What to make of Thailand’s Ramadan-time ‘truce’ offer to BRN rebels

Commentary by Don Pathan
Yala, Thailand
What to make of Thailand’s Ramadan-time ‘truce’ offer to BRN rebels Zulkifli Zainal Abidin (left), Malaysia’s new facilitator for peace talks in the Thai Deep South, shakes hands with Lt. Gen. Santi Sakuntanark, commander of the Thai 4th Army Region, at Fort Ingkayuth Borihan in Pattani province, Thailand, Feb. 28, 2023.
Tuwaedaniya Meringing/AFP

The Thai government, in an apparent peace overture in late March, urged Barisan Revolusi Nasional separatist rebels to stand down from hostilities during Ramadan in the far south.

In a statement that seemed to offer BRN the olive branch of a truce, Thailand’s negotiating team in Malaysia-brokered peace talks with the insurgents expressed its “intention of having a good atmosphere and without violence throughout the month of Ramadan so that our brothers and sisters can observe Ramadan safely.”

Meanwhile, sources on both sides told this observer that the negotiating team representing the rebel group has now decided to sit out meetings with the Thais at all levels until after next month’s general election in Thailand.

Because Islam’s holy month of fasting overlaps this year with another auspicious religious observance, the Buddhist New Year of Songkran, the Thai side in its March 24 statement invited BRN “to help create a positive and non-violent atmosphere” in Thailand’s southern border region, where Muslims are the majority.

On the surface, the idea sounded pleasant to the casual observer and general public. But to people who observe this conflict closely, politicizing holidays, regardless of the religion, doesn’t help the situation. 

For Artef Sohko, president of The Patani, a political action group that promotes the right to self-determination for the people of this historically contested region, “The pretentiousness behind Thailand’s suggestion is so unnecessary.” 

“If they really wanted to carry out a ceasefire, they need to do it right, like accepting suggestions from the BRN that terms of reference (TOR) be jointly drafted to allow the participation of an international monitoring team,” Artef said. 

The rebels were hoping the issue would make it to the high-level negotiation during the last round of peace talks, held in Malaysia in late February. But the Thais had other things in mind.

Thailand’s appetite for members of the international community to get involved in conflict resolution in the far south has always been low. There is a general understanding that any foreign participation has to be done on Thailand’s terms.

The extension of the olive branch struck many as something created for public consumption, as was the case with a recent statement from the head of the Thai panel in the talks, Gen. Wanlop Rugsanaoh, who expressed the hope that the long-running conflict could be settled in two years’ time. Anything to suggest progress is being made is welcome, especially in the middle of an electoral campaign season.

Seeing no point in talking to a government that is totally focused on the upcoming general election, BRN has since indicated that it would not be meeting again with the Thai side at any level until a new administration is formed in Bangkok.

A motorist gets her temperature measured at a checkpoint during the holy fasting month of Ramadan, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Yala province, Thailand, April 27, 2020. [Surapan Boonthanom/Reuters]

By the look of it, Thailand’s veiled invitation for a ceasefire was ripped from BRN’s playbook.

In April 2020, when Thailand and other Southeast Asian nations were in the early throes of the  COVID-19 pandemic, BRN announced a unilateral ceasefire on humanitarian grounds across the Deep South, saying that health workers shouldn’t have to worry about being caught-up in crossfire between the combatants in the long-running conflict.

In spite of an appeal from local activists for the military to stand down and reciprocate BRN’s goodwill gesture, the army at the time unleashed its troops to hunt down BRN combatants staying in remote villages. BRN said these cells weren’t part of any ongoing operation and their fighters were merely laying low while observing the unilateral ceasefire. 

However, during the first 24 months of BRN’s unilateral ceasefire – from April 2020 to April 2022 – Thai troops killed scores of suspected BRN fighters in a series of standoffs, where government security forces, who heavily outnumbered and outarmed the insurgents, surrounded them as they hid out in villages. 

As many as 64 suspected BRN insurgents were killed by Thai forces in such standoffs during BRN’s unilateral ceasefire, and only one rebel surrendered. Many of those who were holed up  fought to their deaths knowing that the odds of escaping alive were slim to none. 

So far, the Deep South has not been free of violence during this year’s Ramadan.

Thai authorities have reported at least four suspected attacks by insurgents, including a fatal one and a flurry of attacks this past weekend:

  • On March 29, a deputy village headman was shot and injured in Pattani province.
  • On April 7, two defense volunteers were injured by a roadside bombing in Pattani.
  • On Saturday evening, suspected rebels shot dead a village defense volunteer as he was leaving a mosque and walking home after prayers in Tak Bai, a district in neighboring Narathiwat province.
  • And early Sunday morning, suspected insurgents attacked a military outpost in Yala province, but no one was injured.

BRN in polls waiting mode

BRN’s move lately to push the pause button on any more meetings until a new Thai government is formed, will give all the sides some time to go back to the drawing board. 

In the past, there was a problem with continuity; a new government in Bangkok used to mean a new team of negotiators. It remains to be seen if the current team of Thai negotiators – officially known as the Peace Dialogue Panel – will remain in place when the next government comes to power. 

Still, much work still lies ahead because the peace process has reached a critical juncture as Thailand, Malaysia and the BRN struggle to identify common ground on how to push the talks along. The list of issues that need to be pinned down in the negotiations includes public consultations, reduction of violence, and political solutions for bringing this conflict to an end. 

Of late, inclusivity has also emerged as an issue to put on the table; Thailand wants other insurgent groups in the far south to join the talks but BRN thinks it’s too early to include them in high-level negotiations. However, BRN is willing to consider the participation of these groups at the technical level where in-depth discussions on the aforementioned three items usually take place, according to one informed rebel source. 

Don Pathan is a Thailand-based security analyst.


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