All sides must work together to find a way to talk with separatists
The reactions by our military and political leaders from both sides of the divide have been nothing less than appalling when it comes to the violence in the deep South. They appear to be more eager to discredit one another than to genuinely seek ways to end the conflict once and for all. The Democrats, as well as the military, didn’t waste time attacking fugitive former premier Thaksin Shinawatra after they discovered that he had met a group of separatist leaders.
For the record, various government administrations, agencies and top military officers have held talks or negotiations with the separatists since the 1980s.
At first it was the Army. But their encounters with the separatists leaders never went beyond news and intelligence gathering. This explains why these activities have no bearing on national policy toward the Malays in the three southernmost provinces.
These separatist movements went under in the late 1980s and early 1990s and many of their leaders remain in exile.
A new generation of militants surfaced in 2001, about the time Thaksin came to power. But Thaksin didn’t want to recognise them, and called them “sparrow bandits” until scores of them raided a military base in Narathiwat on January 4, 2004.
The new generation called themselves “juwae”, or fighters in the local Malay dialect, and their leaders are said to have regular dialogues with members of the Barisan Revolusi Nasional-Coordinate (BRN-C), one of the long-standing separatist groups that surfaced in the late 1960s. Sources in the movement said a shared command has yet to be established.
In late 2005, then premier Thaksin gave a green light to a series of negotiations involving the exiled separatist leaders. Representing Thailand was then Armed Forces Security Centre chief Lt-General Vaipot Srinuan and General Winai Pathiyakul, head of the National Security Council (NSC). The encounters were referred to as the Langkawi Process, named after the Malaysian island where the meetings were held.
A set of recommendations was given to Thaksin but he was too busy with the Yellow Shirt demonstrations brewing in Bangkok.
After the coup in 2006, then premier Surayud Chulanont gave the green light to all relevant government agencies to seek non-military means to end the conflict. This meant negotiating with the separatists if one had to.
The process was stalled during the Samak Sundaravej and Somchai Wongsawat administrations because they were too bogged down with the demonstrations in Bangkok.
During the Abhisit Vejjajiva administration, the NSC was brought into the picture again to head a dialogue process. This ended when the current administration of Yingluck Shinawatra decided to throw its weight behind its favourite bureaucrat in the deep South, Thawee Sodsong, the current chief of the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Centre (SBPAC).
The juwae and the BRN-Coordinate have been excluded from negotiations, from the Langkawi Process in 2005 up to the recent meeting between Thaksin and the separatist leaders. Sources in the BRN-Coordinate have said they can never forgive Thaksin and his affiliates for what they have done to the Malays of Patani, but have not ruled out talks with the Thais.
If the Democrats, Pheu Thai and the Army believe the lives of the people in the deep South are more important than their egos, they must stop politicising this idea of talking to the enemy. After all, they have all done it at one time or another.
What is needed now is to depoliticise the process so that the dialogue with the old guard continues in the hope that these exiled leaders can serve as a link to the juwae on the ground. Members of the country’s civil society and retired bureaucrats could keep this process alive, instead of the politicians, in order to make it as bipartisan as possible.
It won’t be easy. The recent triple bombing in Yala, which killed more than 10 people and injured over 100, has shown that the juwae are in no mood to talk. Hunting them down and killing them hasn’t worked because our military and security apparatus are not up to the task.
Instead of admitting their shortcomings and putting the interests of the local people first, our top brass and policy makers would rather look for ways to score political points – in spite of the fact that they are all equally pathetic when it comes to meeting this security challenge.