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Deep South talks: a fresh attempt to revive the corpse

This picture taken on September 19, 2013 shows a Thai soldier keeping guard at a market in Narathiwat, capital of one of three Muslim-majority provinces in the grip of a bloody decade-long insurgency that has claimed over 5,900 lives in the deep Thai sout

This picture taken on September 19, 2013 shows a Thai soldier keeping guard at a market in Narathiwat, capital of one of three Muslim-majority provinces in the grip of a bloody decade-long insurgency that has claimed over 5,900 lives in the deep Thai sout

Government negotiators are about to claim "progress"; in reality this is a sham process that refuses to include the real powers behind the insurgency

Last year on February 28, the Thai government announced it was entering peace talks with the Barisan Revolusi Nasional-Coordinate (BRN-C) to seek a political solution to the conflict in the southernmost provinces.

Representing the BRN-C was Hasan Taib, the designated "liaison". Malaysia's former intelligence chief, Dato Ahmad Zamzamin Hashim, was appointed as facilitator by the Malaysian government.

The public face for the Thais was National Security Council (NSC) chief Lt Gen Paradon Pattanatabut, and by his side was the head of the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Centre, Pol Colonel Thawee Sodsong. Both men are extremely close to the Pheu Thai Party and its de facto leader, Thaksin Shinawatra.

Among Thai officials and some casual observers there is a longstanding belief that Malaysia has been backing separatist movements in the deep South.

They believed that with Kuala Lumpur on board the dialogue process, peace and political settlement was inevitable.

But the people who embrace this notion never bothered to ask whether the exiled separatist leaders and the Kuala Lumpur government had patched up differences that date back as far as 1997, when Malaysian officials handed over number of senior separatist leaders to their Thai counterparts. At the time, Malaysia wanted to show Thailand it was a friend, but the damage stemming from the handover has haunted Malaysia ever since.

The insurgents, or "juwae", operating in the South, wasted no time in displaying their disapproval of the Kuala Lumpur-backed initiative. Within 24 hours of the official launch of talks on February 28, 2013, juwae unleashed a bomb attack in the heart of Patani just metres away from the city's iconic clock tower. Since than, hardly a day has gone by without an insurgency-related attack in the contested region.

This is hardly surprising, given that the February 28 initiative did not have the blessing of the BRN-C's inner circle. Thawee and Paradon like to claim that Hasan is a part of that circle, but sources and operatives in the movement insist otherwise.

Instead, the movement "used" Hasan to make demands, knowing that the Thais would never agree. The idea was to test the water. And Team Thailand danced to their tune.

Tired of being kicked around like a football between the BRN, Malaysian authorities and the Thai negotiating team, Hasan threw in the towel and has been incommunicado since December last year.

Talking to Malay-Muslim separatist leaders is nothing new for Thai officials, of course. Back in the 1980s, the task went to mid-ranking army officers, who treated the dialogue as more of a news-gathering exercise for the top brass.

In 2006 the Thai NSC was brought into the picture, and then-prime minister Surayud Chulanont gave the green light for a Geneva-based NGO to facilitate talks.

The so-called Geneva Process brought together the Thai NSC and one of the three Patani United Liberation Organisation (Pulo) factions, under the leadership of Kasturi Mahkota. NSC deputy secretary-general Somkiet Boonchoo was named Thailand's point-man in the negotiations.

Then, shortly after Yingluck came into power, the Geneva Process was scrapped and Malaysia was brought in to mediate the process.

Somkiet and his NSC chief at the time, Thawil Pliensri, were moved to inactive posts. Thawil kicked up a fuss about the transfer but Yingluck couldn't care less. She and her brother Thaksin were more concerned with loyalty, and they put their trust in Thawee and Paradon.

Not only did Thaksin conjure up the idea of bringing Malaysia to the peace process, he thought that if he played a more direct role he would add legitimacy to the process. Thaksin met with a group of 16 exiled separatist leaders in March, 2012, in Kuala Lumpur, asking them to close the book on this conflict.

Those who took Thaksin's bait were dismissed as 'opportunists", while the core insurgents, namely the BRN inner circle and the operatives, were labelled as "hardliners".

BRN leaders refuse to recognise Kuala Lumpur as an honest broker and have yet to forgive the Malaysians for the secret handovers.

Insurgent operatives also showed their disapproval of Thaksin's initiative by launching a triple car bomb attack on March 30, 2012, in the heart of Yala two weeks after he met with the 16 exiled leaders. A major hotel in downtown Hat Yai was also hit. In all, the attacks killed at least 13 people and injured more than 100.

But Thaksin, his political cronies and Malaysia decided to overlooked the warning and went ahead with the Kuala Lumpur-backed initiative in February last year.

Local politicians under the Pheu Thai Party's wing did the leg work to pave the way for a process that BRN leaders said had more to do with whitewashing Thaksin for his questionable handling of the conflict than getting to the bottom of the historical grievances between the Malays of Patani and the Thai state.

Kasturi's faction was kept out of the process while a rival Pulo faction, under the leadership of Noor Abdulrahman (also known as Abae Kamae), was given a seat at the table.

The snub for Kasturi's faction was understandable given that the Geneva Process wouldn't permit Kuala Lumpur to join their initiative. A deal was cut in October last year to give Kasturi's Pulo faction a seat at the table. Details about the trade-off were not disclosed but government sources said it centred on rules of engagement.

The Army, needless to say, never liked the idea of having civilians running a peace process. And so late last year, the Army sponsored three trips for Wan Kadir Che Man, former leader of the now defunct Bersatu, an umbrella group for the longstanding separatist movements, to speak in Thailand.

Wan Kadir, a well-known exiled separatist leader, has long been critical of using Malaysia as facilitator or mediator for talks. He didn't mince words in lashing out at the current peace process. He wasn't too keen on the Geneva Process either, and suggested that the Thai government and the separatist leaders should meet face to face. And if there was need for a mediator, Wan Kadir suggested that Western governments with a long record of humanitarian actions should be in the frame, not NGOs.

While the Yingluck government has paid lip-service to a political solution for the conflict, the Thai team working on the current initiative is an ad hoc group that hardly inspires confidence. There is no secretariat and team members have regular day jobs to attend to, only coming together a day before any meeting with Hasan.

From the beginning, their immediate goal has been to get Hasan to convince the core BRN leadership and the juwae to reduce the number of attacks in the South. They needed something tangible to show their political bosses and the public that they are moving in the right direction.

But when it became clear that the BRN-C and juwae were not going to play along, Hasan decided to thrown in the towel and go into hiding last December.

Ironically, the political crises and street protests in Bangkok have given everyone in the deep South talks breathing space. Team Thaksin and Zamzamin went back to the drawing board. This week Zamzamin is expected to announce the "progress" on the process, like securing the participation of the third Pulo faction, led by Samsudine Khan, as well as that of the Barisan Islam Pembangunan Pattani (BIPP). There is also talk of permitting other separatist groups and local NGOs into the process.

BRN sources are reportedly unimpressed with this numbers game. They say they look at Bangkok and see a big mess, and as a result there is no way they are going to believe anything that comes out of Thawee's or Paradon's mouth.

Moreover, regardless of how many NGOs or separatist groups take part in the next round of talks, without the blessing of the core BRN leaders and the juwae, any attempt to salvage this sinking boat of a peace process will be met with the insurgents' wrath.


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