BRN rebels deal blow to Thai hopes for Buddhist Lent ceasefire

Commentary by Don Pathan
2022.08.21
Yala, Thailand
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BRN rebels deal blow to Thai hopes for Buddhist Lent ceasefire A Thai officer stands beside a burnt down oil tanker at a gas station in Pattani province after an overnight wave of arson and bomb attacks in Thailand’s southernmost provinces that authorities have blamed on Muslim separatist rebels, Aug. 17, 2022.
Sumeth Panpetch/AP Photo

It wasn’t long ago that Thai officials spoke optimistically about building upon the success of a Ramadan ceasefire, when government forces and BRN Muslim Malay rebels refrained from violence during the entire Islamic holy month across the Deep South.

The 40-day ceasefire, which both sides agreed to at peace talks in Malaysia in early April, lasted throughout Ramadan and into mid-May. It encompassed Buddhist observances of Visakha Bucha, arguably the most important holy day for members of Thailand’s religious majority, as a gesture of goodwill.

Some saw this as a turning point for an armed separatist insurgency that has seen peace initiatives come and go since the conflict in Thailand’s southern border region reignited nearly 20 years ago. The gesture went beyond the usual confidence building measures discussed at the negotiations table.

Unfortunately, the optimism of the Thai officials was short-lived.

The reality kicked in hard when, within two weeks of the Ramadan ceasefire expiring, BRN combatants launched a vicious attack on a Marine Police outpost in Tak Bai, a border town along a river that separates Thailand from Malaysia.

It was not your typical assault by Barisan Revolusi Nasional (National Revolutionary Front) insurgents involving a roadside IED explosion followed by a gunfight lasting no more than three minutes.

This time around, the insurgents wanted people on both sides of the frontier to hear it. An intense gunfight went on for 15 minutes, and shots could still be heard an hour after the first round rang out.

And then last week, late at night on Tuesday and into Wednesday morning, the militants carried out simultaneous arson and bomb attacks targeting 17 convenience stores, mostly located at gas stations throughout the far south.

As in the Tak Bai operation in late May, the combatants avoided casualties by instructing the store clerks to step out. In the Tak Bai case, the vendors were told to take cover before the shooting started. However, in last week’s attack, a 21-year-old clerk at a 7-Eleven store in Narathiwat province was killed when he got trapped in a blaze when the shop was firebombed as part of the coordinated attacks, officials said.

And, as was the case in the Tak Bai incident, BRN officials neither confirmed nor denied that their group carried out last week’s coordinated attacks. BRN, a highly secretive organization, has a long-standing policy of not commenting on or claiming responsibility for specific incidents or operations.

This is partly because the group has no identifiable public representation through a political body or party in the same manner as the Irish Republican Army had through the Sinn Fein party in Northern Ireland. BRN has negotiators representing it but the movement has not set up a “political wing” that can fully engage with the general public and members of the international community.

BRN-delegates.jpg
Anas Abdulrahman (center), the head of the panel representing Barisan Revolusi Nasional rebels in peace talks with Thailand who is also known as Hipni Mareh, and fellow BRN delegates take part in a post-meetings press conference at a hotel in Petaling Jaya, near Kuala Lumpur, Aug. 3, 2022. [S. Mahfuz/BenarNews]

Observers with working relations with BRN operatives said the combatants were itching for a fight for some time but had been held back by the talks of a ceasefire.

Moreover, BRN combatants are still upset at the Thai Army for belittling a unilateral ceasefire announced by the rebel group in April 2020. It was a humanitarian gesture, in line with a global appeal from U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, so that health workers would not have to worry about getting caught up in any crossfire as they worked to deliver medical aid and curb the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, which hit the Deep South hard at the time.

Not only did the Thai Army give the rebels the cold shoulder by dismissing the gesture as insignificant as well as ignoring pleas from local activists to stand down, the Thai military unleashed its wrath on the BRN combatants, saying the law was on its side.

During the year between the unilateral declaration of the pandemic-related ceasefire and the start of this year’s Ramadan in early April, Thai security forces killed 64 BRN combatants, taking out one to two at a time in a lopsided standoffs in remote villages throughout the border region.

The combatants were laying low, obeying orders from their commanders to stand down during the unilateral pause in operations.

