The latest wave of street protests, which began in Bangkok in November 2013, were in some ways a blessing in disguise for peace talks between the Thai government and self-proclaimed members of Barisan Revolusi Nasional-Coordinate (BRN-C). This is because the talks, which were officially launched on 28 February 2013, had run into a brick wall. Hasan Taib, the designated “liaison” officer for BRN, issued a video statement through YouTube, saying he was no longer part of the process. Shortly after, he went incommunicado. Sources in the movement said he threw in the towel and is currently laying low. Kuala Lumpur, the designated “facilitator”, is looking for a new liaison to take his place. And this time around, they are looking at men with whom the insurgents on the ground can identify. A break from the talks could give stakeholders time to go back to the drawing board. But there is no guarantee that the participants would return to the table with anything fundamentally new or sound. If history is any lesson, peace initiatives for Thailand’s Deep South have always been at the mercy of Thai national politics.
The 28 February initiative, which is still a far cry from qualifying as a formal negotiation, has limped along from the minute it was launched. At first the government was dismissive of the unabated violence that continued even after the formal announcement. But in the end it became too difficult to deny the political underpinning of the attacks. More than 5,000 people have been killed since January 2004 from this wave of insurgency violence and there is no end in sight. Thai delegates to the talks wanted the BRN to instruct the militants to curb the number of attacks so that their political bosses could tell the public that the initiative was worthwhile. The BRN delegates, on the other hand, issued all sorts of demands knowing that the Thai government could not deliver. Along the way, it became clear that Hasan Taib and his delegates were unable to influence the situation on the ground, although the Thai team insisted they were talking to the right people. Adding to the grave disconnect between Hasan’s team and the insurgent network was disunity between Thai policymakers and the security community.
Seeing that the Thais lacked a united front on this extremely sensitive and important issue, the BRN ruling council, also known as the Dewan Penilian Party (DPP), decided to use the initiative to test how the Thai side would react to certain sensitive requests. Some of these requests, which were issued through Hasan, called on the Thai government to pull out troops who were dispatched to the Deep South from other regions. They also called for the release of all prisoners and detainees convicted and arrested on charges relating to the ongoing insurgency, as well as the dropping of charges pending against all suspects. They also called for the talks or negotiation to have the backing of the state, which meant that Parliament would have to endorse the negotiation.
But the demand that Malaysia’s status in the process be upgraded from “facilitator” to “mediator”, as well as permitting international non-governmental organisations (INGO) and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to participate in the talk, was meant to mislead the public. Sources in the BRN movement say these demands were strategic: the DPP wanted to know how Bangkok would react to these issues. Moreover, they had to be polite, or at least appeared to be, to Kuala Lumpur for fear that the Malaysian authorities would come down hard on the exiled leaders from various long-standing separatist movements living in the country, not to mention the tens of thousands of Thai Malay Muslim unskilled migrant workers from the southernmost provinces.
Honest brokers are thin on the ground
BRN leaders and other exiled leaders said Malaysia was not an honest broker, adding that the separatist movement had unresolved disputes with Kuala Lumpur dating back to the 1990s when Malaysian authorities sent Patani Malay suspects back to Thailand. As for the OIC, exiled Patani Malay leaders said they had lost faith in the Islamic body in 1998, after it granted Thailand a permanent observer status. Mediation is a thing of the future and the BRN and other groups suggested they would like to see the position taken by Western governments, countries with track record on conflict resolution and strong humanitarian law.
The Thai delegation is headed by two of the ruling Phue Thai Party’s most trusted bureaucrats: Lt.-General Paradon Pattanatabut, the head of the National Security Council (NSC); and Police Colonel Thawee Sodsong, the chief of the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Centre (SBPAC). While Thawee and Paradon have a police and military background and are deemed to have very close links to Thaksin Shinawatra, the fugitive ex-prime minister and Pheu Thai de facto leader, it does not mean they can influence the security agencies at the national level or have the ability or the will to clamp down on targeted killings of suspected insurgent leaders. Needless to say, such practices have chipped away the credibility of the peace process. Thailand does not have a policy on targeted killing; it is believed that such activities are carried out by rogue officers with a grudge against suspected insurgents, especially ex-detainees who have been acquitted by the Thai courts. Such practices also erode trust in the Thai legal system. After all, these suspects have decided to fight the charges instead of going underground to take up arms. In fact, the use of extra judicial killings against ex-detainees became a convenient excuse used by Hasan Taib to shoot down a proposed ceasefire deal in 2013 during the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan.
Although there was no reason to doubt that Hasan and his delegates were part of the BRN movement two or three decades ago, a well-placed Malaysian source dealing with the peace initiative confirmed that leaders with a meaningful connection, or command-and-control, with the insurgents on the ground would not be taking part in the talks because the current Yingluck government would not grant them immunity. But BRN sources, on the other hand, said the issue is more than simply immunity for their negotiators. They said Malaysia is not an honest broker, and that the separatist movements still recall how Malaysian security officials have in the past secretly handed over members and leaders of separatist movements to Thailand. Some have been convicted and are serving life sentence in Thai prisons. Echoing the sentiment of BRN and other exiled leaders, Associate Professor Wan Kadir Che Man, the former leader of the now defunct Bersatu, an umbrella group for all the long-standing separatist movement, said a coherent process would produce viable representatives.
