National Revolutionary Front (BRN) insurgents in Thailand’s Deep South have been under tremendous pressure lately to join Malaysia-brokered peace talks. But leaders of the rebel group are holding their ground and refusing to do so, even if this could mean grave consequences.
The newly designated Malaysian facilitator for the negotiations, Abdul Rahim Noor, informed the Thai side during a recent visit to Thailand that he would give BRN leaders an ultimatum – join the talks or leave Malaysia, according to a senior Thai security official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The feeling among the Malaysian leadership is that BRN can no longer take Kuala Lumpur for granted, the Thai official said. The BRN is the southern border region’s largest and most heavily armed separatist organization. Its top leaders are believed to be hiding out in next-door Malaysia.
Hardliners within Thai security circles, on the other hand, said Abdul Rahim’s strategy should be given a chance, but others viewed the ultimatum as counterproductive. Ideally, as the latter group sees it, BRN leaders should come to the negotiating table willingly.
While Thailand’s negotiating team would like nothing more than to talk with leaders in BRN’s ruling council, they will not support any harsh measure that could force the leadership to go underground.
However, according to a senior Thai military officer who is familiar with both Abdul Rahim and Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, there is a real possibility both men “will employ some stern measures to get what they want.”
It is not clear where the BRN operatives would go if ordered to get out of Malaysia. Some think they might go to Indonesia to join a key member of the organization’s youth wing, Abdulkarim Khalid, the only BRN figure who speaks publicly.
Another option is to return to their historical homeland, Thailand’s far South, and operate from there.
Either way, they would be off the authorities’ radar screen, thus making it that much harder to construct a channel of communication.
“In some ways, this juncture is the moment of truth for the movement,” said Artef Sohko, a political activist from the Deep South, referring to BRN’s leadership.
“Will they continue to resist the pressure from Malaysia to come to the table or make a concession, on the other hand, remains to be seen,” Artef added.
Sitting out current talks
BRN sources said negotiations with the Thais was not on the list of things for them to consider, especially if it meant joining MARA Patani, an umbrella group made up of a number of long-standing separatist movements that no long control insurgents on the ground.
BRN sources said they would like to obtain a better understanding of international norms and strengthen their capacity before they even begin to think about joining the Thais at the negotiating table.
The movement sees the previous and current peace initiative as a shrewd strategy to trick them to come to the table without taking into consideration their concerns and the historical grievances of Patani Malays.
Complicating matters for any peace initiative is the fact that more and more BRN operatives and combatants see independence from the Thai state as a moral obligation.
Nevertheless, Thai officials are trying to reach out to BRN’s ruling council.
Policymakers in Bangkok expressed the sentiment that the current line of communication through Malaysia’s facilitation was not adequate and the Thai government has been struggling to establish a new one that leads to the BRN leaders.
The Thai government has approached some Patani Malay activists to act as go-betweens. But these people said they worried about being killed by spoilers or others with a different agenda.
The shooting death of an Islamic cleric, Ustaz Waesumae Suden, in Pattani province in September 2014, and the murder of Imam Abdullateh Todir in Yala province in November 2012, are often cited as examples of what can happen to people who get too involved with Deep South peace initiatives.
For the past three years up until the appointment of Abdul Rahim, Ahmed Zamzamin Hashim was the one who has acted as the Malaysian go-between for Thailand and the BRN leaders – the ones who refused to come aboard with MARA Patani.
The Thai side felt that Zamzamin had not been very forthcoming and oftentimes misled them into getting their hopes up.
For example, the Thais were led to believe that a meeting between Thailand’s then-chief negotiator, Gen. Aksara Kerdpol, and a key BRN figure in the ruling council, Doonloh Wae-mano (alias Abdullah Wan Mat Noor), was in the pipeline.
Zamzamin also told Bangkok that BRN leaders would respect and observe the Safety Zone, a much talked about pilot project that was supposed to be the legacy of the current crop of the junta, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO).
BRN sources insisted that their leaders had never agreed to such commitments, and suggested that messages from Zamzamin to Bangkok may have been lost in translation.
Man with a plan
Retired Army Gen. Udomchai Thammasarorat, who replaced Aksara as the chief Thai negotiator, has ditched the Safety Zone initiative along with a ceasefire component that came with it. He sees these attempts as a lost cause and leftover baggage from the Zamzamin-Aksara era.
The new chief negotiator has a plan.
This time around, he is looking to pressure the BRN by using local civil society organizations (CSOs). He wants all the Thai CSOs working in the far South to unite under one platform to function as the mediator between the state and the BRN rebels.
It’s a long shot, given that the local CSOs don’t always see eye-to-eye over peace initiatives.
Indeed, just about every senior Thai figure who has come to the Deep South, either as a commander or negotiator, believes he has something better than his predecessor.
None of their plans ever worked because they didn’t want to see the conflict in generational terms. Instead, their aim has been to achieve peace or a major breakthrough as if they were planning some sort of physical landmark or construction project.
The idea of getting the CSOs to play a mediation role is a pipedream, BRN sources said. It’s a wicked strategy to pit the local people – that is to say, the CSOs – against the BRN movement.
But according to BRN combatants, in some ways, they are even closer to the people than the CSOs. In fact, the rebels’ network is much broader than the CSOs could ever be, given that they have cells in just about every district in the Deep South.
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.