Moves by Thailand’s military-led government to revive peace talks with southern insurgents are unlikely to succeed, as the main rebel group has abandoned back-door efforts aimed at reopening formal negotiations, analysts say.
They believe the rebels see little to be gained at the negotiating table from the military government, with no possibility for devolution of political or economic power.
“For the moment, the Thai government’s commitment to dialogue is largely rhetorical,” Matt Wheeler, Southeast Asia analyst for the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based organization that conducts field research into conflicts across the globe, told BenarNews on Tuesday.
“The NCPO’s ethos is one of unity and Thai nationalism,” he said in an email, using an acronym for the Thai junta’s official name, the National Council for Peace and Order. “They are not disposed to making any concessions that they see as leading to a loss of national sovereignty.”
Barisan Revolusi Nasional Melayu Patani (BRN), the most powerful and heavily armed of the southern insurgent groups and factions, “is well aware of this, and so disputes Bangkok’s sincerity,” Wheeler added. “So neither side is revealing a readiness for compromise.”
More than 6,000 people have died over the past 11 years in the separatist conflict in Thailand’s predominantly Muslim and Malay-speaking southern border region.
‘Nothing on offer’
Since March, Thai officials have engaged insurgents from Thailand’s Deep South in back-channel, Malaysia-brokered meetings aimed at re-opening peace talks for the first time since December 2013, when a civilian-led government in Bangkok was in power.
Various rebel groups and factions have formed an umbrella group, MARA Patani, to negotiate with the government. The seven-member panel included three BRN representatives when it gave a press conference in Kuala Lumpur in late August.
Since then, BRN has pulled out of the peace process, according to Wheeler and Zachary Abuza, another expert on the Deep South, although the group itself has not made this explicitly clear.
“They just said there is nothing that is being offered to us that makes us even willing to show up,” Abuza, a professor at the National War College in Washington D.C., told BenarNews in a phone interview.
He expressed even deeper pessimism about the prospects of peace talks, although he suggested that different stakeholders – including the Thai and Malaysian governments, and smaller Deep South insurgent groups – were likely to push ahead with them.
“The government keeps trotting out statements saying they’re committed to the talks, that they want to restart them. But there is nothing on offer to get the different insurgent groups to the table,” he said.
“I just don’t believe the government is serious. What the Thai government wants is for the insurgents to come to the table and surrender. There’s nothing that they are ready to negotiate right now,” Abuza added.
In or out?
On Oct. 12, the BRN issued a four-page statement in English in which it voiced strong disagreement with the new peace process.
“Statements by BRN’s Information Department have been unambiguous that the group is not participating in the current process,” Wheeler said.
“It remains an open question whether the presence in MARA Patani of individuals claiming to represent BRN may be explained by factionalism, or by BRN’s desire to keep tabs on MARA Patani.”
MARA Patani members who identified themselves as BRN members have declined to answer questions from BenarNews about whether BRN has, in fact, pulled out of the peace process.
There may be debate within BRN about whether to be involved, Abuza said.
“You have many BRN people that say peace talks are a waste of time and then there are other people who say, listen, the talks are going to happen because Malaysia and Thailand will make them happen, so we might as well be there.”
In predominantly Muslim Malaysia, the talks have bipartisan support, amid concern over the plight of the Muslim Malay Thais of the Deep South. Malaysia has been facilitating the peace efforts.
Smaller groups that are part of MARA Patani – Gerakan Mujahideen Islami Patani (GMIP), Barisan Islam Pembebasan Patani (BIPP) and Patani United Liberation Organization (PULO) – are looking to reap political gain from the talks, as Abuza put it.
“The latter groups really control very few militants on the ground. And so they are trying to leverage something from these peace talks, out of nothing,” he said.
Soon after BRN issued its statement, Col. Kasturi Mahkota, a spokesman for MARA Patani who belongs to PULO, told BenarNews that the peace process remained on track.
“MARA Patani will continue with the negotiations and MARA Patani will make sure that the talks become official in the near future,” he said then, adding. “Personally, what happened within BRN – those who are for and against the peace-talk process – is normal.”
The Thai government, meanwhile, says the talks will forge ahead.
In October, Lt. Gen. Nakrob Boonbuathong, secretary of the Thai negotiating team, told BenarNews that formal peace talks would open this month.
More recently, chief negotiator Gen. Aksara Kerdpol said the next round of pre-talks would take place sometime in December.
Srisompob Jitpiromsri, who directs Deep South Watch, a peace monitoring and advocacy group based in southern Pattani province, disagreed with assessments that peace efforts are faltering.
“Since MARA Patani’s debut, it made its image clear and locals understand its goal and approach, so there should not be any problem with the talks continuing,” Srisompob told BenarNews.
“In regard with the current Thai government’s sincerity, we can see there is documentation that supports its policy of honoring peace talks and there are peace-supporting projects,” he added.
Pimuk Rakkanam, Hata Wahari and Nasueroh contributed to this report.