NEGOTIATION: Talks with separatists being overplayed
Published on May 25, 2004 - The high degree of enthusiasm from Thai political leaders over a recent statement from Wan Kadir Che Man suggests that the government is either ignorant about the Muslim separatist movement or just looking to score cheap political points by showing that they are open-minded enough to talk to the opposite side.
Observers said the "knee-jerk" statements from the top leaders, including Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and Defence Minister Chettha Thanajaro, welcoming negotiations with Wan Kadir showed a lack of diplomatic finesse and intelligence in the handling of the problem in the deep South.
In an interview with The Nation and two other Bangkok-based journalists late last week, Wan Kadir admitted that he himself did not have control over the military actions of the separatist groups, which may or may not have been behind the latest wave of killings that erupted in southern Thailand in December 2001 and has continued unabated till now.
The 62-year-old native of Narathiwat, who gets around with a walking stick, has for years been one of the key symbolic figures in the Thai-Malay Muslim separatist movement.
He has devoted a great deal of his life to raising awareness about the plight of the ethnic Malay-Muslims in the deep South.
Wan Kadir is the leader of Bersatu, an umbrella organisation whose members include the likes of the Pattani United Liberation Organisation (Pulo), the New Pulo, and the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN). He said he was appointed because of his good standing in academic circles and the international community.
However, he himself has pointed out that Bersatu is not an organisation with control over military action by its members.
This begs the question as to why the Thai government appears to be putting all its eggs into Wan Kadir's basket.
Security analysts and intelligence officers have said that by playing up the latest development and prematurely raising expectations that the violence will disappear, Thaksin may be digging his own grave. The crunch will come if the killings of government security forces in the deep South continue unabated.
Chetta has said Wan Kadir could help Thailand by ordering the insurgents to stop their attacks. But the Bersatu leader himself has said he cannot offer any such guarantee because he has no control over the armed groups.
From the kind of spin being churned out by the government, it would seem that false hope is better than no hope at all, even if it comes at the expense of misleading the public.
Ever since the September 11 terrorist attacks in the US, security experts have said that Thailand's political leadership has failed to demonstrate that it understands the complex nature of international terrorism, or global jihad. Bangkok's stance on the US-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq was filled with ambiguity over fears of upsetting Muslim voters.
Already there is a rift in the government. Deputy Prime Minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh has suggested that the government may be moving too fast with the negotiations. There is no need for internationalising the issue, he said.
But it appears that there is no stopping Chettha, who has effectively stolen the spotlight from Chavalit.
Security experts have suggested that instead of putting all their eggs in one basket, Bangkok should reach out directly to the separatist organisations, which have a much more solid command and political structure. These include the BRN, the Pulo and the New Pulo, all of whose political and command structures are intact.
And instead of charging to the negotiating table, there have been suggestions that perhaps Thailand should also quietly consult the Malaysian government over the pace and direction of such negotiations.
After Malaysia's statement that it was ready to open its arms to Thai nationals fleeing the violence in the aftermath of the April 28 killings of 108 ethic Malay-Muslim insurgents, it's difficult to believe that Kuala Lumpur will stand by without any role whatsoever in any upcoming discussions between Wan Kadir, or any other separatist organisations with connections to Malaysia, and the Bangkok government.
For the time being, however, Kuala Lumpur is keeping mum on what role it is able or willing to play.