Villagers believed that informants had tipped off the authorities in return for rewards. One point of concern for the authorities was that in all of the standoffs, only one person surrendered. The rest fought to their deaths even though the chances of them making it out alive – that is, to escape – were next to nothing.

Moreover, senior BRN figures felt their negotiators were getting “too comfortable” with their Thai counterparts. They pointed to the audacity of the Thais to ask for the ceasefire only when it would serve their political interests.

At a technical-level meeting in June 2022, Thailand decided to push their luck and ask for another ceasefire. This time they were asking for a ceasefire that would last more than three months and cover the period of Buddhist Lent, which goes until Oct. 10 in Thailand.

BRN political officers surprised everybody when they succeeded in persuading the military wing to go along. Again, they gave the Thais more than they had bargained for; BRN even tacked on another month to the requested ceasefire by extending it until the end of November 2022.

But there was one condition: the Thai would have to sign the General Principles of the Peace Dialogue Process, a blueprint setting the terms for future talks.

The Thais did not object to the content, which includes a point stipulating that both sides must agree to negotiate under the Thai Constitution, and that the principle underlying the Unitary State of Thailand must be embraced.

Not signing anything has long been the standing tradition of the Thai government, perhaps out of fear that inking any document would unnecessarily enhance the legitimacy of the BRN – thus upsetting hardliners in the country. BRN officials, for their part, said that a signature from the Thai chief negotiator would enhance their acceptance and legitimacy as an organization.

girl-sign.jpg
A girl holds a placard during a demonstration against recent incidents of violence by suspected seperatists, in the southern Thai province of Narathiwat on August 15, 2022. [Madaree Tohlala/AFP]

Disagreement over the General Principles grew.

At the last round of in-person peace talks brokered by Malaysia near Kuala Lumpur on Aug. 1-2, it all came crashing down on the peace process.

BRN gave the Thais the cold shoulder. One Thai official described the meeting as a “set back” and another said a “reset button” had been pushed.

“It was as if the BRN didnt want to be there,” said the officer. The two sides did not dine with each other and there was no mingling during coffee breaks either.

A senior BRN official dismissed the term “set back” but admitted that the meeting was a bit sour and it did not end on a good note.

BRN was just being “firm with our stance,” he said.

Both sources spoke to this columnist on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to go on the record about issues discussed during the last round of talks.

Conservatives in Thailand believe that inking any agreement with the BRN would set the stage for internationalization of the conflict, where the United Nations or other countries or members of the world community could intervene.

‘Getting too comfortable’

Meanwhile, there appears to be some kind of disagreement between the BRN negotiators, the group’s senior leadership, and its fighters in the field.

The field-level combatants believe their leaders should explore other ways to generate acceptance and legitimacy. The combatants dont like the General Principles because of two stipulations about the Thai Constitution and the Unitary State of Thailand. The first article in the Thai Constitution says the kingdom is inseparable.

BRN leaders, however, have insisted that the political objective – independence for the people of Patani – which they equate as a “sacred value,” has not changed.

“Legitimacy and acceptance will depend on BRN living up to the commitments they made or plan to make with members of the international community. It also depends on their actions on the ground,” said Artef Sohko, the president of The Patani, a political action group that supports the right to self-determination for the people of the historically contested border region.

BRN leaders have expressed a desire for better understanding of international norms and humanitarian principles.

In Artef’s view, the Thai government and the Malaysian facilitator, Abdul Rahim Noor, should appreciate and welcome this because it could mean greater civility in the conflict zone.

Commenting on the sour atmosphere at the recently concluded talks in Kuala Lumpur, Artef said, “BRN distancing themselves from the Thai negotiators is a good thing.”

“The Thai side was getting too comfortable,” said Artef, pointing to their “audacity” to request a 108-day ceasefire for Buddhist Lent while ignoring the “all or nothing” attitude of the government security forces deployed in the theater of operations.

Artef said the Thais conveniently ignore that BRN combatants in the field reluctantly went along with the Ramadan ceasefire. They didn’t want to humiliate their negotiators, he explained, so that’s why they gave in and stood down during the entire whole month of Ramadan.

Don Pathan is a Thailand-based security analyst.

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