Last Friday, Thai Army Commander-in-chief Gen. Chalermchai Sitthisart visited security checkpoints in Cho I-rong, a district in Narathiwat province designated as the site of a potential “Safety Zone,” or limited ceasefire, in the insurgency-stricken region known as the Deep South.
He reportedly was there to provide moral support to troops who would be on the ground during the implementation of the Safety Zone, a pilot project yet to be implemented but that was agreed upon by a so-called Dialogue Panel of government negotiators and MARA Patani, an umbrella organization of long-standing Patani Malay separatist organizations.
Armed separatist insurgency in Thailand’s far South surfaced in the 1960s and went under in the late 1980s. The conflict resurfaced again in mid-2001 but wasn’t officially acknowledged until Jan. 4, 2004, when scores of insurgents raided an army battalion in Narathiwat and made off with more than 300 weapons.
The one group that dominates the scene on the ground today is the Barisan Revolusi Nasional, the BRN or National Revolutionary Front, which controls virtually all of the insurgents in the Deep South.
BRN refuses to endorse the ongoing talks between Thailand and MARA Patani. Their members said any negotiation would have to be mediated by members of the international community and in line with international best practices.
But, as a gesture of goodwill to the stakeholders of this peace initiative, BRN said it would observe the ceasefire in Cho I-rong district and weeks have passed since its fighters stopped committing acts of violence as a manifestation of this gesture.
“We have been told to refrain from carrying out attacks in Cho I-rong district,” said a BRN source on the ground.
So far, BRN members have kept their word. But it doesn’t mean they have to end their campaign of violent attacks in other parts of this historically contested region. There are nearly 40 districts in the Deep South, where nearly 7,000 people have been killed from insurgency-related violence since January 2004.
Still committed to peace process
Chalermchai’s visit to Cho I-rong was symbolic. According to one senior military officer who monitors the conflict and the peace talks, it was a message to MARA Patani that Thailand was still committed to this peace initiative in spite of the absence of BRN’s endorsement and participation.
Bangkok understands full well that MARA Patani was upset at Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha for jumping the gun when he announced that Cho I-rong had been designated as the district to come under the Safety Zone.
The rebels were hoping for a more formal announcement to reflect the importance of what they considered a breakthrough of sorts.
It was not clear if Prayuth had breached the protocol on purpose or that he wasn’t thinking. Regardless, Bangkok never liked the idea of giving MARA Patani or any other separatist entity from the Malay-speaking South any kind of legitimacy or recognition if it didn’t have to. The fact that the government has sent a team of negotiators to meet with them is all the legitimacy they are going to get.
For the BRN, Safety Zone or not, it’s business as usual. Exactly one day before the start of Ramadan, separatist militants attacked four military outposts and one police station in Yala province’s Krong Pinang and Yaha districts.
Less than a week later, on May 20, BRN militants set off a string of simultaneous bombs at more than 20 ATM machines across the region. The bombs were small and shrapnel was not used. They were not powerful enough to blast the steel cover open. But cash or casualties didn’t seem to be their aim.
All the bombings were carried out in downtown areas and, in most cases, just meters away from government’s security checkpoints. The explosions were set off simultaneously, about half an hour after sunset when Muslims broke their daily fast and the streets were mostly clear.
Many observers rushed to the conclusion that the attacks were in response to a dispute between teachers and a group of Muslim parents at the Anuban Pattani (Elementary) School over a ban on the hijab, or Islamic headscarf, for Muslim students.
But rebel sources said the attacks were a reminder to the Thai government that they hadn’t forgotten about the 2004 Tak Bai massacre, when 78 unarmed Malay Muslims demonstrators died from suffocation after they were stacked one on top another in the back of military transport tracks. Seven were shot dead at the protest site.
The incident took place on October of that year and it was during Ramadan, an Islamic holy month that follows the lunar calendar. Needless to say, the incident radicalized a new generation of separatist militants and became part of the insurgent’s narrative.
What now for Zamzamin?
Meanwhile in Malaysia, Thailand and elsewhere, stakeholders of this peace initiative are waiting anxiously to see Kuala Lumpur’s next move.
Many believe that Ahmad Zamzamin bin Hashim, the designated facilitator of the current official peace process, will be replaced following last month’s change of governments in Malaysia. Zamzamin was deemed too close to former Prime Minister Najib Razak.
BRN sources said it wouldn’t matter if Zamzamin stayed or left because the foundation of this peace initiative had never been sound. Besides the fact that the most important player is not at the table, Thailand has never been interested in addressing the root cause of the conflict.
BRN sources said their leaders wouldn’t even consider negotiating with the Thais until their own negotiators and political wing were properly trained and prepared.
Some in the Thai policy circles believe that “internationalizing” the process should be considered if it means BRN participation. But if Gen. Aksara Kerdpol remains as chief negotiator for Thailand, and Zamzamin stays on as the designated facilitator, one can be certain that BRN will continue to resist being involved in the peace talks.
Don Pathan is a Thailand-based security and development consultant for international organizations. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and not of BenarNews.