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Thai PM’s Protocol Breach Jeopardizes Southern Peace Talks

Commentary by Don Pathan
Yala, Thailand
2018-05-14
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Policemen sit atop an armored personnel carrier as they patrol a road in Bacho, a district in southern Thailand’s insurgency-stricken Narathiwat province, Feb. 22, 2018.
Policemen sit atop an armored personnel carrier as they patrol a road in Bacho, a district in southern Thailand’s insurgency-stricken Narathiwat province, Feb. 22, 2018.
Matahari Ismail/BenarNews

Peace talks between Thailand and an umbrella group representing Patani Malay separatist organizations have come to a standstill because the rebel side felt insulted by Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha for “jumping the gun” with his announcement of a much-talked-about Safety Zone pilot project.

Sources on both sides confirmed that the stalling in talks between the government in Bangkok and MARA Patani, a panel negotiating on behalf of long-standing separatist groups in the Deep South, stemmed from the perceived violation of protocol by Prayuth.

MARA Patani felt humiliated and belittled because they were expecting a more formal launch for what they considered a “breakthrough” – the announcement of a pilot Safety Zone, or geographically limited ceasefire, in Thailand’s southern border region.

A source in one of the organizations that sits on MARA Patani said they would like to see the Thai side reiterate the same kind of commitment that the then-government of Yingluck Shinawatra had announced back in February 2013, when the dialogue process was first launched.

Yingluck’s initiative marked the first time that a Bangkok government stated publicly that it was determined to resolve the southern conflict through political means. Prior to that, peace initiatives were kept out of the public spotlight.  

In spite of the fact that the Safety Zone is nothing close to a game-changer for the resolution of the decades-old conflict in the Muslim-majority Deep South, nevertheless, it appeared to be the only thing that Thailand and MARA Patani had to show for in the talks. This explains why the latter was extra sensitive on protocol.

It also explained why Gen. Aksara Kerdpol, the chief negotiator for the Thai side, had come forward about the pending release of three prisoners, as demanded by MARA Patani as pre-condition for the implementation of the ceasefire. Realizing that his prime minister had created a blunder, Aksara, by going public with the pending release of the three, was sending a message to the MARA Patani side that all is not lost.

The three are to be transferred to a holding center, dubbed “the apartment,” located inside the compound of the Islamic Committee of Pattani. It is the so-called “safe house” where they will be guarded by Thai soldiers until further notice.

The BRN factor

Thai security officials and militant sources on the ground, meanwhile, said that nothing would change until the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) negotiated directly with the Thais. BRN is one of the long-standing separatist movements, and it controls virtually all of the militants on the ground.

Bangkok wants BRN to come to the table under the MARA Patani umbrella, but the group insisted that they would only meet the Thais directly and would only come to the table when they feel properly trained.

Moreover, any talks must be in line with international best practices, which means that members of the international community should be permitted to mediate the negotiations, BRN sources said.

Policy makers in Bangkok reject the idea of broadening the participation in this peace process that is being facilitated by Malaysia and up until the recent past, was not keen with the idea of permitting members of the international community engaging directly with the BRN.

Involving the international community

But other Thai officials said they had let go of their zero-sum game mentality. A green light has been given, they said, to members of the international community to work with BRN and local civil society organizations (CSOs), including those critical of the state, to help them with capacity building and familiarize them with the various concepts, such as international humanitarian law and other international norms.  

Hardliners in the military, especially the Fourth Army Region who oversees the security situation in the far south, are not too keen with the idea of permitting international NGOs or foreign governments becoming too involved with the affairs in the far South, for fear of having to explain to outsiders their questionable tactics and conducts in this restive region.

Critics point to the mounting allegations of human rights abuses and harassment of CSO leaders and political activists in the region. The recent raid of a home a young Patani Malay activist, Artef Sohko, by some 60 security officers is a case in point.

Authorities confiscated some academic papers from Artef’s home. It was in English and it was about the peace process in the Mindanao region of the southern Philippines.

“They said they will get it translated. I really hope they learn something from it,” Artef said.

Moreover, Kerdpol, the chief Thai negotiator, is also afraid that the participation of outsiders would undermine his role as the one with the sole mandate to negotiate with the rebels, said Thai officials overseeing the southern conflict.

Such attitudes may be challenged if and when the Thai junta steps down and a new government comes to power. A significant number of Thai officials (non-military) favored the idea of opening up the process to permit members of the international community to participate in the peace process if it means bringing BRN to the table.

They said the self-proclaimed BRN members who sit on MARA Patani do not have the blessing of the group’s ruling council, namely the Dewan Pimpinan Parti (DPP). And until that happens, the dialogue process with MARA Patani is little more than a “talk shop.”

BRN, on the other hand, said Thailand continued to take them for granted and only wanted to end the political violence without addressing the historical grievances and root causes of the conflict in the far South.

They said Prayuth “jumping the gun” with the announcement about the Safety Zone was not the first time Bangkok had humiliated MARA Patani. The fact that Thai Government continues to refer to the umbrella organization as “Party B,” instead of referring to them by their organizational name, is a case in point.  

In the final analysis, the Safety Zone is a big leap of faith but it is doomed to fail because the project rests on shaky ground.

The group that controls the militants on the ground – BRN – may have promised not to sabotage the project but one has to wonder how long that will last.

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.

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