Sources in the Malaysian and Thai governments admitted that the two governments had taken a big leap of faith in thinking the process begun in February 2013 could gain traction. Some admitted they knew beforehand that Hasan and his delegates did not have any meaningful influence on the BRN’s DPP, much less the insurgents on the ground. There are several reasons why the DPP refused to endorse the 28 February initiative. First, the group didn’t think Thailand would commit itself to a formal process because there was no unity among the policymakers, much less the various government agencies tasked with bringing an end to the conflict. Moreover, the BRN would like to see its political wing be formally recognised by the Thai side, as well as the international community, before they permit them to take part in any peace talk. That status, of course, would bring immunity from the Thai government.
While it was clear that neither side was prepared for the 28 February initiative, this begged the question: Why did Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur decide to go ahead anyway?
One explanation for why Yingluck Shinawatra’s government rushed through with the initiative has to do with Thaksin’s desire to clear his name. His handling of the unrest in the southernmost provinces was one of the reasons cited by the military after they dislodged him in 2006. But with a peace initiative in place, regardless of its coherency, Yingluck would be able to tell the local and international community that her government had extended an olive branch to the separatists but the movement chose not to cooperate. Malaysia took the same leap of faith as Bangkok, thinking the process would attract the participation of other long-standing groups. Historically, Kuala Lumpur viewed southern Thailand as their back yard, and believed any initiatives to resolve the conflict there must have their inputs. And while historical mistrust between the two countries persists, there is understanding among policymakers in Bangkok that any conflict resolution for the Deep South must have Malaysia’s involvement. The sticky question was how much involvement Bangkok was willing to allow.
Wan Kadir blamed successive Thai governments for going to the same mediators, facilitators and go-betweens, and for refusing to take a new approach to negotiation. Speaking at the Prince of Songkhla University-Pattani Campus on 24 December 2012, Wan Kadir, who was recently allowed to return to the country after 53 years of exile, didn’t mince words when he called Thai officials “stupid” and “insincere” in their past handling of peace initiatives. He said many of the Thai officials who had participated in three decades of talks appeared more concerned with enhancing their own careers rather than achieving peace, and added that the mediators, facilitators and go-betweens were opportunists who exploited the talks for personal and political gain. He said the February 2013 peace initiative in Kuala Lumpur was also an example of Thailand’s lack of sincerity.
But instead of pausing to reconsider, the Thai government decided to stubbornly keep the February initiative alive for fear of losing face. But with violence continuing, Bangkok was hard-pressed to show any deliverables. The plan was to bring on board other long-standing separatist groups, namely groups that were kept out of the process from the start. An invitation was extended to Kasturi Mahkota, the Sweden-based leader of a faction of the Patani United Liberation Organisation (PULO) that had been working with Thailand’s NSC through a Geneva-based mediator from 2005-2011. The so-called Geneva Process was scrapped by the Yingluck government who gave the mandate to Kuala Lumpur to facilitate. Another PULO faction, under the leadership of Samsudine Khan, also agreed to take part in the talks. Khan, who is also based in Sweden, had initially given the February initiative the cold shoulder but later changed his mind. The two would join the third self-proclaimed PULO president, Noor Abdulrahman, at the negotiating table. Bangkok was also planning to extend an invitation to the Barisan Islam Pembangunan Pattani (BIPP) but the founder, Wan Kadir, was dismissive of the report. Sources in the movement said BIPP’s leadership was split.
Another Thai strategy has been to try to lure well-known figures like Sapae-ing Basor, a respected spiritual leader and former principle of Thamvithya Multini School in Yala, to the table for ‘photo opportunities’ to give credibility to the February initiative. Sapae-ing 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 SBPAC’s Thawee Sodsong who was at the time a police colonel. Sapae-ing has so far refused to take part in the process because he is extremely angered by the Thai authorities for demonising him, according to his close associates. At one time, the police even offered 20 million baht 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 his case go to court. The BRN has been tight-lipped about Sapae-ing’s status and his whereabouts, but stated that he has long been an important spiritual leader for the Patani Malay Muslims.
The Thai team, namely the SBPAC and the NSC, had also turned to Muslim religious leaders in the Deep South to act as go-betweens after they realized that local Malay Muslim politicians had a credibility problem with both the movements and local people. Clerics were toying with the idea of acting as go-betweens, but then a death squad killed one of their own, imam Abdullateh Todir, on 14 November 2012. The religious leaders backed away as insurgents on the ground, from mid-November to the new year, went back to targeting government schools, killing three Buddhist teachers. Attacks during this period spiked unprecedentedly.
