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TUESDAY, September 27, 2022
In the South, three strikes and you’re out

In the South, three strikes and you’re out

TUESDAY, March 21, 2017
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Latest road map to peace includes safety zones, a clearinghouse assigning responsibility for violence, and ignorance of reality

It sounded like a licence to kill, but that’s the awful nature of “conflict resolution” for Thai negotiators and longstanding separatist movements in the country’s southernmost border provinces, where a 13-year insurgency has so far claimed some 6,800 lives.
At a recent press conference, government negotiators gave some insight into the idea behind establishing “safety zones” in the region. The government and the Mara Patani rebels agreed in principle to designate at least five yet-to-be-named districts as safety zones. For a district to maintain this status, negotiator Maj-General Sitthi Trakulwong said, there must be no more than three attacks in a month. 
The government and Mara Patani will together establish a “clearinghouse” to verify whether attacks that do occur are related to the insurgency or merely criminal activity. Should more than three consecutive attacks in a month be verified as involving insurgents, the “security zone” status will be lifted. It is not yet clear what the consequences, if any, might be should that happen.
Presuming there is some success to the scheme, designating safe districts would form a blueprint for development in the historically contested region. The hope is that it would give traction to efforts to achieve peace and stability.
Like previous peace initiatives in the region, no timeframe for judging its success has been established. This might reflect apprehension that it too is a long shot, perhaps even a pipe dream, particularly since the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) – which controls virtually all of the insurgents – has not been involved in talks with the government. 
Political and security insiders say this latest initiative, along with continuing dialogue with Mara Patani itself, is part of a long-agreed strategy to buy time in the hope that the BRN will eventually come to the negotiating table. Thai strategists and planners are hoping that residents – well over 80 per cent of whom are Malay Muslims – will become so tired of the violence that they withdraw support for the separatist militants, thus denying their struggle legitimacy. 
Bangkok wants to bring the BRN to the table without making concessions to it or the ethnic Malays of the region. The BRN is unlikely to cooperate, given the Thai side’s unwillingness to discuss the Malays’ historical grievances.
The basic idea of setting up a joint team to verify the nature of violent incidents has merit. Given that the BRN has no identifiable spokesman or even a political wing to confirm or deny insurgent responsibility for incidents, the “clearinghouse” represents a good start. Anything that brings both sides into agreement – even in this case acknowledging whether a particular incident is related to the conflict – should be seen as a positive.
However, the overall plan is seriously flawed, perhaps fatally so, by the absence of the participants who maintain command and control over the actual insurrectionist combatants. While there is no question regarding the chain of command on the Thai side, the same cannot be said about Mara Patani. 
And the combatants will not heed any such agreement as long as government security officials are granted unwavering impunity in their dealings with the southern populace. When it comes to the insurgency in the far South, the various peace initiatives have to be taken with a grain of salt. For years, successive governments have insisted that the situation is improving, but none of their claims has been convincing, since all have been contradicted by the bloody reality in the South. 
The goal behind this latest “three strikes and you’re out” rule is still unclear. For the moment, it feels more surreal than promising.