With talks set to begin again, the separatists need help forging a political wing
A new Thai negotiating team for the latest round of talks with Patani Malay separatist movements is taking shape as top policymakers enter the final selection stage for the daunting task ahead.
The selection should be finalised by the end of this month, furnishing a team made up of mid-ranking government officials from various agencies and ministries. They include the National Intelligence Agency, the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Centre, the ministries of Justice and of Foreign Affairs, the Internal Security Operation Command, and representatives from the Fourth Army Area and the Royal Thai Army.
Former Army chief-of-staff General Aksara Kherdphol was appointed chief negotiator by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha some months ago. Thailand will continue to use Malaysia as the designated facilitator.
There is also a hidden component to the talks – a backdoor channel by which Thai security officials meet face to face with representatives from individual separatist groups without Malaysia’s participation. But it is not yet clear how this covert track will complement the official process.
The secret track is expected to address operational issues, such as rules of engagement, while politically charged issues will be confined to the official track.
According to both Thai officials and insurgency sources, the official and the backdoor channel must complement one another, or it would defeat the purpose of having a two-track process. While the official talks will take place in public, negotiations on military matters will be clandestine, they said.
There have already been two such face-to-face backdoor meetings, between senior officers of the Fourth Army Area command and leaders from two long-standing separatist movements. Both were held in December in Indonesia.
But military insiders say the meetings were conducted without the endorsement of Aksara and that any agreement reached could not be honoured. Thailand’s dealings with Patani Malay separatist organisations over this past half century have been shaped by mistrust and the inability to honour promises made. No one is certain whether things will be any different this time around.
It is not yet clear who will be leading the secret talks. Sources say the junta might give the job to retired General Akanit Maunsawat, a close personal friend of Premier Prayut.
Akanit was initially tipped to lead the Thai negotiating team but was removed from the line-up because Bangkok did not want to upset Malaysia by appointing him to this high-profile position.
Akanit has in the past made critical statements about Malaysia, accusing the Kuala Lumpur government of being half-hearted towards Thailand’s peace initiative in the South.
He said Thailand had worked hard to help Malaysia bring an end to its communist insurgency and was hoping Kuala Lumpur would reciprocate over the Thai insurgency.
Observers said his return to the process – nominally as an “adviser to the government negotiating team” – has not only sent a wrong message to Kuala Lumpur but could very well undermine Aksara’s role.
One concern relates to the line of command: It’s not clear if Akanit will be accountable to Aksara or report directly to PM Prayuth – or be completely independent and free to speak his mind.
Akanit was the Army’s point man in various talks with leaders of the longstanding separatist movements in the 1980s and ’90s. Those encounters were treated as information-gathering exercises rather than formal negotiations or meaningful efforts at finding how the Malays of Patani could coexist peacefully with the Thai state. The main separatist group back then was the Patani United Liberation Organisation, or Pulo.
Today, the vast majority of insurgent combatants come under the network of the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), a secretive group of elders with strong religious credentials.
BRN operatives said the elders are not involved in combat operations but do intervene once in a while when they feel the fighters have strayed too far away from their loosely defined rules of engagement.
Between the elders and the combatants is the political wing, a group of mid-ranking figures, also with considerable religious credentials, who one day hope to be the public face of the BRN.
BRN representatives say the organisation is not interested in joining any peace process because the group gives priority to establishing a recognisable political wing that could represent the movement. There are also other related issues, such as immunity for insurgents and recognition of the group’s political wing and negotiators. The group said it is willing to work with members of the international community to achieve this goal.
And if it does work with outsiders in whatever capacity, it would prefer that they be state entities, not local or international NGOs.
BRN leaders have looked at other separatist organisations, such as the Free Aceh Movement and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, and been impressed by their respective political wings.
Observers of the conflict say a political wing is necessary to serve as a buffer for the government in Bangkok. The government needs to be able to say it is dealing not with armed men but with a political group. Moreover, the two sides need to be able to communicate on the same wavelength.
But doing away with the zero-sum-game mentality will not be easy for the Thai military. Thailand’s top brass have shown no willingness to make concessions. Observers said the junta just wants the number of violent incidents to drop so it can show the public that it is making headway.
In other words, educating the BRN so the movement can be on a par with its Thai counterpart if and when it enters peace talks is not exactly high on the agenda of the Bangkok administration.
BRN sources say they are well aware that, historically, the Thai Army has never been too thrilled about a formal peace process. They are also aware that the military had no role in the formulation of peace talks launched by the Yingluck government in Kuala Lumpur on February 28, 2013.
The fact that the Army is running the show now has not changed that long-standing attitude. The BRN sees the rebooting of peace talks by the junta as a public relations stunt designed for both domestic and international consumption.
That view is shared by many in the international community, who have observed the developments with keen interest but are still wondering what kind of concessions Thailand is willing to make to the BRN or the Malay-speaking people of the deep South.
One positive for Bangkok is that the number of violent incidents has dropped by about 40 per cent compared to last year. But BRN sources dismiss that statistic, saying their group has succeeded in expanding to new ground – Yala’s Betong and Songkhla’s Sadao districts – and that they are attacking more meaningful targets and with greater intensity.
The BRN’s military capability and activities make it relevant, its representatives said. But whether that capability is enough to convince Thai authorities to relinquish their zero-sum mentality remains to be seen.
But the “great game” has already begun, it seems, as international mediators look to gain entry to the process and secure a seat at the table. With the exception of the BRN, leaders of the longstanding separatist organisations are publishing photos and video of themselves in the public domain, apparently to create an impression that they are part of this contest.
BRN sources say they remain camera shy because they have too much to lose by surfacing at this juncture.
Don Pathan is a member of the Patani Forum (www.pataniforum.com) and a freelance consultant based in Yala, Thailand.