But before anybody could come to the table, there was a massive anti-government street protest in Bangkok against the passing of an amnesty bill aimed at absolving Thaksin of his conviction for corruption and abuse of power. The Yingluck government decided to dissolve Parliament and called for a fresh election. But the anti-government demonstrators, led by former Democrat Party deputy leader Suthep Thaugsuban, vowed to obstruct the upcoming election. They demanded that the country first undergo serious reform to rid the country of Thaksin’s influence. Amid uncertainty whether the February 2014 general election will ever take place, any peace resolution for the Muslim-majority South has been put on hold.
Failure warnings were ignored
The February peace initiative had ample warning of an imminent failure but they were ignored by the stakeholders mainly because Thai officials task and the go-betweens tasked with laying the ground work for the peace talk was more concern with rescuing Thaksin rather then saving southern Thailand. The first warning came on 30 March 2012, two weeks after a meeting between Thaksin and a group of 16 separatist leaders in Kuala Lumpur. The meeting was set up by the Malaysian government, the would-be “facilitator” for the peace initiative that would be announce a year later. Wan Kadir, during his first public appearance in nearly a decade, told Thai reporters in Bangkok in November 2013 that the triple car-bombs in Yala, and one in the basement parking lot of a Hat Yai hotel on 30 March 2012, were meant as a message to the Thaksin-backed initiative. More than 13 people were killed and 110 people injured from the attacks. The Thai army’s top brass also made the same point, saying the civilian initiative was doomed to fail and that such a task should be carried out by military personnel. Thai soldiers have yet to come to terms with the notion of civilian supremacy.
While the BRN’s DPP and core leaders did not endorse the February initiative, it does not mean the BRN does not want to talk peace with the Thai state. Ever since its birth in the late 1960s, BRN has always stood for independence for the historical Malay homeland of Thailand’s three southernmost provinces of Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat and the Malay-speaking districts in Songkhla province. So the fact that they would be willing to talk peace with the Thais is a big change for the movement. The BRN said they wanted the initiative to be kept out of the public spotlight and to generate enough confidence before going public and/or engage in a formal negotiation process with the government. They accused Thailand of being reckless by pushing through the February initiative, knowing that the issue of immunity was not resolved and also knowing that they (BRN) still have yet to bridge the trust gap between them and the Malaysian government about the deportation issue. By presenting the 28 February launch as more than what it was, it set the stage for microphone diplomacy that became a political circus, where announcements, demands and statements were issued through the media and YouTube.
As stated earlier, what the BRN desire at this juncture is to establish a legitimate and recognisable political wing that can surface publicly and engage with the international community. BRN said they would be willing to work with international organisations that can help them with capacity-building and give members a better understanding of a wide range of issues, such as international norms, the Geneva Convention and humanitarian law. The problem with Bangkok is that the government thought it could achieve results in one push by bringing in Thaksin and Malaysia into the picture. Soldiers and other bureaucrats said it was difficult for them to manoeuvre because of Thaksin’s direct participation. An opportunity to criticise civilians on this point emerged when it was realized that Wan Kadir was luke-warm about the on-going process. And so the Thai Army organised two trips—in November and December 2013—for him to Bangkok and Pattani, respectively, knowing that he would be critical of the initiative.
In fact, as of December 2013, militants have expanded their operation to include Sadao, the fifth Malay-speaking district of Songkhla province. Two motorbike bombs hit police targets and a car bomb was placed in a hotel parking lot in a small street filled with prostitutes and karaoke bars. The same day also saw a botched car bomb attempt on a police station in Phuket. A pickup truck for the Phuket hit was stolen from Pattani’s Sai Buri District in May 2013 and was used to carry two canisters filled with explosive materials powerful with a blast radius of about 500 metres. Indeed, with the attacks in Sadao and Phuket, a new threshold has been crossed. But it does not mean the desire to talk is not there. Violence on the ground, including the expansion of the battlefield, is part of that negotiation.
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 sure how to break this impasse with the Malaysian government. Bangkok had asked for Kuala Lumpur’s participation, and embarrassment could now be inevitable. Wan Kadir said using mediating organisations has not worked and suggested that Western governments like the United States, Sweden or Germany should be invited to take part in the process since this would give the initiative more legitimacy.
No one in the BRN can clearly explain why its top leaders are now willing to talk to the Thais. One explanation, according to a mid-ranking BRN cadre, has to do with the generation gap between the exiled leaders and the current crop of militants, the so-called post-Tak Bai generation, who could become increasingly uncompromising and/or unwilling to accept the guidance of elders living in exile. Tak Bai is a Narathiwat district where a demonstration in late 2004 ended in the death of 78 young men, who all died from suffocation after they were stacked into the back of military trucks. Seven others were shot dead at the demonstration site. For the time being, the BRN elders believe they have enough clout to influence the combatants and change the course of the conflict, but such a task will be increasingly difficult as time passes and the generation gap gets wider and wider.
Don Pathan is a freelance consultant based in Yala, one of the three southernmost provinces of Thailand hit by this wave of insurgency violence. He is also a founding member of the Patani Forum, a local non-governmental organisation dedicate to promoting critical dialogue on the conflict in the region.