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Thailand barking up the wrong tree: Wan Kadir

Last week the former leader of Bersatu, a now-defunct umbrella group of longstanding Patani Malay separatist movements, gave a talk about the ongoing conflict in the deep South that has so far claimed more than 5,000 lives.

It was Wan Kadir Che Man's first public appearance in nearly a decade.

Wan Kadir, who did his graduate work in the United States and his PhD in Australia, refused to mince words, telling an audience mainly of journalists that the Thai government had been "barking up the wrong tree" with peace talks that kicked off almost 10 months ago on February 28.

It was obvious that the people with whom the Thais were talking could not influence the insurgents on the ground, he said. The Thai side had been given ample warning from the very start that the insurgents on the ground were not going to go along with an initiative launched by former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, he added.

Wan Kadir pointed to the March 2012 meeting between Thaksin and a group of 16 leaders, including him, of various longstanding separatist movements, noting that the response from insurgents on the ground was a triple car-bomb attack in the heart of Yala two weeks later. A simultaneous bomb attack targeted a downtown Hat Yai hotel.

Thirteen were killed and 100 injured in those attacks. But Bangkok decided to overlook the incidents and push through a "peace process" that was officially launched on February 28, almost a year after Thaksin came into the picture.

Observers suspect that Wan Kadir was invited to Bangkok last week because the Thai side wanted the ageing leader to endorse their peace initiative. But they didn't think he would be so frank and honest in his criticism.

Another reading is the military were using him to discredit a process they have disliked from the beginning. Back in the 1980s, talking to the separatists was the exclusive job of the Army. In 2005, they were relieved of this task, and the top brass have yet to come to terms with the idea of a civilian-led peace initiative in the deep South.

Wan Kadir talked last week of the need to understand the identities and motivations of the group or groups behind the ongoing violence, and took a veiled jab at "opportunists" who are exploiting the ongoing conflict for their own gains.

While negotiating with the combatants is a good thing, he said, the conflict is so complex and multi-layered that focusing solely on ending the violence would not be enough to bring about a permanent and lasting peace to this highly contested region.

After April 28, 2004, when more than 100 young men armed with little more than machetes attacked well-armed security outposts, Wan Kadir publicly announced his desire to return to Thailand from Malaysia to help prevent the situation getting out of hand.

The fear among many security officials and exiled leaders was that if well over 100 young men were willing to charge to their certain deaths, what might the future bring?

But then-premier Thaksin shunned Wan Kadir's request, and Kuala Lumpur felt he was "too hot to handle" so sent him off for a second period of exile in Europe.

Although the machete-wielding militant network melted away after it became clear that knives were no match for machine guns, the security situation on the ground is little better than it was in 2004.

Thai security officials are still "sitting ducks", even when speeding through back roads in remote villages.

Wan Kadir said that there are so many groups and factions using the same name and wanting to be part of the peace process, that the talks are anything but coherent. But while there is competition among separatist leaders, there is nevertheless common ground among local Malay Muslims in southern Thailand, he said. During a July 2005 interview with The Nation, Wan Kadir was asked about the basis for Patani Malays' unity. He stated:

"The Malays are united by their cultural identity and a long history of resentment. They don't see their region getting a fair share of the country's wealth and development, and they don't see their history being taught in school or their past being recognised by the country that they are supposed to be a part of. I think that if the state makes a concerted effort to bridge this gap, perhaps the tension will subside and both sides will begin to trust each another. For this to happen, all sides have to work together. Whether we are Buddhists or Muslims, we are all equal in the eyes of God. But this is not enough: we must be equal in the eyes of each other as well."

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


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