The question of independence for Thailand’s Deep South is best left to future generations, according to the spokesman for a panel representing rebel groups in exploratory peace talks with Thailand’s military government.
“The aim of all [our] organizations is to gain independence. That’s what we have been fighting for all these years. But at a certain point we have to revise it,” Abu Hafiz Al- Hakim told BenarNews in a recent interview.
“We need to review about fighting for independence. Maybe self-rule, self-administration, self-determination is more realistic. But the name is not important. Most important is the content, and that the Malay Patani would have the right to live a normal life.”
The 60-year-old physician, a native of Pattani province, spoke with BenarNews in Kota Bharu, the capital of the Malaysian state of Kelantan.
He is a senior member of the Patani Islamic Liberation Front (BIPP) and its representative on MARA Patani, the negotiating panel formed in May 2015, as well as its spokesman.
Other groups represented on the panel are National Revolutionary Front (BRN), the largest rebel force; two factions of Patani United Liberation Organization (PULO); and the Islamic Mujahideen Movement of Patani (GMIP).
Six BRN members and eight representatives of other groups make up the MARA steering committee, Abu Hafiz told BenarNews. “Important posts are given to BRN because they are dominant,” he said.
Thailand’s Deep South, formerly the Malay kingdom of Patani Darussalam, encompasses Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat provinces, and four districts of Songkhla.
Violent incidents occur almost daily in the region. More than 15,000 gun or bomb attacks have been recorded and more than 6,700 people killed since January 2004, according to Deep South Watch, a local think-tank.
Abu Hafiz has been involved in peace efforts for years – long before short-lived talks between the BRN and the government of then-Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in 2013, he told BenarNews.
Exploratory talks with the Thai military government that took over in May 2014 have yet to produce any concrete outcome, and violence continues to plague southern Thailand.
But Abu Hafiz expressed surprising confidence in the process, and a willingness to accept outcomes short of independence.
BenarNews: What is the way ahead for the peace talks? What is your expectation of the time frame?
Abu Hafiz : This process is definitely a long process, not one or two years ...
When we talk to the military our aim is to consolidate the process and to do confidence-building with them. The military won’t be there forever ... substantive issues will be discussed with an elected government later.
We’ve learned that when we touch sensitive issues, it will break the process. In a previous dialogue, BRN brought five preliminary demands – that brought a shock. It’s like you go into someone’s house and you say you want this, and this and this ... it’s not the right way. We should build confidence first, and then we move to the next step.
That’s what we are doing now. We don’t expect to talk about development, economic development, education, administration. Maybe just about security. That’s why when they said they want to talk about safety zones … we agreed to talk about it. Because they are the correct people to talk about safety zones.
BN: Is the Thai government sincere?
AH: You cannot measure sincerity but you can measure commitment – the way they behave ... we look at it objectively. In the previous process ... there was no structure ... but this time around, it is well-structured. First, with the military, there is a steering committee and it is chaired by the prime minister. The second level is a dialogue team. The third level is at the 4th region in the Deep South. Back then it was only dialogue team and nothing else. So this is how we measure commitment objectively.
BN: Realistically, what do you hope to achieve at the end of the talks?
AH: First, the aim of all [our] organizations is to gain independence. That’s what we have been fighting for all these years. But, at a certain point, we have to revise it, based on the current situation, based on the world’s situation. It was OK to talk about independence in the ’60s and ’70s ... now people are talking about integration rather than separation ... look at the EU, look at ASEAN. Borders are no longer relevant, and now is the age of dialogue.
So when we decided to go for negotiations, we need to review about fighting for independence. Maybe self-rule, self-administration, self-determination is more realistic. But the name is not important. Most important is the content: that the Malay Patani would have the right to live a normal life, to decide their own future.
BN: Are there elements in the insurgent movement that don’t support MARA Patani?
AH: … In MARA there is BRN ... but there are also BRN [members] who are not willing to talk to the military. To us, this is actually BRN’s internal issue and they have to sort it out.
There are certain people within MARA that have certain links with the mainstream BRN outside. Through these links, they are in touch with each other. If one understands the nature of the BRN operation, this has happened so many times. For example, in 1991 BRN was talking with the 4th regional army, in a direct negotiation, but the negotiation was not [with] the main BRN ... only a faction of BRN militia.
BN: Does MARA Patani have control over the people with weapons in the Deep South?
AH: I’ll answer you like this. MARA Patani is not a military coalition ... MARA is a political coalition. But armed groups are [part of] the individual groups [that make up MARA], in PULO and BRN ... we don’t have power in these groups, but members of MARA have channels to these groups. They are communicating and we know they are communicating.
BN: What do you wish people knew about the Deep South that gets eclipsed by the violence?
AH: We want the world community to know there is a problem there ... the world community must support this peace process – not necessarily support us, but support this process. We just hope that the people of Patani are able to decide their own future. When I say Patani people – it doesn’t mean the Malays and the Muslims, [but] all who are there, including the Thai minorities and Chinese.
The question of independence, in my personal opinion, is for the future generation; if they want, they can do it politically. If the people are satisfied with the outcome of the peace process the issue of independence is irrelevant.
That’s how the people of Patani are … they just want things of day-to-day life – job, education, security, religion, the right to determine their own future.