In a rare statement Monday, the largest insurgent group in Thailand’s Deep South appeared to reject a two-year-old peace process with the military government, suggesting that a panel negotiating on behalf of rebel factions lacks a mandate to do so.
But the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) restated its belief that the decades-old separatist conflict on Thailand’s southern border could be resolved through dialogue and demanded it play a direct role in fresh talks witnessed and mediated by impartial members of the international community.
“Regarding the Patani peace dialogue which is currently under way, it should be represented by delegations that are mandated and authorized by the two negotiating parties and must also comply with international norms,” the secretive BRN said. “The negotiation process should not be designed by any particular party other than the negotiating parties. …”
“[I]n any peace dialogue acquiring absolute mandate from the constituency and conveying the people’s aspiration is one of the most important things,” said an English version of the two-page statement from the BRN’s “Information Department” dated April 10 and obtained by BenarNews through Thai military sources. The statement was printed on BRN letterhead.
It did not name parties involved in the peace efforts – the Thai military, the rebel panel known as MARA Patani, or Malaysia, which has been facilitating informal talks in Kuala Lumpur since 2015 – but BRN was sending the message it wants to negotiate directly with the Thai junta and rejects MARA as a legitimate party in talks, analysts told BenarNews.
“BRN is dismissing MARA Patani as irrelevant. The leadership is also reminding Bangkok that this dispute is between them and the Thai state and others shouldn’t set the terms for the talks. …” said Don Pathan, a BenarNews columnist and Thai Deep South analyst.
Zachary Abuza, a U.S.-based expert on insurgencies in Southeast Asia, said “the BRN wants the government to deal with it, not MARA Patani, and they want some sort of clear road map for talks and deliverables.”
Rebels split over talks?
MARA Patani officials have said the panel acts as an umbrella to negotiate with a single voice for peace in the Deep South on behalf of all the rebel groups, including the BRN. In February, MARA Patani and the Thai delegation agreed to a framework for setting up a safety zone – or limited ceasefire – in one of the districts in the four southern provinces touched by the insurgency.
Nearly 7,000 people have been killed since 2004 in violence associated with the conflict in the predominantly Muslim and Malay-speaking region.
“The BRN quit the peace process in October 2015. Though they still sit on MARA Patani, it is not clear to me whether they still hold the majority, let alone, the chairmanship and the secretary positions. My sense from a previous round of talks, was that they had a representative in the room, but that he was there more as an observer, rather than a lead,” Abuza, a professor at the National War College in Washington D.C., told BenarNews on Monday.
After the BRN issued its statement, a spokesman for its Information Department told the Asia Times “the BRN was playing no part in the MARA Patani umbrella group.”
“BRN has never given a mandate to anyone or any agency in terms of sending a delegation to join the ongoing process between Mara Patani and the Thai government,” BRN spokesman Abdulkarim Khalid said.
Abuza said the BRN statement questions Malaysia’s credibility and impartiality as mediator of the informal peace process.
“MARA Pattani was created by the Malaysian government, at the urging of the Thai government,” he said. “Without Malaysian pressure, MARA would not exist. I think the BRN wants to communicate its displeasure with KL, in that the Malaysian government continues to push MARA to the table, even when the BRN has made its position on the peace process very clear.”
BRN issued its rare statement four days after Thailand enacted a new constitution that, critics have said, allows the military to retain its influence over government. The statement came three days after 23 “acts of sabotage” – a combination of bomb blasts and arson attacks – rocked the Deep South, took out utility poles and caused power outages in the region. Police blamed rebels for carrying out the acts and have since arrested four suspects.
It was “telling,” Abuza said, that BRN’s statement followed on the heels of the new charter’s proclamation.
“The constitution makes any devolution of political power or even cultural autonomy all but illegal,” he told BenarNews, referring to demands made by the BRN in past peace talks. “The constitution is all about centralization of power. The BRN looks at the charter and can legitimately ask whether the Thai government has any interest in reaching a negotiated political solution.”
‘That’s the style of the BRN’
Meanwhile, Gen. Aksara Kerdpol, the army officer who leads the Thai delegations in talks with MARA Patani, cast doubt on the statement’s authenticity.
“Let’s double-check the information. We cannot conclude that the statement document is genuine. I don’t think BRN would issue such a statement,” Aksara told BenarNews, adding the Thai side would ask Malaysia to verify whether this document came from BRN.
However, a source with MARA Patani suggested the statement bore BRN’s imprint.
“Based on its Malay statement, that’s the style of BRN. And, from what I know, that is what the BRN really wants and would like to see in negotiations,” the source told BenarNews.
BenarNews staff in Pattani, Thailand, contributed to this report.
Updates to correct details about BRN's statement.