Direct talks between Thai security forces and the separatist leaders controlling combatant insurgents may be the only way to build trust
The National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) is having a difficult time explaining to the Malaysian government that there will be a serious adjustment to the role Kuala Lumpur had been playing in peace talks launched under the government of Yingluck Shinawatra.
The NCPO is hoping that Malaysia will understand that it has other priorities and that the peace talks with the so-called Barisan Revolusi Nasional-Coordinate (BRN-C) and others, an initiative that was launched in Kuala Lumpur on February 28 last year, will progress according to a new course.
The military has not followed the example of the 2006 coup-makers, who ousted Thaksin Shinawatra, by citing the government’s handling of the unrest in the southernmost provinces as one of their reasons for seizing power. This time around, the military pointed to the political deadlock to justify their ouster of the Pheu Thai government.
Moreover, the Army was not exactly “on board” with the February 28 initiative, which was the work of a few trusted bureaucrats along with the Pheu Thai’s Wadah politicians closely aligned with Thaksin and his sister.
While giving the impression it was going along with the government, the military at the same time looked for ways to hamper the Kuala Lumpur-backed peace talks, a job that had historically been under its purview.
One way to rock the boat was to permit the return to Thailand of Wan Kadir Che Man, the former leader of the now-defunct Bersatu separatist umbrella group and the founder of long-standing separatist movement, Barisan Islam Pembangunan Pattani (BIPP). The Thai Army knew that Wan Kadir was not in favour of having a third party, especially Malaysia, at the negotiating table. He had been suggesting all along at private meetings with the Thai side that any talks at this point should be strictly between the Thai side and the separatist movements.
During his three visits to Thailand between December 2013 and January, Wan Kadir didn’t mince words in his disapproval of Malaysia, or Western NGOs for that matter, as mediators for the talks.
Then came the first anniversary of the February 28 initiative and a declaration by designated facilitator Dato Ahmad Zamzamin Hashim, former spy chief of Malaysia, that all three factions of the Patani United Liberation Organisation (Pulo) and the BIPP would be joining the peace talks.
Wan Kadir, who no longer runs the BIPP, was dismissive of the claim that the group he had helped create was the same one now joining the talks, saying people could call themselves anything nowadays. The reality, he said, was that people with command and control over the insurgents on the ground had yet to surface because the atmosphere was not conducive to them going public.
The claim of progress in talks had some in the international community scratching their heads when, two months later, in April this year, foreign embassies in Bangkok issued travel warnings, citing new information indicating that insurgents might be targeting Westerners.
Although the warnings did not name the separatist organisations suspected of targeting foreigners – something that has never happened before in the history of the deep South insurgency – a source said that Thai authorities had singled out one of the groups set to be joining the peace talks.
Leaders in the separatist community, including BRN cadres, are dismissive of the claim that insurgents could be targeting Westerners. They believe the information was part of counter-intelligence issued to discredit the “progress” towards peace being claimed by the Pheu Thai government.
But with the change of power brought by the coup, the ball is now in the Army’s court. It’s one thing to sit on the sidelines criticising a (Pheu Thai) government peace initiative and rocking the boat. It’s another thing to be in sole control of the country’s governance, with no critics or real opposition to contend with.
The junta thought that announcing the continuation of peace talks, with secretary-general of the National Security Council Thawil Pliensri in charge, would ease the concerns of other stakeholders about the future of the peace process.
But Kuala Lumpur, which traditionally sees Thailand’s Malay-speaking South as its own backyard, would like to see a firmer commitment from Bangkok. In contrast, Thawil comes across to many observers as a “lame duck” looking forward to a retirement which is just months away.
According to one Malaysian source, what Kuala Lumpur would like to see is a statement from the NCPO saying that it will respect the memorandum of understanding signed on February 28, 2013 by the three parties.
But what Kuala Lumpur wants and what Kuala Lumpur gets may be two different things, Thai officials say.
It took the junta chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha nearly two months following the coup to say anything in public about the conflict in the deep South. That goes to show that he has other priorities and that the insurgency is not exactly high on his list.
Moreover, the designated BRN “liaison”, Hassan Taib, has managed to wriggle his way out of having to represent a movement that never gave him the necessary mandate or moral support to play the role that Kuala Lumpur and the Yingluck government had designed for him.
One way out of this fiasco is to proceed along two tracks. Track One would be an inclusive, official process for international and public consumption, which would save Malaysia’s face and “keep them happy”, said a Thai security official.
The second track, on the other hand, would be talks between Thai security forces and mid-ranking separatist leaders who have direct command over the combatant insurgents.
The idea with the latter track is to go after issues within reach, such as rules of engagement – which could evolve into more tangible issues, such as declaring demilitarised zones on certain roads and in certain communities.
Thai soldiers in the South have said that addressing non-political issues at this level is the only way for the two sides to build any trust and traction that could eventually lead to a more meaningful peace process.
A BRN cadre said that the top-down approach employed by the Yingluck government could only work if there was a strong chain of command within the separatist movements. But the reality is that the separatists’ command-and-control chain is fluid and has never been tested.
In other words, if the leaders of the BRN or any other separatist organisations cut a deal with the Thai state, there is no guarantee that the separatists actually doing the fighting will follow through with what the exiled leaders have agreed upon in peace talks.
Don Pathan is a security consultant based in southern Thailand. He is also a member of the Patani Forum (www.pataniforum.com).