Thai peace talks: Expect new PM to appoint civilian as chief negotiator

Commentary by Don Pathan
Thai peace talks: Expect new PM to appoint civilian as chief negotiator Thai Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin arrives at Government House in Bangkok, Sept. 6, 2023.
Sakchai Lalit/AP

Peace talks between Thailand and Barisan Revolusi Nasional rebels came to a complete stop in early 2023 when BRN said they would not return to the table until a new government took power following the May general election.

Prime Minister Srettha Tavisin and his cabinet were inducted on Sept. 5 after political wrangling and a post-polls impasse that lasted 3½ months. But nearly two months into office, Srettha’s government still has not announced who he has appointed to serve as the chief negotiator representing Thailand in the Malaysia-brokered talks. 

It’s also unclear whether Srettha has removed Gen. Wanlop Rugsanaoh, the incumbent, from that post. The delay is not so much a tactic but a reflection of how this administration prioritizes its policies.

Srettha has other urgent matters to attend to such as restoring the faith of his Pheu Thai Party’s support base, who felt betrayed by deals it made in forming a ruling coalition with the help of ex-military rivals who had toppled another Pheu Thai prime minister through a 2014 coup.

And so it’s important to give the impression of civilian supremacy. 

The prime minister is poised to appoint the first non-military person in years to lead the negotiating team. The past three chief negotiators for the southern peace process were retired army generals. A non-military person is expected to lead the National Security Council (NSC) as well.

Official sources said the negotiating team would report directly to Srettha, who would incorporate his own key personnel into the outfit. The NSC will not take the lead on that team but will join representatives from other government agencies and ministries in the secretariat.

While the negotiations team will come directly under the prime minister, the Prachachat Party, a local party made up of mostly ageing Malay Muslims who were members of the now-defunct Wadah Faction, will take the lead in overseeing policy for the far south. They will receive a wide mandate, from development to national reconciliation.

Anas Abdulrahman (center), the head of the panel representing Barisan Revolusi Nasional rebels in peace talks with Thailand, and fellow BRN delegates take part in a post-meetings press conference at a hotel in Petaling Jaya, near Kuala Lumpur, Aug. 3, 2022. [S. Mahfuz/BenarNews]

However, identifying the terms for peaceful coexistence between the ethnic Malays in the troubled border region and the rest of the predominantly Buddhist country will not be easy. 

Wadah politicians were given the same mandate by the then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra who, almost immediately after coming to power in 2001, dissolved the multiagency Southern Border Provinces Administration Center so that his people could have a freer hand to deal with the region. 

But the government of Thaksin, Pheu Thai’s patriach, was caught off guard with the emergence of the new generation of Patani Malay separatist fighters after nearly a decade of relatively calm.

At first, Thaksin labeled them “sparrow bandits,” insisting that Patani Malay separatist ideology was a thing of the past. But his government could no longer deny the political underpinnings of their operations when, on Jan. 4, 2004, scores of BRN insurgents raided an army battalion and made off with hundreds of military weapons from an arms depot on base.

Since then more than 7,300 people have been killed from insurgency-related violence.

Peace initiatives have come and gone but none generated enough traction to push the talks beyond confidence building measures, or CBM – not even after the BRN, the group that controls virtually all of the combatants in the field, came to the table, in early 2020.

As long as anyone could remember, Prachachat members like to blame the military for just about everything, from abuse of power and heavy handedness in counter-insurgency operations, to obstructing progress and development in this historically contested region.

But it was their refusal to stand up for their own people against the then government of Thaksin and the army during two bloody incidents – the Tak Bai massacre and the Krue Se Mosque standoff in April and October 2004, respectively – that undermined their popularity with voters.  

According to Daungyewa Utarasint, an assistant professor at the New York University campus in Abu Dhabi, the so-called Wadah politicians were shunned by their constituency for nearly 15 years. They were able to make a comeback in 2018 with the help of Police Col. Tawee Sodsong, a close political ally of Thaksin. Together, these so-called Wadah politicians formed the Prachachart Party.

Artef Sohko, president of The Patani, a political action group advocating rights to self-determination for the people in the far south, said memories of the Tak Bai and the Krue Se incidents are still vivid in the minds of the locals who have yet to come to terms with these atrocities.

“Blaming the Army for all the region’s problems is Wadah’s way of excluding themselves from any responsibilities. They were more concerned about staying in power than bringing justice to their people,” Artef said.

“Justice to them is mainly about economic development. They forgot it’s also about human dignity,” Artef added.

Thai forensic experts examine the site where village defense volunteers were killed by suspected separatist insurgents in Yala province, southern Thailand, Nov. 6, 2019. [Surapan Boonthanom/Reuters]

Negotiations can be a thankless job because the Thai team was hampered by national politics that would not permit them to make any meaningful concessions to the rebels or to the Patani Malays, a people who embrace an entirely different set of historical and cultural narratives from that of the Thai State.

For the young men taking up arms against the state, said local writer Asmadee Bueheng, their political objective is non-negotiable.

“People have put their lives on the line for it and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

Thailand has to learn how to deal with this sacred value that cannot be compromise,” Asmadee said.

Today, with a civilian-led government in place, it is tempting to believe that changes is inevitable. It is hoped that meaningful topics would reach the negotiating table and generate greater social-political space for the Malays in the far south that could lead to reconciliation.

But this blind optimism rests on the assumption that the civilian leaders understand the nature of the conflict better than the military who had dominated the country’s national politics for much of the past two decades.

Civilian leaders may have a better rapport with civil society organizations (CSO). But if the past two decades tells us anything is that neither the political leaders nor the country’s top brass has the political will to push for real changes.

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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