In Deep South, people hope Ramadan truce can help bring permanent peace

Mariyam Ahmad and Subel Rai Bhandari
2022.05.12
Pattani, Thailand, and Bangkok
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In Deep South, people hope Ramadan truce can help bring permanent peace Muslims hug each at the Salahuddin Mosque in Yala province, southern Thailand, on Eid al-Fitr, May 2, 2022.
[Mariyam Ahmad/BenarNews]

A 40-day Ramadan halt in violence that Thailand and the main southern rebel group agreed to in April has largely held intact, with locals and officials saying they hope its relative success is a step toward a permanent peace.

Under the Ramadan Peace Initiative, which is due to expire on May 14, the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) separatist rebels and Thai security forces agreed to cease hostilities throughout Islam’s holy month of fasting and into mid-May.

And, in a first, unarmed rebels were allowed to visit their families during Ramadan in Thailand’s majority Muslim Malay southern border region, otherwise known as the Deep South.

A senior Thai military official said the truce has shown it is possible for the two sides to reach an agreement despite years of fighting in the heavily militarized border region near Malaysia.

“After the success of the peace initiative as agreed upon, it is evident that both sides can cooperate on the matter,” Col. Kiatisak Neewong, spokesman for the military’s ISOC-4 regional command, told BenarNews on Thursday.

“The Thai peace dialogue panel will bring this up during the next talks in Malaysia and discuss how to boost the already achieved peace to be permanent in the Deep South.”

The peace initiative was agreed to at the end of the latest round of in-person peace talks between Thai negotiators and the BRN that were brokered by Malaysia and took place at a hotel in the Kuala Lumpur area on March 31-April 1.

BRN rebels were not immediately available for comment on the truce. Malaysian facilitators of the talks did not respond to BenarNews either.

Since the start of Ramadan in early April, the military had recorded five incidents of violence but they were mostly unrelated to the insurgency, Kiatisak said. Four incidents had to do with personal disputes and drug addiction, while one was carried out by another separatist group, the Patani United Liberation Organization, or PULO.

In that attack on April 15, one villager was killed and three members of a police bomb squad were injured in twin roadside bombings in Pattani, one of the provinces in the Deep South. PULO’s leader claimed the group had carried out the attack in the middle of Ramadan because it was sidelined from the peace talks and wanted to be included.

According to the ISOC-4 spokesman, 266 rebels had visited their families during Ramadan, while some had stayed at a military-hosted peace center.

“More than half of them will continue to stay with their families. Some of the rebels were mum on what they wanted to do. They may go back to the jungle, but we will talk to them again,” Kiatisak said.

“For the group who want to stay, we will look for jobs for them … But most importantly, they must not break the laws again.”

‘A chance to have peace’

After five years in hiding, a suspected insurgent called Mae, 34, took the opportunity to visit his home during Ramadan for the first time since he fled.

“I learned that the military had accused me of being an insurgent member and wanted to arrest me, so I went into hiding. I had to move every two to three days,” Mae, who wished to be identified only by one name for security reasons, told BenarNews.

He denied being a BRN member and said he never felt safe during his five years as a fugitive.

“I asked myself: Have I done anything wrong? Why do I have to flee? From where did the [military] get this misinformation about me?” he said. “I’ve no answer, and I often cried due to my unfortunate situation.”

When Mae heard about the truce, he said he told his family to sign him up for it. His relatives informed ISOC-4 so that he would not face any harm or harassment.

“It’s a good program, which gives us a chance to have peace,” Mae said.

His mother, Yo, said she was delighted to be reunited with her son.

“There was not a day when I felt happy or slept well after he was gone,” Yo said. “Now, I feel relieved that I have my son back with my family. He is not an insurgent, but the military wanted to arrest him for some reason.”

The Thai military declined to give details on individual cases.

Another insurgent, Sof, 57, who acknowledged that he was with the BRN, said he joined the program to visit his family because he was tired of life on the run.

“I felt exhausted having to flee always, so I thought I’d come back home. Now, I’m happy to have returned to be with my family,” Sof, who also wished to be identified only by one name for his personal safety, told BenarNews.

“During my escape, I cried all the time. After I returned, my wife told me that our son wanted sweets, but she had no money to buy him some. She cried, feeling pity for herself. I won’t do anything like that again.”

Both Mae and Sof said they wished for the truce to continue.

Last week, Gen. Wanlop Rugsanoah, the general who heads the Thai delegation in the peace talks, rated the truce as “a success” and said the two sides would meet again in July or August to “advance peaceful cooperation.”

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Thai Muslims pray at the main stadium on the day of Eid al-Fitr in the Deep South's Narathiwat province, in Thailand, May 2, 2022 [Matahari Ismail/BenarNews]

Meanwhile, a Brussels-based conflict research organization said in April that the truce “would, if successful, demonstrate BRN’s unity of command, produce a tangible outcome from the talks and improve the conditions for public consultations.”

However, the initiative “is best understood as a unilateral reduction of hostilities on each side rather than a negotiated ceasefire,” the International Crisis Group (ICG said in a report published April 19.

There were “no special provisions for monitoring... nor did the Thai side agree to lift its special security laws for the southern region,” ICG added.

Three special laws allow the security forces more freedom in operating in the south, including immunity from prosecution for officers’ conduct during the line of duty and detention of suspects for up to 37 days without charges.

In 2013, the then government and rebels had agreed on a similar peace initiative during Ramadan, which Malaysia pushed for. It failed due to a lack of trust and “a series of murders, indicating an apparent effort to sabotage the ceasefire” after the first week of lull, according to ICG.

Violence in the Deep South had been on a downward trajectory since 2012. However, last year saw a steep rise in incidents of violence for the first time in nine years, from 335 in 2020 to 481 in 2021, a 44 percent increase, Deep South Watch, a local think-tank, said in January.

In January this year, BRN and Thai officials met outside Kuala Lumpur for talks. The two sides agreed to work towards public consultations, violence reduction, and finding political solutions to the insurgency.

They met again in March and agreed to the Ramadan truce.

“The Thai government should devote greater resources to its delegation, while BRN needs to narrow the gap between its armed and political wings. As facilitator, Malaysia should respect the conflict parties’ choice of the dialogue’s format and substance,” ICG said in their April report.

Muzliza Mustafa in Kuala Lumpur contributed this report. 

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