It's unclear who speaks for who in Thailand's deep South
With a long history of failed initiatives to end the Malay-Muslim insurgency in Thailand's deep South, the Thai government is determined to make the recently-inked "peace agreement" with a group of self-proclaimed Barisan Revolusi Nasional-Coordinate (BRN-C) leaders a success.The group is led by Hasan Toib, the self-designated "liaison officer" for the BRN movement.
The government of Yingluck Shinawatra has assigend Lieutenant General Paradon Pattanatabut, the secretary-general of the National Security Council (NSC) and Police Colonel Thawee Sodsong, the head of the Southern Border Provinces Administration Centre (SBPAC), to oversee the process, whose purpose is to attract other separatist groups to the table.
The role of the Army is still unclear, but a meaningful buy-in from the military has yet to be secured.
The February 28 gathering in Kuala Lumpur was not the first time that representatives from the Thai government came to the table with separatist leaders or met with people who claimed to be BRN leaders. A similar initiative was put together in 2005 in Langkawi, Malaysia, facilitated by former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohammed, and in 2008 by the then Indonesian vice president Jusuf Kalla, in Bogor.
In 2006, the then government of Surayud Chulanont asked a Western organisation to facilitate a dialogue process between the NSC and the Patani United Liberation Organisation (Pulo) under the leadership of Kasturi Mahkota, one of three men who claimed to be president of the organisation.
All of these initiatives, more or less, claimed to have the support of the BRN-C.
Today, mystery surrounding the identity of the BRN-C leadership continues. There is general agreement that the BRN-C is ruled by a council known as the Dewan Penilian Party, or DPP, not by a single individual leader.
According to Malaysian and BRN-C sources, Hasan has not received the DPP's blessing. The February 28 signing was Thailand's doing, no one else's, according to these sources.
But did Bangkok actually believe Hasan could help bring others to the table? After all, the ongoing violence on the ground suggests otherwise. To understand the significance of the South for the government, say many seasoned observers of this conflict, one has to go back to the 2006 coup.
Clearly, one of the excuses the Army used to justify ousting of Yingluck's brother, Thaksin, was his handling of the deep South. Bringing peace to the South - or at least pretending to be doing something about it - would help Thaksin counter these charges and speed up his return to the country.
On the surface, it seems that Bangkok has made this spectacular gesture of "peace" by putting the country's name and official seal on the line of an agreement. And if the situation on the ground doesn't improve, the Thaksin camp can always say that it was the one that extended the gesture and it was the militants who did not reciprocate.
As usual in Thai politics, political necessity outweighs national security.
By going public, participants who inked and witnessed the February 28 ceremony took a big leap of faith.
Hasan met Thaksin for the first time in March 2012 in Kuala Lumpur, along with 15 other separatist leaders. He sat next to the de facto leader of the Pheu Thai Party and appeared to hit the right notes, according to participants at the meeting.
A young BRN-C representative sent by the DPP was there but did not say a word and did not take part in the breakout session with Thaksin.
Participants said Hasan began to drift into the orbit of "Team Thaksin" but didn't make much of it.
"We knew Hasan was up to something but nobody took him seriously because he doesn't have any clout with the militants on the ground," said one exiled leader. "But nobody thought he would go as far as to enter an agreement with the Thais."
From the view of the separatist leaders, not only was the olive branch extended to the wrong group of people, the real BRN-C leadership is not prepared to enter into any peace process at this point.
For one thing, Bangkok has yet to address the issue of impunity for negotiators. Without it, say Malaysian and separatist sources, the real BRN-C leaders - those with command and control on the ground - are not likely to surface and talk peace.
Moreover, the vague language in the General Consensus on the Peace Dialogue Process about how "Safety measures shall be provided to all members of the Joint Working Group throughout the entire process" doesn't cut it.
Militants on the ground have shown that they are indifferent to the February 28 "agreement" - regardless of how spectacular Thailand claims it is - with their daily violent attacks. Humiliated by these attacks, especially those of May 5 in which 40 different locations saw simultaneous minor violent incidents in seven districts in Yala, "Team Thailand" - or, more appropriately, "Team Thaksin" - went into damage-control mode.
The NSC has been trying harder than ever to attract the endorsement and possible participation of Sapae-ing Basor, a Muslim spiritual leader and former principle of Thamavitya Mulniti School in Yala. Sapae-ing fled the country after a warrant, signed by Thawee, was issued for his arrest in early 2005. Seven other teachers from the school were also charged. All are on the run.
The fact that a number of students from Thamavitya have joined the current generation of insurgents made Sapae-ing vulnerable, not to mention the fact that he represents a different cultural and historical narrative - one that sets the Malays of Patani apart from the rest of the Thai state.
In spite of having been demonised for years by the Thai state, many Thai officials believe that the ageing cleric can help change the course of the conflict if he decides to enter the peace process. They point to his standing in his community and the fact that he is the only accused separatist leader recognisable to local residents.
The relationship between Thamavitya and the Thai state took a nosedive between 2004-2007 when about eight of its teachers were killed, one by one, shot dead at close range.
Surayud came to power following the coup in 2006, and within a year he announced an end to the use of "black lists", a term that is often associated with target killing in this contested region.
Things improved somewhat since then. But Sapae-ing is still playing hard-to-get, refusing to come to the Thai table. Thai officials who have read the file on Sapae-ing say he is likely to beat the charges against him if they ever reach court. The problem is, the case is still stuck in the Department of Special Investigation.
But even if the legal due process is exhausted and the charges against Sapae-ing are finally dropped, there is no guarantee that the cleric will come to the table. Moreover, even if Spae-ing publicly endorses the government's peace initiative, exiled separatist leaders say there is no guarantee that the militants on the ground will go along too. In other words, there is no short cut to peace in this historically contested region.