PAUSE AND REFLECT
Peace process complicated by lack of unity and authority
Before Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yoobamrung's recent visit to Malaysia, Thai officials, particularly from the security sector, were concerned about the possibility that the security tsar would go around making deals that Bangkok would not be able to deliver upon.Some see Chalerm as a loose cannon and question his ability to absorb sensitive and complex issues surrounding the insurgency in Thailand's Malay-speaking deep South.
Thai officials, especially at the operational level, had reason to be concerned, indeed. Besides the unpredictability of Chalerm, violence in the restive region, in the days leading up to his visit, had spiked. It jolted people who keep a close watch on the conflict.
According to separatist sources and observers s, the spike was in retaliation for the killing of an imam, Abdullateh Todir, 49, on November 14, allegedly by a pro-government death squad.
A senior police source believed Abdullateh was getting too cozy with the insurgents, also known as juwae, or fighters in the local Malay dialect, but did not go as far as to suggest that his agency was behind the killing.
Abdullateh Todir was a member of the Yala Islamic Committee and a resident of Tambon Patae, one of the "reddest" areas in the deep South. What irked many Islamic religious leaders was the fact that the imam and other clerics were asked to work as go-betweens - between the government and the separatist movement.
The problem with the Thai side is that there are too many agencies competing amongst themselves to quell the insurgency, and many have their own "negotiators". The problem with the separatist side is that the only people who are willing to come to the table are leaders of the long-standing separatist movements that emerged in the mid-1960s. As with the Thais, there is no unity among the separatist groups. Moreover, their ability to influence the new generation of militants on the ground is also questionable.
Such a situation leaves the new generation of militants, the juwae, in a bind with no exit and no other choice but to continue their campaign of violence.
The clerics, the potential go-betweens, quickly went into soul-searching mode immediately after Abdullateh was killed. Like everybody who monitors the conflict closely, the clerics were scratching their heads, wondering how in the world this government can talk peace and permit death squads to do as they please, even after a "gentlemen's agreement" basically said the government side will not permit target killings of religious leaders, while insurgents will lay off public schools.
A cadre from the Barisan Revolusi Nasional-Coordinate (BRN-C), the separaitst group with the best working relationship with the juwae, said the militants had kept their word throughout 2012. Between January and October 2012, two teachers were killed. One was an undercover police officer and the other killing, said a BRN-C source, was not claimed by the juwae.
Within days after Abdullateh was killed, insurgents responded immediately with a roadside bomb attack in downtown Yala, an ambush of a train with a security detail, a raid on a police station in Pattani's Raman district and the murder of a headmistress of a public school in Pattani's Tha Kam Cham, who was well liked by both Muslim and Buddhist locals. Three teachers would be killed in the following weeks, and two more schools came under arson attack.
And then came an early-morning massacre at a village teashop in Narathiwat's Rangae district on December 11 that resulted in the deaths of four, including an 11-month-old child, and injury to four others.
Within five hours, insurgents retaliated with the point-blank execution of two Thai Buddhist teachers in Pattani's Mayo district.
The government immediately went into damage-control mode and set up an investigating committee to look into the teashop massacre. After a face-to-face confrontation with local Muslim residents, authorities agreed to include Artef Sohko, a former national student leader and currently the director for foreign relations at the Youth for Peace and Development Academy in Pattani, on the investigating committee.
When asked about the teashop massacre, Artef said: "Nobody in the community believes the juwae were behind the massacre."
The spike in violence came just as Chalerm was preparing for his three-day trip to Malaysia. Among the delegation was Thawee Sodsong, the head of the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Centre (SBPAC), who heads the government's secret peace process that is backed by Pheu Thai Party de facto leader Thaksin Shinawatra.
In March 2012, Thaksin met with a group of separatist leaders in Kuala Lumpur. The event was faciliated by Malaysian authorities.
Given the lack of unity among government agencies, lack of a common political platform among exiled separatist leaders and the inability to geneate any real traction from the various secret peace initiatives by all sorts of people - from NGOs to opportunist officials and politicians (active and retired) - placing hope on Thaksin's personal involvement is a big leap of faith. For one thing, said the BRN-C cadre, if Thaksin is serious about the process that he helped hatched, he doesn't seem particularly concerned about the target killings that have undermined whatever peace process he is trying to push through.
Such scepticism explains why the BRN-C only sent a junior officer to the March 2012 meeting with Thaksin. His job was just to observe and listen.
Boycotting the event entirely was Samsudine Khan, one of the three self-proclaimed presidents of the Patani United Liberation Organisation (Pulo). It is said that he was disgusted at the interference by Wadah politicians from Thaksin's camp, so he decided to sit out the meeting completely.
Similarly, there were attempts to arrange similar meetings with Thai officials duirng Chalerm's visit, but the exiled leaders decided to go under the radar, including Sapae-ing Basor. Some left town at short notice.
Beside the fact that they were turned off by what had happened to Imam Abdullateh, the exiled leaders also recalled how the juwae had responded to the March 2012 meeting with Thaksin. Two weeks after the event, there was a triple car bomb in Yala that looked like the kind of scene one sees in Pakistan these days. Over 100 were injured and 13 were killed. Almost at the same time, another car bomb went off in a Hat Yai hotel parking lot.
It was a slap in the face for Thaksin and the government's so-called peace initiative, Human Rights Watch's Sunai Phasuk was quoted as saying.
Prior to asking Abdullateh and other religious leaders from the deep South to act as go-betweens, Thawee was using Wadah politicians. It took the government some time to realise that the Wadah was not exactly a good investment because their political capital pretty much dried up after the 2004 Tak Bai massacre, when they sided with Thaksin.
But Thawee hasn't given up. Following Abdullateh's murder, he ordered an investigation into the killing. The BRN-C dismissed it as public relations stunt.
Given this backgdrop, it was understandable why Chalerm's visit to Malaysia had so many people holding their breath and crossing their fingers. His plan is to make a similar trip to Indonesia. Chalerm's drunkenness dominated the headlines in Kuala Lumpur. Thai officials are wondering what could be the outcome of a Jakarta visit.
Note: For more articles on the conflict in Thailand's deep South, visit Conflict and Insurgency in SE Asia (http://seasiaconflict.com/).