Deep South Peace Talks Could Resume in May

Commentary by Don Pathan
Bangkok
2021-04-12
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Deep South Peace Talks Could Resume in May Thai forensic experts examine the site where suspected separatist insurgents killed village defense volunteers in Yala province, southern Thailand, Nov. 6, 2019.
Reuters

Updated at 3:59 p.m. ET on 2021-04-13

The first full-fledged peace talks in more than a year between Thailand and southern Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) rebels could take place as early as mid-May, according to sources from both sides – but a Ramadan ceasefire is not in the cards.

After technical-level talks in February between Bangkok’s Peace Dialogue Panel and BRN representatives, Thai negotiators suggested that both sides observe a ceasefire during the fasting month, which begins this week.

But BRN’s delegates said negotiators prefer to talk about any truce when the two full delegations meet again face to face, a government source said.

Thai and BRN negotiators publically launched their talks in Kuala Lumpur in January 2020, and met once more in early March of that year before the coronavirus pandemic disrupted the negotiations.

The two sides planned to resume talks in Malaysia’s Kedah state in November but had to call off the meeting because of a spike in COVID-19 cases then in the country.

Successive Thai governments have spent years trying to convince the leaders of the BRN, the armed separatist movement behind much of the violence in the Malay-speaking southern border region, to come to the negotiating table.

Eight years ago, for a brief moment, there was optimism all-around as the government of then-Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra launched a formal peace process. BRN sent a couple of representatives but their intension was to derail the process, which they succeeded in doing.

In January 2020, Thai negotiators got what they wanted all along – to come face to face with real BRN representatives, who brought with them a mandate from the Dewan Pimpinan Parti (DPP), the rebel group’s secretive ruling council of elders and its highest decision-making body.

On the surface, it seemed that the Thai side had made a breakthrough. But nothing is as it seems in Thailand’s far south.

Strains within BRN

Even today, the mandate BRN negotiators received from the ruling council rests on shaky ground, as the military wing has yet to rule out breaking away from the organization.

It has continued to question the logic and merit of coming to the negotiating table – after belatedly learning that preliminary peace talks had started in late 2019.

The talks began as a series of secret meetings in Indonesia and Germany between the two sides, from September to November 2019. The Malaysian facilitator and BRN’s military wing were kept in the dark about these meetings, which were facilitated by a European NGO.

BenarNews broke the story about the Berlin Initiative in mid-November 2019. Malaysia was upset and so was BRN’s military wing – to the point that they considered leaving the movement.

To patch things up with Malaysia, the Thai Peace Dialogue Panel and BRN negotiators came together in Kuala Lumpur on Jan. 20, 2020, to launch the current peace initiative, which was billed as a new beginning.

But fighters in the field became even more agitated when the so-called political wing told them that a series of secret meetings with the Thais were part of BRN’s diplomacy.

For the past 18 years, the current generation of fighters had been told that “liberating” Patani was a moral obligation.

More than 7,000 have died in violence since 2004, a majority of them Malays. Some were killed in gunfights with government security forces; others by insurgents who suspected them of spying for Thai security agencies.

Innocent bystanders have been caught up in the violence. Some were deliberately targeted as one side tried to rip into the hearts and soul of the other side. Activists on the ground – groups like The Patani and PerMAS – tried to bring some degree of civility to the conflict by promoting international norms and rules of engagement.

Among activists, talk of BRN splitting up is troublesome because of fear that the conflict could become more violent as a result, with the possibility of greater harm to civilians.

‘Non-military means’

In January 2020, the BRN signed a Deed of Commitment for the Protection of Children from the Effects of Armed Conflict with Geneva Call, an international NGO that works with armed non-state actors to promote rules of war.

Three months later, the BRN implemented a unilateral ceasefire to allow medical personnel and government officials a free hand to work in containing the COVID-19 outbreak in the far south.

Quiet praise from various quarters and members of the international community for these moves led BRN’s military wing to rethink its approach toward the armed struggle. In November 2020, the wing expressed interest in learning more about “non-military means” to advance their cause.

It is not clear how the Thai side will respond to this move. Many Thai government agencies, especially the army’s top brass, do not like the idea of BRN getting any sort of legitimacy and recognition, internationally or locally.

As for the peace process, the way ahead is not at all clear.

Thailand is concerned that the BRN is not serious, and is using the platform of peace talks to buy time and gain international recognition.

BRN militants say they could make the same argument: Thai negotiators have a mandate to talk, but not to make any concessions. Discussions with the rebels under any government have never moved beyond the confidence-building stage.

The challenge for Thai negotiators is how to keep the talks going, to move beyond mere “shop talk,” without upsetting political and military leaders who never liked the idea of talking to the enemies in the first place.

As for the BRN’s elders and the small band of negotiators, justifying a return to the table – that is to say, convincing the military wing that something good will come out of all this – is getting harder by the day.

But as long as the rebels’ military wing is interested in exploring “non-military means” to advance their cause, then there’s hope that the peace process can last in its current shape and form.

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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