Thailand has decided to replace its chief negotiator for southern peace talks with another retired general, former Fourth Army Area commander Udomchai Thammasarorat.
On the surface, it seems Bangkok was reciprocating recent changes in Kuala Lumpur.
Weeks ago, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed replaced Ahmad Zamzamin bin Hashim, the designated facilitator for the Malaysia-brokered talks, with Abdul Rahim Mohd Noor. A former national police chief, he spent a great deal of his career back in the 1980s clamping down on a communist insurgency along the Thai border.
But official Thai sources said Bangkok had many reasons to make the change. Leaders from the military government, they said, were not impressed with Gen. Aksara Kerdpol’s performance over the past three years as the chief Thai negotiator, because he was unable to generate meaningful traction for the talks aimed at ending the separatist insurgency in Thailand’s Deep South.
Aksara was seen as having failed to get the National Revolutionary Front (BRN) – the one rebel group that controls virtually all of the combatants in the field – to endorse Thailand’s peace talks with MARA Patani, an umbrella organisation representing various long-standing Patani Malay separatist movements at the negotiating table.
The participants sitting on MARA’s panel were not endorsed by BRN’s ruling council, sources within the rebel group told me.
This week, a MARA spokesman told BenarNews it had expanded to include three new organizations, but would put off all engagement with Thailand until a new democratically elected Thai government was formed. A general election is expected by May next year at the latest.
Besides not having much to show for, the only card Aksara had in his sleeve was the Safety Zone, a pilot project to designate a ceasefire area, which negotiators hoped could become a model of joint good governance between the state and the rebels.
Moreover, the fact that Aksara had engaged in a lengthy spitting contest with the then- Fourth Army commander, Lt. General Piyawat Nakwanich, did not help his or Thailand’s cause. The two had bickered over their turfs and mandates. It got so nasty that Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha had to step in.
While Thai leaders had many good reasons for removing Gen. Aksara from the picture, Gen. Udomchai has a number of things going for him – at least from the viewpoint of a Thai military mind-set.
As a former Fourth Army Area chief, Udomchai is familiar with hunting down and killing insurgents. It didn’t matter to those who nominated him to be the top negotiator that carrying out a peace process is a delicate process, which requires good sense.
Perhaps the most important reason for Udomchai getting the job, according to Thai official sources, is that he also serves as the “advisor” to the Fourth Army Area. In that role, Udomchai is tasked with building and strengthening a constituency in the far south for the pro-military Palang Pracharat Party. The party has vowed to support Prayuth’s bid to return as PM after the next general election.
Being the chief negotiator may not have a direct correlation with strengthening a constituency for an upcoming election. But at least it will be another feather in Udomchai’s cap and a source of legitimacy for him to be in the far South as he hits the ground there.
Besides, no one really expects Udomchai, like other commanders of the Fourth Army Area, to make any meaningful policy changes. Such moves are pretty much decided in Bangkok.
People should also be aware that his past time in the Patani region was full of controversy. When he was a task-force unit commander in the region, Udomchai was instrumental in carrying out a controversial initiative, which saw some 400 Patani Malay youths being forced to attend military-run “job-training camps” outside the far South. These were, in effect, “re-education” sessions.
In October 2007, a Thai court ruled that these camps were holding people against their will. The Fourth Army responded by declaring them “persona non-grata” in their home villages in the far south.
On top of this, local activists still recall the death of Sulaiman Naesa, a young suspected insurgent who was reportedly tortured to death at Ingkhayutthabariharn, a main military base in the region at the time when Udomchai was regional commander.
Sulaiman’s case and other reports of torture attracted a number of international reporters to the region. But Udomchai held his ground with blanket denials that his soldiers were torturing suspects.
Another case was an incident in January 2012 when Thai soldiers shot dead four people, including an elderly man and a teenager, and injured five others who were crammed up in a truck heading to a relative’s funeral in Pattani province’s Nong Chik district.
In the final analysis, the change to Thailand’s negotiating team was not done for the sake of peace in the Deep South, but to support the political needs of the current junta in Bangkok.
Don Pathan is a Thailand-based security and development consultant for international organizations. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and not of BenarNews.