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Reset for peace process in Thailand's deep south
Publication Date : 08-10-2013
With their backs against the wall, Thai and Malaysian officials are working harder than ever to keep alive the peace initiative in Thailand's three southernmost provinces, where the Malay-Muslim separtaist insurgency continues unabated.
Sources in the Thai government and the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) - the longstanding separatist movement that "controls" the largest number of insurgents - say that while the February 28 initiative has hit a wall, it does not mean that the two sides will not talk to each other again. The BRN wants a clean slate and to move forward from there.
Since being formed in the late 1960s, the BRN has presented itself as a movement working for the independence of the Malays' historical homeland in the three southernmost provinces of Thailand and the four Malay-speaking districts in Songkhla.
February 28 was the first time that the Thai government stated publicly that it would enter into peace talks with the BRN and other separatist groups. Previously, secret talks between the Thai Army and insurgent groups were conducted in various Middle-Eastern cities throughout the 1980s. The reason for the reset button, say BRN sources, is because the current peace initiative did not have their blessing. It was hastily put together because of Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur's political needs.
"We want to talk with the Thai government, but discreetly and out of the public spotlight, to generate enough confidence before going public," said a BRN source.
The issue of mediation or facilitation should be put off for the time being, the BRN said. The selection and role of the mediator, if any, should be agreed by the two sides. BRN members said they could not understand why the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawtra had pushed for the February 28 meeting knowing that the two sides have yet to reach an understanding on a number of issues such as immunity for members of the BRN political wing who would come to the table, and a guarantee from Malaysia that they would not be deported.
BRN members and others often point to an incident in 1998 when Malaysian authorities quietly handed over three suspected separatists - Abdul Rahman Bazo and two brothers, Ismail and Da-oh Thanam - to Thailand as one of the reasons for their mistrust of Kuala Lumpur. The three are currently in prison.
The February launch failed to generate any traction or win support from insurgents, who continue their campaign of violence. What the event did was to set the stage for microphone diplomacy that has become a political circus.
What the BRN wants right now, said sources in the movement, is to establish a legitimate and recognisable political wing that can surface publicly and engage with the international community in the same manner that negotiators from the Free Aceh Movement (Gam) or Moros leaders in Mindanao have been doing. In this respect, the BRN said it would be willing to work with international organisations that can help with capacity building and give it a better understanding of a wide range of issues such as peace negotiations, mediation, international norms, the Geneva Convention, humanitarian law and so on.
The problem with Bangkok is that the government thought it could achieve desirable results in one push by bringing in Thaksin Shinwatra, the de facto leader of the ruling Pheu Thai Party, to meet with 16 leaders from various separatist groups in Kuala Lumpur in March last year. The BRN was represented at that meeting by a member of the organisation's youth wing.
Meanwhile, the Thai government has been trying to get well known figures like Sapae-ing Basor, a respected spiritual leader and former principle of Thamvithya Multini School in Yala, to come to the table for photo ops to give credibility to the February 28 initiative. Sapaeing has been accused by the Thai authorities of being a top BRN leader. A warrant for his arrest was issued in 2005, signed by the current Southern Border Provinces Administrative Centre chief, Police Colonel Thawee Sodsong.
Sapae-ing has so far refused to take part in the process because he was extremely angered by the Thai authorities demonising him. At one time, the police had even offered Bt20 million for information leading to his capture. Thai officials who read the charges against him said the allegations were too weak and that he would beat the case should it go to court. The BRN has been tight-lipped about Sapae-ing's status and whereabouts, but stated that he has long been an important spiritual leader for the Patani Malay Muslims.
The BRN said the next phase of the peace initiative could very well be without Kuala Lumpur, citing hard feelings that date back to the handing over of suspected separatist leaders in 1998. These differences would have to be overcome before Kuala Lumpur could have a seat at the table, they said.
But officials in Bangkok are not really sure how to break this impasse with the Malaysian government. Bangkok had asked for Kuala Lumpur's participation, and embarrassment could now be inevitable.
Nevertheless, other channels are being explored. In addition to the February 28 initiative, the Thai government has discreetly given a green light to a second round of talks - the so-called Track 1.5 - that include longstanding separatist groups that were not invited to Kuala Lumpur to take part in the February 28 initiative. Two meetings were held in Indonesia between Thai representatives and 15 senior leaders from these groups, and another this past week in Sweden. Moreover, earlier this year, Pheu Thai also discreetly sent a senior officer to Malaysia to meet with BRN leaders through interlocutors within the group's youth wing, but the exiled senior BRN leaders were not in the mood to talk.
If anything, these attempts show that the Pheu Thai Party is not putting all its eggs in the February 28 basket, the so-called official and visible track - or Track I.
No one in the BRN can give a clear explanation as to why its top leaders are willing to talk to the Thais at this juncture. One explanation, a mid-ranking BRN cadre said, has to do with the generation gap between the exiled leaders and the current crop of militants, the so-called post-Thak Bai generation, who could become increasingly uncompromising and/or unwilling to accept the guidance of the elders living in exile. Right now, the BRN elders believe that they have what it takes to influence the combatants and change the course of the conflict, but such a task will be increasingly difficult as time goes by.
Don Pathan is a security analyst at the Patani Forum (www.pataniforum.com). Artef Sohko is the former secretary-general of the Student Federation of Thailand and currently the director of Foreign Affairs at the Academy of Patani Raya for Peace and Development.