issue a statement of concern about the situation, but that’s about it.
Thaksin’s so-called generosity translated into cash handouts – to the families of those killed by Thai security forces, to innocent victims caught in the crossfire, and to those whose homes or property were damaged in insurgent attacks. It was also used to win favours from local residents and leaders deemed helpful to the government’s cause of bringing peace to this restive region.
It’s hard to measure the scale of Thawee’s success, but he did establish good working relations with some civil-society organisations. Others chose to keep their distance, including youth activists and the Ulema Council of Fatoni – especially when Thawee became the centre of a Thaksin-initiated peace process facilitated by Kuala Lumpur and launched there on February 28, 2012.
Many locals detected good intentions in Thawee and they flocked to bid him farewell at his official residence in Yala. Others, especially those in the separatist community, took him to be playing a dangerous game, especially when the peace process quickly turned into a political circus as talks between the Thai delegation and a motley crew of self-proclaimed Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) leaders got underway.
Within days of the talks’ launch in Kuala Lumpur, respected former separatist leader Wan Kadir Che Man arrived at the SBPAC office in Yala to give Thawee a lengthy scolding.
Wan Kadir was not a member of the BRN but he knew that the so-called rebels at the negotiating table did not represent the stance and the sentiment of the separatist movements, or have much clout with the combatants. Wan Kadir had been a leader of the now-defunct Bersatu, an umbrella organisation for the longstanding separatist movements.
He didn’t see Malaysia as an honest broker and suggested that the talks should be directly between the separatists and the Thai government. And if there was a need for mediation, he preferred that a Western government take the role.
Hardly a day has passed since the February 28 launch without news of at least one violent incident in this historically contested region. But several months ago, the theatre of violence shifted beyond the rural areas to embrace towns and cities as the militant separatist stepped up their campaign to inflict psychological damage on the Thai state’s security apparatus.
Thawee made a name for himself back in 2004 when he was sent by Bangkok to investigate the famous raid on an Army camp on January 4 of that year. Insurgents killed four soldiers on guard duty and made off with more than 300 military-grade weapons. Thaksin wanted to teach the militants a lesson and reckoned Thawee, then a police officer, could get things done.
Thawee swung into action, issuing a number of arrest warrants, including one for Sapae-ing Basor, the former principle of Thamvithya Mulnithi School in Yala, accusing him of being a separatist leader. Sapae-ing is a well-known spiritual leader in the region.
Eight years later when he was assigned to lead the SBPAC and then took charge of a peace process that was hatched by Thaksin himself, Thawee realised that he wasn’t fighting a bunch of criminals, but that this was a “culture war” between the Thai state and the Malays of Patani. Realising that the separatists embraced an alternative historical narrative, Thawee believed that if he could gain the ear of a key spiritual leader, he might have a chance at peace.
Thawee toyed with the idea of dropping the charges against Sapae-ing, but there was no guarantee that the ageing spiritual leader was going to reciprocate.
Thai officials who read Sapae-ing’s file said the allegations against him would not hold up in court, suggesting that the charges were politically motivated. But nobody had to the courage to see that justice was done. And so the charges against the one man many believe could have helped Bangkok’s bid for peace with the insurgents remained intact.
With Thawee now out of the picture, the junta in Bangkok is working on putting together a new team, though the faces are familiar. Former SBPAC chief Panu Uthairat, a veteran in the region, has replaced Thawee, and will be part of the military-backed team of top bureaucrats tasked with overseeing the peace process in the deep South.
Panu will join with recently reinstated NSC chief Thawil Pliensri and his former deputy Somkiet Boonchu. Between 2005 and the time Yingluck came to power, both men were part of the NSC team involved in secret talks with one of the three main Patani United Liberation Organisation (Pulo) groups headed by Sweden-based Kasturi Mahkota. The initiative, which was facilitated by a Geneva-based NGO, was ditched by the Yingluck government, which gave the mandate to Malaysia.
Military sources say the junta in Bangkok is still brainstorming over their next move for the deep South and has been meeting with experts and academics on what to do. And while the Thaksin-initiated peace process is pretty much dead, it does not necessary mean an end to Malaysia’s role in future process, they say.
The extent of Malaysia’s role has yet to be decided but sources in the BRN movement say they are annoyed at the lack of commitment from the Thai side, with each change of government bringing a new team for the deep South.
The absence of continuity is a direct result of political instability in the country. Until Thailand achieves greater political stability, separatist leaders say they don’t have much hope for any peace initiative in the pipeline.
Don Pathan is a freelance consultant based in southern Thailand and a member of the Patani Forum (www.pataniforum.com).