Bahasa Melayu as ‘Working Language’ May Feature in Upcoming Thai-BRN Peace Talks

Don Pathan
Yala, Thailand
2021-12-28
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Bahasa Melayu as ‘Working Language’ May Feature in Upcoming Thai-BRN Peace Talks People wade through floodwaters after heavy rains in Sungai Kolok, a district in the Muslim-majority province of Narathiwat in southern Thailand, Dec. 20, 2021.
[AFP]

When Thai negotiators and separatist Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) insurgents resume face-to-face peace talks next month, the issues of making Bahasa Melayu a “working language” alongside Thai and allowing Malays greater cultural space in Thailand may be on the table.

If indeed the two sides discuss these issues during the Malaysia-brokered negotiations, it would mean they are moving beyond the usual confidence-building measures and taking up more substantive issues.

But nothing comes easy on issues to do with Thailand’s Malay-majority Deep South.

This upcoming peace initiative in January – not officially confirmed by the two sides but by sources on each side – will take place on shaky ground. The military wing of the BRN and the Thai Army, for one, were never keen on the idea of peace talks.

And whatever decisions they agree on at the negotiating table will require a buy-in from the fighters of the long-standing Patani Malay separatist movement, which today controls virtually all of the combatants in the field.

The past two years of having to communicate online amid a pandemic have yielded mixed results, as well as opportunities missed.

A unilateral ceasefire declared by the BRN on humanitarian grounds in April 2020 and the COVID-19 outbreak were opportunities that both sides could have used to deepen cooperation.

Instead, the pandemic became more of an excuse not to move closer. Besides, the Thai Army responded to the BRN’s ceasefire with a stepped-up military offensive, sending a stern warning to the BRN combatants: surrender and live, or die fighting.

Outgunned and outnumbered, often by 20 to one, almost all BRN combatants involved in standoffs chose to fight to the death rather than surrender. Their actions prompted some in the government’s policy circles to wonder whether this crop of combatants was sliding towards violent extremism, where deaths are central to operations.

While rebel deaths resulted from gunfights – not from suicide missions – the fact that the militants opted to fight to death rather than surrender and live reflects the combatants’ personal feelings. The thought of living a humiliating life was unbearable to their kin, according to family members of some of the militants killed in recent standoffs.

The rebels’ deaths drove a bigger wedge between local Muslims and the Thai state. Family members of slain rebels saw an outpouring of moral support from locals. All the rebels were buried as shahids, or martyrs.

Meanwhile, on the Thai side, government agencies and Army officials hotly debated a nomenclature issue – should the insurgency be called a “conflict” or “organized crime?”

The Army insisted on calling it “organized crime.” To treat it as a “conflict” would legitimize the rebels and the possibility of transforming the issue into a transnational one, they said. But the negotiators see it differently.

Thailand has nothing to fear and the country’s sovereignty will not be weakened if the government treated the insurgency in the Deep South as an “armed conflict,” according to Chanintira Na Thalang, an associate professor at Thammasat University.

“Regardless of whether the conflict in the south fits the description of NIACs [non-international armed conflict], the possibility of external interference is nil,” Chanintira said.

“However, what attracts international attention and unwanted interference is the level of violence and the disregard for human rights.”

The conflict in Thailand’s southern border region is deeply rooted in historical mistrust and resentment towards the Thai government’s policy of assimilation, which the Malays of Pattani felt came at the expense of their ethno-religious identity.

Local Muslims, particularly members of the armed separatist groups, hold that the region belongs to the Malay people and that the community has a moral obligation to liberate it from forces who invaded their land from Siam, the old name for Thailand.

Don Pathan is a Thailand-based security analyst. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and not of BenarNews.

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