Junta steps in to deep South minefield

opinion July 11, 2014 00:00

By The Nation

NCPO has a chance to clear path to peace, but only if it learns lessons of history

The junta’s plan for resolving the ongoing conflict and insurgency in the deep South is finally emerging, but more has to be done to assure the public that our current crop of leaders is serious about peace in this historically contested region.
Despite speaking for nearly an hour in his televised address to the nation following the coup, General Prayuth Chan-ocha did not once mention the conflict in the South. Instead he talked about the “three-finger salute” and his bitterness over how Hollywood films portray Thailand, adding that Thais should share his feelings.
We can surmise that the insurgency in the Muslim-majority, Malay-speaking far South is not a high priority for the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO). This is in stark contrast to the leaders of the previous coup in 2006, when the military administration cited Thaksin Shinawatra’s mishandling of the southern conflict – along with corruption and a lack of respect for the monarchy – as its justification for ousting him.
This week, General Udomdej Sitabutr, secretary-general of the NCPO and the man tipped to be the next Army chief, visited the South. He was greeted with an insurgent attack in Yala’s Than To district. 
As in most other attacks, insurgents detonated a roadside bomb as security officials were passing and then opened fire with guns. It lasted for about 15 minutes and left one paramilitary ranger dead and another wounded. They were on an assignment to protect schoolteachers at the time of the attack.
Peace talks are set to resume following the announcement that National Security Council (NSC) secretary-general Thawil Pliensri will lead a Thai delegation in negotiations with the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) separatist group. But, as is often the case, the devil is in the details. 
Hassan Taib, the man designated as BRN liaison in the Malaysia-mediated peace talks launched in February 2013 in Kuala Lumpur, threw in the towel in August last year and disappeared, turning up at his residence in Malaysia a few months later.
Efforts to find a replacement – someone who can speak on behalf of the secretive BRN – have hit a brick wall because the organisation’s ruling council has been silent on the matter. In fact the BRN leadership never endorsed the 2013 initiative in the first place. 
Moreover, according to various sources, the BRN is not prepared to enter into any dialogue unless its political wing is recognised and granted immunity and the whole outfit accepted as a legitimate organisation by the Thai side. 
Udomdej’s talk of maintaining the continuity of peace negotiations should be welcomed, but he must go beyond that and clear existing obstacles before the BRN, as well as other groups, will agree to come on board. This peace process and talks should not be treated as a zero-sum game. 
Regardless of which groups come to the negotiating table, it is important that the junta understands the ongoing violence is part of a larger, ongoing “negotiation” – or failed historical relationship – between the Malays of Patani and the Thai state. A comfort level was established in the 50 years after the region came under Bangkok’s direct rule, but an armed insurgency emerged in the mid-1960s. 
An investigation of the last half-century of government policy in the far South could furnish the junta with valuable lessons on what has gone wrong.