Latest Deep South Peace Talks: Too Far Too Fast?

Don Pathan
2022.04.04
Bangkok
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Latest Deep South Peace Talks: Too Far Too Fast? Anas Abdulrahman (also known as Hipni Mareh), the head of a panel representing BRN rebels at Malaysian-brokered peace talks with Thailand, speaks during a press conference as other BRN officials sit beside him at a hotel near Kuala Lumpur, April 1, 2022.
S. Mahfuz/BenarNews

On the surface, the latest peace talks between Thai government negotiators and representatives of the BRN rebel group seem promising for people in Thailand’s far south, where violence linked to a separatist insurgency has claimed more than 7,300 lives since 2004. But it is not clear if Barisan Revolusi Nasional combatants will embrace the direction of the talks.

Just last Wednesday, on the eve of the talks, a powerful roadside bomb and gunfight left two police officers dead and wounded two others in Yala province – a reminder that the end is nowhere in sight in this predominantly Malay-speaking region.

The March 31-April 1 negotiations picked up where they had left off in January, when the two sides agreed to work towards greater public consultations, reduction of violence and finding political solutions to this separatist insurgency.

Meanwhile, it has emerged that in the course of secret discussions since late last year, a working paper came out that outlined the General Principles for future talks. Both sides agreed that future discussions would be conducted “under the Unitary State of Thailand in accordance with the Constitution.”

The clause showed up again in a press statement issued by Thailand’s negotiating team to mark the end of the latest round of in-person talks.

“It sounds like a breakthrough but in reality, it is a cheap and pretentious effort that has no bearing on reality on the ground,” said Artef Sohko, president of The Patani, a political action group that promote rights to self-determination for Thailand’s Malay-speaking Deep South.

The first article of the Thai Constitution stipulates clearly that the kingdom is inseparable. For the BRN combatants – or any ordinary person on the street, for that matter – BRN negotiators embracing Thailand’s Constitution means an end to the quest for independence.

When reporters asked them about this after the two-day meeting in Malaysia, neither rebel nor Thai negotiators would confirm or deny that BRN, which controls virtually all of the combatants in the field, is willing to settle for something less than independence.

For the past 18 years, since the violence in this historically contested region surfaced, combatants have been told that their fight is nothing less than a moral obligation and sacred duty to liberate a historically Malay homeland from invading Siamese/Thai forces.

Fighters in the field are now learning about the move to “embrace the Thai Constitution.” BRN leadership has advised them to remain calm, saying the engagement with Thai negotiators is part of a “diplomatic exercise,” said a source with knowledge of such conversations.

Deep-South-body.jpg
Relatives and mourners carry the body of two Thai Muslim policeman who were abducted and killed by suspected militants, for burial rites at a cemetery in the southern Thai province of Narathiwat, Feb. 27, 2019. [AFP]

Artef believes the BRN military wing could splinter if combatants believe their political goal and “sacred” values have been compromised. Like any other splinter groups in a sub-national conflict, a splinter group in Thailand’s far south would want to demonstrate their capability.

Subnational groups like the Basque Homeland and Liberty (ETA) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) took years to develop a narrative acceptable to their combatants before they went to the negotiating table. Conflict resolution for southern Thailand, abnormally, is the opposite.

The recent annual Ramadan statement posted on YouTube in mid-March 2022 by Abdulkarim Khalid, a member of BRN’s Information Department, expressed hope that the year’s holy month would be peaceful.

The Thai Army, meanwhile, says it will stand down during this year’s Ramadan if combatants do the same, as part of confidence-building measures. All mosques in the region will become a sanctuary ground during the last 10 days of Ramadan so combatants can meet with their families.

In the current atmosphere, a ceasefire during Ramadan is a big leap of faith.

BRN fighters have been targeted in relentless search-and-kill operations over the past two years, after the group declared a unilateral ceasefire in April 2020 so that public health officials wouldn’t have to worry about getting caught in crossfire while working to contain the spread of COVID-19. Since then, at least 50 combatants have been killed by Thai security forces, who did not reciprocate the BRN goodwill gesture.

With that in mind, Artef and other activists in his circle believe the Army has a long way to go to earn the trust of the BRN.

Moreover, there is nothing to suggest that Thai security forces will not resume their search-and-kill operations after Ramadan.

At the same time, BRN leaders and negotiators don’t seem to have the courage to tell their fighters that their original political objective may have been compromised.

What is needed is a new narrative to explain and justify the course of actions taken by the BRN leaders and the Thai negotiators.

They don’t need to explain or convince the public and the donor community that they are moving in the right direction. But both the Thais and the BRN negotiators need to think about how to get their soldiers and fighters on board this peace process and move forward as one.

Don Pathan is a Thailand-based security analyst.

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