Peace move has not been well thought out
It's not clear whether the govt is talking to the right people as it tries to end the southern insurgencyIt didn't take long for the spoiler to flex his muscles. But Thailand didn't have to end up in this predicament if the Pheu Thai Party leadership and the bureaucrats under its wing had thought things through before rushing into an "agreement" with some self-proclaimed Barisan Revolusi Nasional-Coordinate (BRN-C) leaders who no one in the deep South seems to know.
The spoiler in this case is Army chief, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, who never liked the idea of inking any deal with the Patani Malay-Muslim separatists in the first place.
Sources in the security community say Prayuth was using words like "unacceptable" in the days leading up to the February 28 signing in Kuala Lumpur between the National Security Council (NSC) and a group of men who claim to be speaking for the Muslim majority in the three southernmost provinces.
If history is to be the judge, Prayuth's objection may have more to do with who "owns" the peace process, not the idea itself.
Traditionally, the job of talking to the separatists has always been the Army's. In the 1980s, mid-ranking officers would be sent off to Middle Eastern countries to meet with these leaders, but nothing meaningful ever happened because these activities weren't meant to generate ideas that could affect national policy for the Muslim-majority South. The same can be said about the current insurgency that went into full swing in January 2004. Just about every agency wanted to get in on the peace game, but nobody could develop meaningful traction.
And then came the Yingluck Shinawatra government, which started off by stacking loyal bureaucrats in the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Centre (SBPAC) and the NSC.
The SBPAC was supposed to be the entry point for the Malay-Muslims to voice their opinions and reconcile their differences, while the NSC was supposed to look for ways to bring a peaceful end to the conflict that has claimed more than 5,000 lives since 2004.
But instead of working for the national interest, the NSC and SBPAC became political tools. What the political boss wants, the political boss gets. And in this respect, the country's top politician wants to be seen as bringing peace to the region, allegedly as a way to help bring her fugitive brother Thaksin back home. After all, the mishandling of the deep South was one factor the military cited when it ousted him in the 2006 coup.
Kuala Lumpur has gone along with it, too, since the leadership there also wants to be seen as doing the right thing. Besides, this is convenient, especially because a general election is imminent there.
And so the NSC over the past 12 months put together this peace process in the hope that, somehow, the various separatist groups and leaders might see the goodness in Bangkok's heart and come to the table. It has gone to groups of men who were active in the insurgency three decades ago, who are available to help make Thailand look good.
It's strange that these self-proclaimed BRN-Coordinate leaders, led by Hassan Toib, were never asked to verify that they really have command and control on the ground. It is something the NSC-led team could have done quietly, to verify that they are talking to people who can actually influence the insurgents.
Because the NSC didn't do its homework - which would have been more common sense than anything - General Prayuth now has the ammunition to discredit the effort he has billed as "unacceptable".
Everyone has taken a big leap of faith, hoping that Hasan will be able to attract other separatist organisations to the table. Other groups say they are still waiting for the invitation, but the insurgents, supposedly linked to the real BRN-Coordinate, continue with their campaign of violence.
If the NSC, SBPAC and government had been honest from the beginning and said to the public, "Look, we are dealing with men who know somebody in the BRN and other movements, and we are going to use them as go-betweens", then we wouldn't be in this predicament.
They should have been honest with the people and said this move was a leap of faith, but one worth taking, as it would help them avoid the ongoing humiliation that kicks in every time insurgents kill soldiers or civilians or set off a roadside bomb.