The Thai government, after nearly 15 years of trying, has finally succeeded in getting the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) southern rebel group to the negotiations table.
Thai negotiators and members of the foreign affairs committee of BRN, the long-standing Patani Malay armed separatist movement that controls virtually all of the insurgents in the field, met in Kuala Lumpur last month to officially announce the start of direct peace talks.
Unlike past peace initiatives in Thailand’s Deep South, this meeting was mandated by BRN’s Dewan Pimpinan Parti (DPP), the movement’s secretive ruling council of elders who function more like spiritual leaders than military commanders.
Anas Abdulrahman (also known as Hipni Mareh), a former teacher at the Thammawitaya Mulinithi School in Yala province, led the BRN delegates at the Kuala Lumpur meeting. That was the same school where the late Sapae-ing Baso – the man whom Thai officials believed to be the insurgent group’s spiritual leader – served as principal before he fled in 2004 to escape arrest.
Hipni was arrested then along with seven other religious teachers. All were granted bail in 2007 as part of the then-military-government’s efforts to win hearts and minds. Hipni jumped bail, slipped across the border into Malaysia, and only made his first general public appearance at a press conference that followed the meeting in Kuala Lumpur in late January.
But in spite of DPP’s endorsement, a meaningful peace process is still a long way away.
BRN’s chain of command is fluid and its command-and-control untested. The movement’s mystique – its talk of independence and equating that to a moral duty – has helped keep hope alive to a certain extent.
The loyalty of its fighters lies mainly with their respective field commanders, not the movement. Such an arrangement is a recipe for a breakup if there are disagreements over major changes in policy or strategy.
Indeed, the next few weeks will be crucial as BRN leaders try to create an understanding with their field commanders about the latest decision, arguably the most important one since the decades-old insurgency in Thailand’s far south reignited 16 years ago.
Artef Sohko, the chairman of The Patani, a local political action group promoting the right to self-determination for the mainly Muslim and Malay-speaking southern border region, said BRN should have come up with a new narrative before taking part at last month’s meeting.
For more than a decade, the BRN has equated the notion of independence for the Patani people to a moral obligation.
“It doesn’t look like this is still the case now. And how would they explain [that] to the combatants on the ground?” Artef said.
At the press conference that marked the close of the first official meeting, Hipni painted a rosy picture of how the two sides – Thailand and the BRN – had always committed to peace and that they had been conducting a series of back-channel talks over the years while the official track of negotiations came to a standstill.
But the recent past tells a very different story.
Hipni conveniently overlooked the series of major violent incidents, including some deadly ones that BRN operatives had carried out to derail the various peace efforts and counter Thailand’s effort to get the group’s hardline leaders to the table. This was as recent as the Aug. 2, 2019, bombings that rocked Bangkok as Thailand hosted a meeting foreign ministers from ASEAN states and another countries.
According to sources on both sides of the political divide, the bombings were a stern warning to Thais and Malaysian facilitators to stop harassing the DPP to come to the table.
A similar message was conveyed in January 2019 when militants in Narathiwat province killed two Buddhist monks at a temple and four custodians of a public school, as well as a retired teacher in nearby Songkhla province.
Shinawatra peace initiative
BRN has never taken the idea of face-to-face talks with the Thais lightly.
Such a harsh stance was demonstrated as far back as March 30, 2012, when three car bombs exploded at the same time on a street in Yala province.
A bomb also went off in the basement parking lot at a shopping mall in Hat Yai, a commercial hub of the Deep South that sits just north of the conflict-affected areas. Altogether, 13 died and about 200 were wounded on that dreadful day.
The incident came two weeks after 16 exiled Patani separatist leaders met with deposed and fugitive former Thai leader Thaksin Shinawatra, the brother of then-Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
BRN felt insulted by Thaksin’s excuses; he had blamed his heavy-handed counter insurgency strategy as prime minister on the Thai army, accusing it of feeding him distorted information. He urged all sides to let bygones be bygones and move on with a peace process.
Besides the deadly message from the BRN – not to mention that there was no buy-in from the Thai army – Yingluck pushed through her brother’s initiative by launching a peace process in February 2013, with Malaysia designated as the official facilitator.
Representatives from the rebel side included self-proclaimed BRN members, like Hassan Bin Toyib, who the Thai security apparatus wrongly assumed was a BRN insider who had come to the table with the DPP’s full blessing.
BRN’s ruling council did send a couple of people to the talks. They included Adam Muhammed Nur, its then foreign affairs chief, and Abdul Karim Khalid, a leading member of the youth wing. The two were there to derail the process.
The Thai army didn’t care if Yingluck’s peace initiative succeeded or failed; after all, it wasn’t part of the talks’ inception and planning. Neither was the BRN, for that matter.
The following year, in May 2014, the army ousted Yingluck’s government in a bloodless coup. The generals then thought long and hard about what to do with her peace initiative. Not wanting to be seen as a bunch of non-peace loving military brass, the junta set up a multi-agency Peace Dialogue Panel with the National Security Council being the engine.
The military government’s peace initiative was to be “inclusive,” which was something different from Yingluck’s dealings with the BRN – at least in name.
But the new approach proved counterproductive. It provided BRN with an excuse to reject Bangkok’s peace process on the grounds that none of the participants, particularly those sitting on MARA Patani, an umbrella group representing various rebel factions in the talks, had much influence over militants in the field.
For the time being, the status quo is likely to continue between the two sides. The BRN combatants will carry on with their campaign of violence.
Bangkok, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to be prepared to make any meaningful concessions, even though discussions among policy people are touching on important issues, such as making more room for the Patani Malay people’s cultural space and historical narrative.
Don Pathan is a Thailand-based security analyst. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and not of BenarNews.