Thailand’s peace initiative with Malay Muslim insurgents in the Deep South has hit a snag as rebels have threatened not to go through with the Safety Zone initiative unless Bangkok releases three of their imprisoned members.
Thai officials insisted that the call to release the three prisoners was not a demand tied to the prospect of a safety zone – or geographically limited ceasefire – but a “request” from MARA Patani, the panel representing insurgent groups in the peace talks. The Justice Ministry is looking into the case, officials told me.
If granted, it would not be a pardon but an early release, according to sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
If not, it would be a setback for the Safety Zone, a much-talked about project that would become Thailand’s showpiece for the international community. The project involves the designation of a district where a ceasefire is to be observed in Thailand’s southern border region.
MARA Patani, an umbrella organization made up of six long-standing separatist movements, began talks with the Thai government three years ago.
Like all other previous peace initiatives, Thailand’s engagement with MARA Patani rests on a shaky ground because the umbrella organization does not have control over the combatants on the ground.
A military intelligence officer described Thailand’s engagement with MARA Patani as “just buying time” until the leadership of the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), the one group that controls virtually all of the militants in the field, decided to join the peace process.
So far, there is no indication BRN will change its stance – not because of a lack of trying on the part of MARA Patani or Malaysia, the designated facilitator.
Glimmer of hope
A moment of hope, albeit small, came late last year during a meeting between Malaysian mediator Ahmad Zamzamin Hashim, who is a retired spy chief, and two senior members of BRN’s ruling council.
Zamzamin received an assurance from the BRN leaders that their militants would not sabotage the safety-zone initiative, which would be implemented in a yet-to-be-named district in one of three Muslim-majority provinces in the Deep South. The idea was conjured up by MARA Patani and Thailand’s Dialogue Panel.
BRN sources said they were still committed to independence for Patani, the Malay historical homeland that today forms Thailand’s three southernmost provinces. They had no plan to enter into a negotiation with the Thais, they said.
Moreover, a planned meeting between the country’s chief negotiator, Gen. Aksara Kerdpol, and one of the BRN senior figures, Doonloh Wae-mano (alias Abdullah Wan Mat Noor), to be held in Indonesia, should not be interpreted as a breakthrough in any way.
Nevertheless, the fact that BRN agreed not to sabotage the Safety Zone project and allow the initiative to take its course was welcomed in Thailand despite the glaring irony that the participants, MARA Patani and Thai government, don’t control the armed militants.
A spitting contest
Bangkok wants to make this Safety Zone project its showpiece in order to demonstrate to the public and the world that it is making “progress” in efforts to end a separatist conflict that has killed nearly 7,000 people since January 2004.
For a moment, things appeared to be moving in the right direction.
People were looking forward to the launch of the safety zone scheduled for April 2018. And then came a demand from the MARA Patani that three of their people be released from prison, sources on both sides told me.
Beside the horse-trading and the political and legal challenges that come with it, Thailand’s peace initiative for the Deep South is also facing some major obstacles coming from the people inside the country.
The ongoing spitting contest between Aksara and the commander of the Fourth Army region, Lt. Gen. Piyawat Nakwanich, who oversees security in the Deep South, could very well have negative consequences on the government’s strategy for the area.
Government sources said the disagreement was part of a turf war between the two members of the military top brass who had been dismissive of one another through the media.
In a recent statement to the press, Piyawat said Aksara’s safety project was nothing to get excited about and added that he himself had single-handedly created 14 such zones and that he didn’t want to boast.
Piyawat also talked about his Bring People Home project, a half-baked amnesty program that supposedly helps former insurgents return to normal civilian life, calling it a success because it put a dent in BRN’s morale and military standing.
According to a Thai government source overseeing the southern conflict, the bickering stemmed from the dispute of who should oversee which programs.
Members of the Dialogue Panel, the official name of Thailand’s negotiating team, believe they should be the one administering Bring People Home because they are the ones who are dealing directly with the rebels and, therefore, they would be in a better position to run the program.
The dispute between Aksara and Piyawat forced a leading member of MARA Patani to issue a public statement, accusing the commander of the Fourth Army region commander of creating confusion.
Sukree Haree said Piyawat’s amnesty project and his version of 14 “safety zone” districts were entirely different from the programs discussed at the negotiating table between his umbrella organization and the Dialogue Panel.
BRN sources dismissed Piyawat’s claim of success, saying those who surrendered through the program were not deeply involved in the movement and may just be guilty by association. This is a common accusation employed by the Thai authorities but has no bearing in court.
Moreover, the BRN has not reached the stage of a full-fledged army and, therefore, does not need that many soldiers in its ranks.
The strategy at this point is to discredit the government’s security apparatus, making the region ungovernable as much as possible.
A roadside bombing followed by a brief gunfight that hardly ever lasts more than five minutes is the usual battle scenario in this region.
The insurgents said they are more interested in capturing the locals’ hearts, mind and imagination, not geographical space, which is something way down the road, at which time, a conventional force will be needed.
Don Pathan is a consultant and security analyst based in Thailand. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and not of BenarNews.