In June, near the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, Ahmad Zamzamin Hashim, the Malaysian mediator of the Southern Thailand peace process, invited the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) to join the negotiations.
It was not the first time that such an invitation had been extended to the BRN, the most powerful insurgent group operating in southern Thailand. But, this time around, Zamzamin had reason to be optimistic.
At stake was the resolution of a 13-year-old armed conflict that has killed nearly 7,000 people in Thailand’s southernmost provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat – areas that were part of a Malay Muslim sultanate before being annexed by Bangkok in 1909.
Malaysia is facilitating the negotiations between Bangkok and MARA Patani, an umbrella organization of southern insurgent groups.
In response to Zamzamin’s invitation, Doonloh Wae-mano (alias Abdullah Wan Mat Noor), the most senior official of BRN’s governing council, said he and his people “would have to think about it.”
Zamzamin also had assurances from the BRN that it would not sabotage the safety zone initiative, a limited ceasefire being planned in designated areas in Thailand’s three Muslim-majority provinces, collectively known as the Deep South.
This point was discussed during the Aug. 8 to 10 meeting between MARA Patani and Thai negotiators in Kuala Lumpur, sources said.
But on Aug. 16, less than a week after the conclusion of that meeting, seven young militants stole pickup trucks and snatched hostages from a second-hand car dealership in Songkhla province, just north of the Deep South.
Their plan – to convert the vehicles into car bombs – fell apart after four hostages tried to escape. Two hostages were shot, one died in hospital, and the survivors alerted authorities. The entire region went on high alert.
In the end, only two of the seven pickup trucks were used as car bombs, and a suspected militant died after an alleged shootout with Thai police.
Army chief Gen. Chalermchai Sitthisart said the seven militants were directed by Wae-mano – taking a jab at the man believed by many Thai officials to be the biggest obstacle to BRN joining the peace talks.
The carjackings dampened the optimism felt after BRN agreed not to sabotage the safety zone initiative – and served as a reminder that nothing comes easy in Thailand’s Deep South.
The next round of talks are expected this month, but MARA Patani has asked for more time to prepare for the meeting, which had been scheduled for Sept. 11, a Thai government official said.
For their part, BRN sources said the chain of command in their movement is fluid, meaning that deals reached at the top level may not play out on the ground the way that Thai or Malaysian officials want them to.
Moreover, said the sources, there is bad blood between the BRN and MARA Patani, and this will take time to overcome.
“Pohsu Loh [Wae-mano] was being polite and diplomatic when he said BRN would refrain from hitting districts designated as Safety Zones. BRN has cells in just about every tambon [sub-district] and it remains to be seen how this agreement or understanding with Ahmad Zamzamin will play out,” said one BRN source, who added that his unit had not been informed of this particular deal.
BRN officials say Bangkok’s insistence that talks be in line with the country’s constitution, which clearly stipulates that the kingdom is indivisible, has always been a non-starter.
They say they would hypothetically be willing to talk to the government if that stipulation was not raised, and in turn, they would not mention the issue of independence.
BRN officials also say they will only come to the table if their negotiators are properly trained, and the talks are mediated by the international community – in line with peace processes in the southern Philippines and in Aceh, Indonesia.
A Thai military intelligence officer who monitors the Deep South conflict said involving the BRN would be an opportunity to talk to the people who have command-and-control over the militants.
In June, Deputy Defense Minister Udomdej Sitabutr publicly implied that MARA Patani may not be the right dialogue partners. In other words, he doesn’t believe MARA Patani has command-and-control over the insurgents engaged in the fighting.
But Udomdej’s statement was said to have rubbed Gen. Aksara Kerdpol, Thailand’s chief negotiator, the wrong way.
Aksara and many in the Thai government, including Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, believe that if the “real” BRN wants to join the talks, they need to come under MARA Patani’s umbrella, not start a new track.
Even if the Thai military allows the presence of international participants, there is no indication that it would be willing to make concessions touching on the historical root causes and the deep-seated mistrust between the Thai government and the Malays of the Deep South.
BRN also pointed to the Thai government’s refusal to grant legal immunity to two MARA Patani negotiators as a sign of Bangkok’s unwillingness to make concessions.
Sukree Hari and Ahmad Chuwol, who fled Thailand in 2007 after posting bail under the then-military government, resurfaced as MARA Patani members when the panel was launched in August 2015.
The two requested the immunity that would permit them to return to Thailand and observe the safety zone pilot project, one source said. But the Thai Justice Ministry was firmly against it for fear that it would create an unwanted precedent.
Moreover, allegations of extra-judicial killings by both sides continued to dampen the atmosphere at the political level and set off tit-for-tat revenge killings.
Don Pathan is a Thailand-based security analyst and consultant. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and not of BenarNews.