Thai, BRN negotiators are ready to resume peace talks

Commentary by Don Pathan
2024.02.01
Bangkok
Thai, BRN negotiators are ready to resume peace talks Relatives of victims take part in an event to commemorate the 19th anniversary of the 2004 Tak Bai incident when scores of protesters suffocated to death in army trucks, in Tak Bai, in souhern Thailand’s Narathiwat province, Oct. 25, 2023.
Madaree Tohlala/AFP

High-level negotiations between Thai officials and representatives from the Barisan Revolusi Nasional rebel group are scheduled to resume next week in Kuala Lumpur after a year-long pause, as Thailand preoccupied itself with the 2023 general election followed by several months of horse-trading.

Thai negotiators and the BRN, the long-standing separatist movement that controls virtually all combatants in Thailand’s Malay-speaking far south, are expected to continue to look for a common ground on three items – public consultations, reduction of violence and political solutions to bring this conflict to an end.

In the previous round of talks that came to a halt in February 2023, BRN requested that its representatives be permitted to enter the southern Thai border provinces – the historically contested area – to carry out in-person public consultations.

But the plan was shot down by the Thai Army whose leaders were afraid of a public-relations nightmare. An outpouring of support for the BRN delegates from locals would destroy the Thai government’s old narrative that says the Malays of Patani are with the Thai State.

The two sides have yet to agree on the format. 

The Thai government wants everybody – Thai-BRN negotiators and the Malaysian mediator – to sit at every meeting under the public consultation platform while the rebels insist that could happen only after a certain level of comfort is reached on that issue. Until then, the three stakeholders at the table should conduct their consultation individually, in BRN’s view.

Reduction in violence

A cessation of hostilities agreement, or COHA, is a bit tricky, as some BRN members see it as a form of surrender. They insisted COHA must be a gradual process or BRN’s military capability will be depleted.

Besides the three items that have been on the table for some time now, the Thai side is expected to ask the BRN to agree to a ceasefire during the upcoming Ramadan – the Muslim holy month of fasting – expected to run from March 10 to April 9. 

Previously, the two sides observed a ceasefire during the 2022 holy month. The government deemed it a great success and wanted to build on it. 

BRN added 10 days as a gesture of goodwill to the Buddhist residents in the far south, extending the ceasefire to the Visaka Bucha that year.

But just days after the ceasefire ended, combatants launched a series of vicious attacks, reminding all sides that nothing comes easy in this long-standing conflict that has so far claimed more than 7,300 lives since a separatist insurgency reignited in January 2004. 

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Chatchai Bangchuad (left), the Thai government’s new chief negotiator for Deep South peace talks, meets with Malaysian facilitator Zulkifli Zainal Abidin in this undated photo. [Courtesy National Security Council of Thailand]

Ahead of Ramadan in 2023, the Thai government was not able to secure a similar agreement, partly because the Thais couldn’t meet BRN’s request to allow an international monitoring team. Besides, the two sides had gone into pause mode because of the general election.

It is not clear if a deal could be reached for this year’s Ramadan less than six weeks away.  

Still, BRN is expected to reiterate the same requirements for a cease fire and call for the release of an unspecified number of prisoners. Should this happen, it would be a test case for the Thai government as any release of prisoners requires the Justice Ministry to take a stance on the matter.

Third point

Political solution – the third point on the table – is an open-ended challenge. But Thailand appeared to have taken the lead as both sides have agreed it must be carried out within the country’s constitution under the principle behind the unitary state of Thailand.

The three items are guided by the Joint Comprehensive Plan toward Peace (JCPP), the so-called roadmap. A timeline is expected to be agreed upon by April even as negotiations on the text of this roadmap are a work in progress.

Negotiated texts aside, the burning issue for BRN is whether the movement is willing to settle for something less than complete independence. 

Since BRN members have indicated that they are willing to negotiate the third item under the constitution and in line with the principles underlying the unitary state of Thailand, many observers, including combatants, have interpreted this move as a willingness to compromise for something less than complete independence. This could be a disaster for BRN if the combatants go against the idea.

Thailand’s negotiating team will be led by Chatchai Bangchuad, deputy secretary-general of the National Security Council (NSC). The fact that he is a civilian breaks with tradition as past chief negotiators who had served were Army generals. 

Chatchai has included the Southern Border Provinces Administration Center (SBPAC), a multi-agency governmental body that focuses on development in this historically contested region, in the lineup. This suggests that livelihood in the far South and peace talks must go together. 

Previous chief negotiators, including Gen. Udomchai Thamsarorat, had urged civil society organizations (CSO) to serve as interlocutors in the peace process, but not necessarily be given a seat at the negotiating table. The proposal was never given a chance to materialize as Udomchai left to take a position in the Thai Senate. 

Today, any suggestion of repeating Udomchai’s proposal will likely be shot down right away as more than 43 Patani Malay CSO leaders in the far south have been accused by the army and police of promoting separatist ideologies in recent months.

Meanwhile, youth leaders accused authorities of harassment and intimidation, saying they should be able to talk about “rights to self-determination” as a matter of principle behind free speech. BRN, on the other hand, will be hard pressed to take a stance on the alleged judicial harassment.

Don Pathan is a Thailand-based security analyst who works on conflict and insurgency in the Southeast Asia region. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of BenarNews.

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