Updated at 4:28 p.m. ET on 2020-04-04
The most powerful among separatist insurgent groups in Thailand’s troubled far south has declared a ceasefire on humanitarian grounds, citing concerns about the coronavirus outbreak and calling it “the main enemy of all humankind.”
The announcement by the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (National Revolutionary Front, or BRN) rebels that they were halting “all activities” for the time being is believed to be a first in the long-running conflict in the Thai Deep South. The BRN issued the statement on Friday, saying it would cease its operations immediately but would resume them if the Thai military attacked its forces.
“To create a more comfortable and peaceful environment for the Patani people, related to the work of health workers and efforts by the related agencies to control the COVID-19 outbreak, BRN will now stop all activities on humanitarian grounds because we realized that the main enemy for all humankind is COVID-19,” said the statement attributed to BRN’s Central Secretariat.
At least five people have died of COVID-19 and as many as 143 cases have been detected in provinces and districts that make up the southern border region.
BRN was suspected of carrying out a twin bombing that injured at least 25 people during an attack last month on a government office in Yala, one of the provinces in the Deep South. Officials were meeting there on March 17 to discuss how to respond to a decision by nearby Malaysia to seal its frontiers to prevent the coronavirus from crossing the border.
At the time, the United Nations and Human Rights Watch condemned the attack, which occurred as Thailand was already reeling from the COVID-19 health crisis.
“The Patani National Revolutionary Front realized that COVID-19, or the coronavirus, is a serious threat to all human beings in the world including those in Patani,” the declaration by BRN said, referring to the name that southern separatist groups use for the heavily militarized Deep South.
The statement, written in Malay, noted that the number of infections and deaths from the coronavirus were growing and expected to increase more “if no health-related measures are taken by the Patani people.”
The rebel group also accused the Thai military and government security forces of making life even more miserable for people across the Deep South by conducting raids, arrests and cordoning off homes of suspected BRN supporters or members during the pandemic.
“BRN would like to reiterate again our commitment in combating COVID-19. [B]RN would like to call [on] all Patani people to make an effort to take care of themselves and their family members as best as they can,” the statement said.
According to figures given by Thai military intelligence officials and a senior BRN leader, the insurgent group commands between 8,000 and 9,000 fighters.
When asked to comment on BRN’s declaration, a spokesman for the military’s southern regional command, indicated that state security forces would carry on with enforcing laws “to keep internal peace, regardless of [a] ceasefire.”
“In regard to the self-proclaimed BRN statement, I’d like to state that, all along, authorities keep internal peace duly under the authority of laws and enforce laws on those who perpetrate against both officials and innocents,” Col. Pramote Prom-in, spokesman for the Internal Security Operations Command-4 (ISOC-4), told BenarNews late Saturday.
Thailand surpasses 2,000 cases
The BRN declared a cessation to its operations on the same day that United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres renewed his appeal for warring parties in conflicts around the globe to “silence their guns” in order to help health authorities respond to the fast-growing coronavirus pandemic.
“The virus has shown how swiftly it can move across borders, devastate countries and upend lives,” the U.N. chief said. “The worst is yet to come. And so, we need to do everything possible to find the peace and unity our world so desperately needs to battle COVID-19.”
The number of coronavirus cases detected worldwide broke the 1 million mark late this week, according to data from disease experts at Johns Hopkins University in the United States. In Thailand, health authorities on Saturday confirmed one more death and 89 new cases, bringing the national total to 20 deaths and 2,067 cases.
The declaration by BRN came two months after its military wing and the Thai government announced that they had opened direct talks facilitated by Malaysia, which shares a border with the Deep South.
Meanwhile on Saturday, a day after the cessation of BRN activities officially took hold, gunmen shot and wounded a 77-year-old man as he returned home from prayers in Pattani province, police said. However, it was not immediately clear whether rebels were behind the attack.
The Deep South encompasses the predominantly Muslim and Malay-speaking provinces of Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala, as well as four districts in neighboring Songkhla.
More than 7,000 people have been killed in the southern border region since the BRN and other armed separatist groups renewed their decades-old insurgency against Buddhist-majority Thailand 16 years ago.
Muzliza Mustafa in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.