Thailand’s new chief negotiator in peace talks with Deep South rebels expressed his determination to end the long-running separatist conflict in the border region as he introduced himself and his team to the international community last week.
Wanlop Rugsanaoh did not name Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), the Patani Malay insurgent group that controls virtually all of the combatants on the rebel side. But his team intended to talk to all the armed separatist groups, especially those that could influence the situation in the field, the retired army general and former National Security Council chief said during a press conference Friday in Bangkok.
Engaging in a peace process with the southern rebels was part of a national agenda, Wanlop told reporters. The tone of his remarks contrasted with recent comments by the Thai army chief, Gen. Apirat Kongsompong, and other government officials on how Bangkok should handle the conflict in the far south.
The negotiator spoke about the importance of human dignity, compromise and respecting differences as he outlined his approach to the new job, while Apirat had talked tough by suggesting that the southern rebels must be crushed by any necessary means.
The current wave of insurgency-related violence in Thailand’s southernmost border provinces, whose population is mainly Muslim and Malay-speaking, erupted in early 2004 and has claimed more than 7,000 lives.
Peace initiatives have since come and gone but nothing seems to work because the most important separatist group of all, the BRN, has refused to join the talks.
“We can first learn from the past roles and lessons on why the talks failed. The best way is to meet the right man so that we fix the trouble correctly,” said Thanakorn Buaras, head of the National Intelligence Agency, one of four panelists who appeared at Friday’s press conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand.
That said, peace initiatives in the Deep South over the past 15 years have been a trial-and-error process.
From the Langkawi Process to the Berlin initiative, the Thai government and the Patani Malay rebels have come face to face in various cities in Southeast Asia and Europe.
Many of these discussions have been kept off the public’s radar screen. And to play it safe, people involved with these peace initiatives often bill them as “pre-talks.”
Peace initiatives gone by
One reason that none of the peace initiatives have gained traction is that the Thai side is not willing to make any concessions.
Of course, there was a launch of talks in February 2013 by the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, when Bangkok gave Kuala Lumpur a mandate to “facilitate” the efforts.
The Yingluck initiative generated a great deal of excitement. It marked the first time a Thai government had stated publicly that it would talk to the rebels and resolve the conflict through political means.
But it didn’t take long to realize that Yingluck’s initiative was something between a hoax and a big leap of faith. First of all, the entire inception process was carried out without the knowledge of the Thai military or the participation of the BRN. In short, it was doomed to fail from the start.
A coup toppled Yingluck in May 2014, after which a military government reluctantly resumed the talks. Gen. Aksara Kerdpol, a retired army chief of staff, was appointed as the chief Thai negotiator and Malaysia resumed its role as official facilitator.
Kuala Lumpur helped put together an umbrella organization made up of longstanding separatist movements, some of which surfaced during the previous wave of insurgency in the 1960s but went under in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
As with Yingluck’s initiative, MARA Patani lacked the participation of BRN leaders who controlled the group’s fighters. The BRN didn’t see it as a credible process.
In late 2018, Aksara was replaced by Gen. Udomchai Thamsarorat, another retired general who spent much of his professional career in the Fourth Army Area, the command that oversees the Deep South.
One of his first orders of business was to drop Aksara’s Safety Zone pilot project. He knew MARA Patani could not deliver on its ceasefire component, because they didn’t control the insurgents, and BRN, the group that did, was not about to support something that would enhance the legitimacy of another group without getting anything in return.
Udomchai, from the start, reached out to as many people as he could, including members of the international community, to seek advice on how to advance the talks.
Udomchai’s decision to request help from a foreign NGO to reach out to the BRN’s ruling council irked some officials in the Malaysian facilitation secretariat because they had not been consulted and, therefore, this was seen as a violation of protocol.
The Thai government likes to point out that the number of violent incidents in the Deep South has dropped dramatically, compared to a peak in 2007.
But the BRN has demonstrated that they can crank up the violence in the Deep South at any time. This was the case with the killings of two Buddhist monks and five public school employees in January this year. More recently, twin attacks in early November killed 15 people, mostly village defense volunteers and police, in Lam Phaya, a sub-district of Yala province.
The ground rule in Thailand’s far south is that the local officials are to be left alone if they do not cross the line to become part of the government’s security apparatus. It was not clear what line, if any, the 15 victims in Lam Phaya had crossed.
Don Pathan is a Thailand-based security analyst. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and not of BenarNews.