As if a spike in violence in the Thai Deep South wasn’t enough to rattle the government, the region’s most prominent separatist insurgent group upped the ante this week with a statement dismissing the current peace process and reiterating its demand for negotiating with Bangkok directly.
Rebel group Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) reminded the Thais that a meaningful peace process must be in line with international norms, which means an impartial “mediator” should lead the talks.
“Any peace dialogue must be based on the willingness of the two parties involved in the conflict and voluntarily agreed to find a solution,” BRN said in the statement it issued Monday.
Asked to clarify the reference to “two parties,” a BRN operative replied, “the Thai government and the BRN,” not MARA Patani, an umbrella organization of long-standing Patani Malay separatist groups that have been negotiating with the government since 2015 in informal peace talks facilitated by Malaysia.
BRN controls virtually all of the militants on the ground, the operative said, and the group insisted that Bangkok deal directly with them and that the international community observe the process.
Crossing a red line
The statement followed a spike in insurgency-related violence in Thailand’s Muslim-majority provinces along the southern border that came in retaliation for the recent shooting deaths of two ethnic Malay Muslims, which were largely unreported by the national media.
Separatist militants on the ground were determined to let the government know there was a price to pay for crossing the red line.
Suspected separatist insurgents Isma-ae Hama, 28, and Aseng Useng, 30 were shot and killed on March 29 by paramilitary rangers who said they fired in self-defense during a car chase.
The 15-year-old niece of one of the suspects said the two were not armed. The two stepped out of the vehicle, as instructed by the security officials who led them away, while she waited in the vehicle as instructed. Moments later, she heard gunshots.
Later that day, a photograph of the two dead men about 50 meters from their vehicle along a back road in Rueso district, Narathiwat province, was posted on websites. Beside them were an M16 rifle and a 9-mm handgun.
At the end of the day, it’s her word against the authorities. As expected, there was no outpouring of sympathy from the general Thai public outside the Malay-speaking Deep South, especially when police said the two might have been linked to the killing of a Buddhist deputy village chief and three members of his family on March 2.
Historically, Thai people have shown that they can be extremely unkind to people who challenge their narrative.
Patani Malay separatist militants wasted little time in showing their displeasure with what they deemed was the crossing of a red line by the government.
The following day, about five insurgents hopped on back of a pickup truck, drove up to the Narathiwat’s Rangae district police station, and commenced firing at group of officers who were lining up in formation for the start of their day. One officer was killed and five injured.
Four days later, about 30 insurgents stormed a security outpost in the Krong Pinang district of Yala province, injuring at least 12 police officers. And shortly after midnight, April 6, insurgents unleashed dozens of explosions and arson attacks, crippling the power grid and causing widespread blackouts throughout the region.
Deeply rooted in community
Rules of engagement established through negotiated text do not exist between the two warring sides of this conflict. In this respect, how one interprets “violation” or “legitimate killing” has been subjective.
Separatist sources said they could live with the fact that their combatants get killed in a gunfight with government security forces in a normal theater of violence, such as a battlefield or in a setting that constitutes a battle ground. But they will not tolerate targeted killing of suspects.
Although the insurgents justify the targeted killings of people who spy for Thai security agencies, they insist the government cannot use the same rationale and logic to summarily and extra judiciously kill anyone they think is associated with separatist militants.
Just about every Malay Muslim in the Deep South knows somebody in the separatist movement, one senior BRN field operative said.
In this respect, accusing someone of being “associated” with insurgency is the easiest thing to claim and impossible to refute. In other words, if Isma-ae and Aseng could be killed, anybody could be killed.
The BRN network has a strong support base from the grassroots Malay community that provides members with logistical supports and serves as its eyes and ears. Thai officials on the ground know this but are unable to say much because policy-makers in Bangkok dominate the narrative on the Deep South.
As for the combatants and security officials on the ground, the challenge is deciding who constitutes a legitimate target. And without a joint clearing house where both sides could work out a proper rules of engagement, perceived “violations” will inevitably go on.
Don Pathan is a consultant and security analyst based in Thailand. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and not of BenarNews.