Southern Thai Rebels Score Points with COVID-19 Ceasefire

Commentary by Don Pathan
Yala, Thailand
200407-TH-pathan-620.jpg A fire burns at the scene of a car-bomb attack in front of the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Center in Yala, Thailand, March 17, 2020.

BRN rebels in Thailand’s Deep South are known for being a shadowy bunch, but lately the insurgents have emerged from the darkness and are trying hard to show the world that they can be responsible non-state actors.

The April 3 declaration by Barisan Revolusi Nasional (the National Revolutionary Front or BRN) that for now it was ceasing all hostilities against the Thai military on humanitarian grounds because of the coronavirus pandemic was unprecedented in the history of the separatist insurgency, and the latest example of such an effort.

In January, BRN, the longstanding separatist movement that controls virtually all of the insurgents in the Deep South, signed the Deed of Commitment with Geneva Call, an international NGO based in Switzerland. It works with armed groups worldwide to encourage them to abide by the Geneva Convention, which regulates the conduct of armed conflict.

A month later, BRN issued a statement via YouTube, in which it urged residents of this historically contested region to heed the advice of medical personnel working to contain the spread of COVID-19.

The group’s new call for a ceasefire was in line with an appeal made by United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres for warring parties in conflicts around the globe to observe ceasefires in order to help contain the deadly virus.

Military offensive

Meanwhile, until just days ago, Thai security forces were carrying out search-and-destroy operations in Ta Se, a sub-district of Yala province, to flush out militant cells in this vast wetland the Muslim-majority far south. Thai troops wrongly thought the operation would be easy.

A game changer came when photographs of one of the militants killed in a gunfight, and who was severely mutilated, surfaced; the same day also saw a powerful twin bombing outside the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Center (SBPAC) in Yala – a stern warning by the insurgents to the Thai side to back down.

Sources within the BRN movement claimed they had not been aggressive. Ever since the coronavirus penetrated this border region, BRN operatives said they were on the receiving end, starting with the killing of five insurgents in a gunfight at their makeshift camp on the foothills of a mountain in Narathiwat province on Feb. 23. The fight then shifted to the wetlands of Ta Se in the weeks that followed.

There were concerns that the army’s offensive would jeopardize a peace process launched on Jan. 20 in Malaysia between the BRN and Thai negotiators. But even without the fighting in the field, the talks were already on shaky ground.

Before the formal announcement in Kuala Lumpur in January that the talks were starting, BRN’s political wing had met separately with Thai government negotiators in Indonesia and Germany, with the help of another foreign NGO.

BRN’s blunder

BRN’s negotiators went to the table without inputs from the militants in the field, thinking that the terms of reference (TOR) were the only thing on their plate. But Bangkok has never agreed to such terms with any of the Patani Malay groups because Thailand always has been non-committal.

The Thai negotiators and the BRN’s political wing were supposed to dwell on the seven-page draft TOR for some time. But it didn’t take long for their secret meetings in Indonesia and Germany to be exposed.

As expected, the designated facilitator of peace talks, Malaysia, was furious for being left in the dark. As a gesture of reconciliation, Bangkok decided to credit Kuala Lumpur and praise Malaysian officials for all the wonderful work that made the Jan. 20 event between the Thai government and BRN negotiators possible. So far, Kuala Lumpur has hosted two meetings between the Thai negotiators and the BRN’s political wing.

For the BRN militants, the problem wasn’t the talks or keeping the Malaysian officials out of the loop; the problem was that the political-wing people had started the talks without addressing key questions within the movement. To correct the sloppy mistake of coming to the negotiating table prematurely, BRN’s secretariat told its members to mend fences with the militants fighting in the field.

Even with that, BRN people still can’t get the new narrative right. Is the BRN willing to settle for something less than the right to self-determination, or are the talks a stepping stone toward some sort of autonomy to be followed by independence? These are some of the unanswered questions from the combatants.

And as the political and military wings of the BRN tried to patch things up, the coronavirus struck the Deep South. The number of infections went up considerably after hundreds of Tablighi Jamaat members returned from Malaysia and Indonesia, where they had traveled for religious revivals in early and mid-March, respectively.

Silence on Thai side

Now, the Thai government has not yet said anything publicly about the BRN’s ceasefire declaration.

Perhaps this is out of fear that any positive statement, like welcoming the insurgent group’s humanitarian gesture, would upset the top leaders in the government and in the armed forces, especially Gen. Apirat Kongsompong, the powerful army chief. Many have said that he opposes the current southern peace initiative because he believes the country has made too many concessions.

Meanwhile in the Deep South, Lt. Gen. Pornsak Poolsawat, the region’s top army commander, refuses to see the violence through political lenses. As far as he’s concerned, he is upholding the law of the land.

Three months ago, Apirat led a delegation to Indonesia, where he succeeded in persuading his counterpart to agree to curb any of BRN’s activities in the world’s largest Muslim-majority country.

He also got the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), a separatist movement that secured a peace agreement with Jakarta in 2005, to agree to act as a monitor of the Thai-BRN talks. Thai negotiators and the designated facilitator in Kuala Lumpur were left in the dark and wondering what was Apirat’s real intention.

For many of the generals among Thailand’s top military brass, treating the Patani Malay separatist movements as their equals is a bitter pill, which they refuse to swallow.

For the time being, the army has retreated from the wetlands of Ta Se, but unannounced visits and searches of residents’ homes in the name of national security continue unabated.

BRN may have won some points by heeding the U.N. secretary-general’s call to silence their guns during a global pandemic, but the rebels are still up against a mighty army, whose anger only deepens every time its enemies become that much more legitimate in the eyes of the world.

Don Pathan is a senior program officer at The Asia Foundation – Thailand. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and not of BenarNews.


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