Updated at 4:30 p.m. ET on 2018-01-17
Thailand’s snail-pace peace talks with Malay Muslim separatist movements have reached a critical juncture. The main armed group, Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), is thinking of moving to the next level of dialogue by drawing international negotiators to the table, and beyond the normal tit-for-tat violence between them and Thai security forces.
It has been 14 years of ambushes, roadside bombings and targeted killings of Thai security officials and suspected collaborators. Thailand, on the other hand, continues to follow a two-pronged strategy: winning the hearts and minds of local Malay Muslim through economic development aimed at stimulating growth in the impoverished southern border region; and engaging in hot pursuits of militants on the ground.
Other than that, the security officials are sitting ducks, waiting to be hit by militants as they move from place to place.
In all, nearly 7,000 people have died from the insurgency-related violence, yet a political settlement is nowhere in sight.
Every now and then, the insurgents carry out coordinated attacks outside of this conflict-affected region known as the “Deep South” or “Patani,” the Malays’ historical homeland, to send a stern warning to the Thai security apparatus that they are capable of expanding their campaign of violence away from the historically contested region.
However, recent months saw a significant shift in Malay-Muslim separatist tactics. Key up-and-coming individuals, who will take over the movement when the elders pass, believe it’s time to move beyond the shaming and humiliation of the Thai security apparatus. They want to explore other possibilities and opportunities through engaging members of the international community.
But shifting the playing field from the battleground to the world’s stage will not be easy. Members of the international community are reluctant to engage the BRN out of concern of upsetting Bangkok.
In fact, one of the BRN’s demands for a formal negotiation with the Thais is mediation by the international community. This issue was raised during a series of meetings over the past six months between the designated facilitator, Malaysia’s Ahmad Zamzamin Hashim, and a senior member of the BRN ruling council, Doonloh Wae-mano.
Zamzamin also used his meeting with the BRN leader to arrange a meeting between Doonloh and Thailand’s chief negotiator, Gen. Aksara Kerdpol. The meeting is expected to take place in Indonesia but no date has been set.
The upcoming meeting is not a breakthrough or a game changer, BRN sources insisted. They said BRN’s position remained the same: if the Thais want to carry out formal negotiations, they will have to internationalize the process, which means the negotiations will have to be mediated and facilitated by foreign governments and the venue will have to be outside of Malaysia.
Permitting Doonloh to meet with the Thai chief negotiator was “a gesture of goodwill” toward Kuala Lumpur in its capacity as the facilitator for the peace initiative, BRN sources said.
Thai officials, however, are split on the idea of the meeting itself; some think a face-to-face meeting between Doonloh and Aksara is a positive development, a step in the right direction.
Others are concerned that dealing directly with the BRN will undermine the official process between Bangkok and the other separatist groups, most notably, MARA Patani, an umbrella organization of long-standing Patani-Malay rebel organizations. In other words, these officials would like to see BRN come under MARA Patani’s umbrella and deal with the Thais from there.
BRN sources also revealed the group is not in a hurry to get to the negotiating table. First and foremost, their representatives will have to be granted legal immunity and be properly trained, preferably by members of the international community with experience in conflict resolution and peace mediation.
Furthermore, any formal negotiation, they said, will have to be done outside Malaysia, preferably in Western countries with a strong reputation in conflict resolution and mediation.
Thai security and BRN sources said these demands have upset Zamzamin, the retired Malaysian spy chief who invested a great deal of energy going back and forth between the Thais and the rebels to keep Kuala Lumpur at the center of the process.
After all, Malaysia shares a common border with Thailand’s conflict-affected region. And in this respect, Malaysia is a stakeholder to the conflict, not exactly an honest broker.
The sources said Zamzamin met with Doonloh at least three times over the past six months. He has tried hard to convince Doonloh to permit BRN to join the Kuala Lumpur-facilitated peace talks between Thailand and MARA Patani.
The decision to join MARA Patani, or come to the negotiating table, is not up to Doonloh entirely, sources in the BRN said. The group is governed by a ruling council, the Dewan Pimpinan Parti (DPP), and such an important decision would be made collectively.
While MARA Patani claimed to have BRN members on board, BRN’s operatives on the ground and abroad, as well as the movement’s Indonesia-based Information Department, maintained that these people acted on their own and without the DPP’s consent.
Thai officials working on the conflict in the far South said MARA Patani was resting on shaky ground, because their process has not generated any meaningful traction. Moreover, the very fact that BRN, the group that controls virtually all of the militants on the ground, refuses to join them at the table also makes it difficult to move ahead with any plans, such as the implementation of a safety zone – an area where a limited ceasefire is to be observed.
Kuala Lumpur’s commitment to the talks should be clearer by the end of February when Zamzamin’s contract with the government is up for renewal. Some observers don’t think MARA Patani can survive without him at the helm.
Progress in the peace talks is moving at a snail’s pace partly because the BRN, which controls the militants, refuses to come to the table; and partly because Bangkok has never shown that it is interested in getting to the bottom of the Patani Malay cultural and historical grievances.
Thailand only wants to deal with the security aspect of this insurgency and discontent. The government believes it can win over the hearts and minds of the local Malay Muslim to deny the BRN militants the legitimacy for their armed struggle.
But such efforts are unlikely to bear fruit if Bangkok refuses to talk about the historical grievances and mistrust between the state and its Malay minority.
An earlier version of this commentary incorrectly gave the name of the governing body of BRN as the Dewan Penilian Parti. It is the Dewan Pimpinan Parti.
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.