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Pause and reconsider deep South negotiations

The government should postpone peace talks until verifiable and unified representatives of Malay-Muslim separatist groups come to the table

One of the things that Thailand asked of Hasan Taib, the designated "liaison" officer for the ongoing peace talks between the Thai authorities and the Barisan Revolusi Nasional-Coordinate (BRN-C), was that he had to bring other Malay-Muslim separatist groups to the table.

Eight months after the February 28 "launch" in Kuala Lumpur, Thailand is still waiting for a credible and coherent opposition to come to the table.

The government desperately needs to show the public in a quantifiable way that the February 28 initiative is the right thing. Bringing more participants is one way. Another way is to bring the number of insurgent attacks down.

Public patience is declining because of the relentless violence on the ground by the current crop of separatist militants, who are indifferent to announcements that the Thai government is determined to resolve the conflict in the three southernmost provinces through peaceful dialogue.

The Thai delegates paint Hasan and his colleagues as people who can change the course of the conflict, while the BRN cadres said he is merely a proxy with no control over the militants and no real influence anywhere else in the separatist movement.

The BRN ruling council says it wants a reset button and continued talks but in a very small group out of the public and international spotlight. The idea is to work from a clean slate to generate confidence between the two sides and go from there.

Ultimately, the BRN wants to increase its political profile in a step-by-step manner and establish a political wing to capture the moral high ground. Once the political wing is established, a formal peace process could be in the pipeline.

For Thailand, a reset button means host Malaysia will have to sit out for the time being. It would also mean Hasan disappearing from the spotlight, along with the so-called "Track 1" that was launched on February 28.

The BRN says violence will continue but perhaps with better defined rules of engagement. A common understanding on this point could very well lead to a better situation, it says.

The Thai authorities, on the other hand, are too embarrassed to tell Malaysia to back off for fear of offending Pheu Thai Party de facto leader Thaksin Shinawatra, who got Kuala Lumpur to mediate the process. Even more embarrassing is how to tell the public about the need to restart the process entirely.

Not willing to push the reset button, Thai officials have, over the past few months, actively tried to keep the Track 1 alive. National Security Council (NSC) chief Lieutenant General Paradon Pattanatabut has said two more longstanding separatist groups will be joining the talks, but he didn't name names.

Leaders of other longstanding groups view the invitation to come to the table with extreme caution, with the exception of the Patani United Liberation Organisation (Pulo) under the leadership of Sweden-based Kasturi Mahkota, whose organisation has stated that it wants to be part of the ongoing Track 1 process. Kasturi's Pulo was in discussions with the NSC from 2005 to 2011. Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra ditched the initiative between the NSC and Kasturi soon after taking office and asked Kuala Lumpur to mediate the current process.

A Pulo faction under the leadership of Samsudine Khan, on the other hand, is still holding out, possibly, said a senior Thai security officer, waiting to see which direction the BRN inner circle will take. He also shunned a Thai delegate from the Fourth Army, Southern Border Provinces Administrative Centre and a Pheu Thai MP who went to Sweden earlier this month. They were on a mission to sound out exiled leaders.

Likewise, the Barisan Islam Pembangunan Pattani (BIPP) continues with a wait-and-see approach. The BIPP ruling council told members that they are free to attend the talks but not under the organistion's banner. And so a couple of BIPP members left the group and dug out the old name - Barisan Nasional Pembebasan Patani (BNPP) - and went with that.

BRN cadres say they are indifferent to Thailand's discussions with other groups because, in the final analysis, the group with the best working relationship with the insurgents will matter the most.

BRN operatives think the Thai government is barking up the wrong tree. Instead of endlessly looking for credible participants from other groups and factions, the Thai government should spend more time looking for ways to create a political process that is convincing and coherent.

And if the process is credible and coherent enough, then the various factions will produce viable representatives, they say.

For the time being, the current process will limp along in whatever form it may take. It won't be easy because the government and the Army have yet to establish common ground as to what kind of concessions the Thai side is willing to give.

Unfortunately, room for concession has been limited now that the Army chief, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, has already said they will not go along with the idea of granting the Malay-speaking region any special administrative status.

Meanwhile, insurgents are toying with a new idea - how to enhance their "communicative action" to reach a wider audience. The insurgents made a video of a September 27 shootout involving some 20 gunmen and posted it on YouTube. Four security officers and a villager were killed and 12 others injured in that attack. One BRN cadre said that the video could be a sign of more things to come.

As for the insurgents' capabilities, they appear to have mastered the tactic of roadside bombing and ambushing. On the handling of more sophisticated weaponry, they are learning as they go. An example is the series of attacks with M79 grenade launchers that kept missing their intended targets, the latest being the Mayo district office in Pattani on the evening of October 20.

Don Pathan is a freelance consultant based in Yala and a member of the Patani Forum (www.pataniforum.com).




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