The Thai and Indonesian army chiefs signed an intelligence sharing deal in Indonesia’s Aceh province Tuesday that aims to contain cross-border movements of fugitives and militants, including from Thailand’s insurgency-plagued Deep South, officials and observers said.
Thai Royal Army commander Gen. Apirat Kongsompong indicated that he went to Aceh to get a better understanding of how, in 2005, that region at the Western tip of Sumatra Island settled its own longtime rebellion. His one-day trip to Aceh was the first official visit to the autonomous province by a Thai army chief.
Apirat met with his Indonesian counterpart, Gen. Andika Perkasa, to discuss military-to-military issues, including renewing a memorandum of understanding on cooperation in training, and to sign a three-point deal aimed at deterring security threats and containing movement across frontiers of “terrorists or perpetrators,” officials said.
“[We] have signed the minutes of meeting for exchanges of more intelligence and try to have more cooperation for fugitive groups of persons crossing the borders, for both countries,” Apirat said during a joint news conference with Andika, according to video clips released to BenarNews by a Thai military source.
Among other measures, the deal calls for both armies to cooperate in “tracking down persons or groups deemed a threat to both countries and the region” and “denying space for people deemed a threat to the countries and the region,” Apirat told reporters in Aceh.
He said Gen. Pornsak Poolsawat, the army commander in the mainly Muslim and Malay-speaking Deep South, who accompanied him to Indonesia, would be assigned to setting up a committee to coordinate and implement the cross-border deal with the Indonesian army.
The two sides agreed to share intelligence on “movements of extremists, rebels or perpetrator groups who have been undermining national security,” according to a copy of the official document from the meeting obtained by Reuters.
Apirat: ‘Aceh has peace’
A statement issued later by the Indonesian army did not specify how the cooperation deal would apply to Indonesian Muslim extremist groups, including the Islamic State-linked militant group Jamaah Ansharut Daulah. Authorities have blamed the group for terrorist attacks across the archipelago in recent years.
The purpose of Apirat’s visit to Aceh was to sign a four-year extension of a bilateral army cooperation deal as well as engage in talks about the peace process that led to a 2005 agreement, which ended Aceh’s insurgency, Indonesian army spokesman Candra Wijaya said in the statement.
“The cooperation [arrangement] includes education, joint training activities, exchange of visits by senior army officials of both parties in order to strengthen the relationship between the two countries,” the statement quoted Andika as saying.
He said his Thai counterpart held talks with traditional Acehnese leaders because Apirat wanted to get a better understanding of how Aceh had achieved peace.
Apirat, for his part, said he appreciated the model that Aceh had used in pursuing peace.
“So what brings the peace, you know, it’s not about the religion. It’s not about who you are, but it’s about understanding.”
“I have hope. Aceh has peace,” Apirat said as he responded to a reporter’s question about whether the general had a message for insurgents in the Deep South.
A peace accord signed in Helsinki by Jakarta and Acehnese rebels in August 2005 ended a 28-year separatist conflict, whereby Indonesia agreed to grant Aceh special autonomy.
Aimed at BRN
The bilateral deal struck by the Indonesian and Thai armies is targeted at Barisan Revolusi Nasional (the National Revolutionary Front), or BRN, the largest and most powerful of the southern Thai rebel groups, according to a former high-ranking member of the Patani United Liberation Organization (PULO), another rebel group in the Deep South.
“I believe the agreement between the Thai army commander and Indonesia is aimed at pressuring insurgents who fled from Malaysia to Indonesia after they received pressure from Malaysia for refusing to join the peace talks,” the ex-PULO rebel told BenarNews on condition of anonymity, referring to negotiations between Bangkok and southern rebels groups brokered by Kuala Lumpur.
Before the insurgency re-ignited in 2004, separatists from the Deep South traveled to Aceh to be trained for combat before passing those skills on to a younger generation of fighters after returning home to the border region, said Samret Srirai, a retired senior Thai military officer.
More than 7,000 people have been killed in violence in the Deep South during the past 16 years. Since 2015, neighboring Malaysia has facilitated negotiations between Bangkok and MARA Patani, an umbrella group representing rebel organizations and factions, but those talks have led to no breakthroughs while violence in the region persists.
“[I] believe the agreement is done because some BRN are hiding in Indonesia, so Thailand wants to monitor them,” professor Srisompob Jitpiromsi, who directs Deep South Watch, a think-tank based in the region, told BenarNews.