Thailand’s Turn for Peace in Troubled South Offers Little Hope, So Far

By Marwaan Macan Markar 1 July 2013

BANGKOK — On the day that the results of Malaysia’s general election were announced, confirming a narrow win for the incumbent, Prime Minister Najib Razak, there was an audible sigh of relief expressed in the Thai capital.

Such a response by Lt-Gen Paradorn Pattanatabut, head of the country’s powerful National Security Council (NSC), to the May 5 poll was understandable. It was a spark of good news in two weeks of dismal tidings linked to Mr Paradorn’s new challenge—charting a path to peace in the country’s three southern provinces, where a bloody insurgency has been raging.

In welcoming another term for Mr Najib, Mr Paradorn showed his appreciation for the role that the Malaysian government has played in facilitating two rounds of “peace dialogues” in Kuala Lumpur. They have enabled Mr Paradorn, who heads Bangkok’s negotiating team, to meet with Hassan Taib, chief liaison officer of the Barisan Revolusi Nasional–Coordinate (BRN-C). The latter is one of the most influential groups among an array of Malay-Muslim rebel organizations waging a militant campaign in the provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat, close to the Malaysian border.

In fact, the short, goatee-sporting Hassan was among the sources of bad news for Mr Paradorn. On the eve of their second round of talks in the Malaysian capital, Hassan delivered a verbal blast of demands using the video-sharing website YouTube, upsetting Thai conservatives and giving ammunition for doubters of the peace process in the local media.

This online message by Mr Hassan and another BRN-C hardliner called for Malaysia’s role at the dialogues to be upgraded to a mediator and wanted the discussions to have international observers, ranging from the Association of Southeast Asian Nation (Asean) to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the global network of over 50 Muslim countries.

The five-point demands on April 28 also turned up the heat on Mr Paradorn’s team by referring to the talks as a dialogue between “between Patani people and colonialist Siam” and insisting that Bangkok should consider the BRN-C as a “Patani people’s liberation movement, not separatist.” Such an attempt to raise the political significance of the BRN was being made, according to Hassan, to meet the demands of the Malay-Muslims, who are the predominant ethnic community in an otherwise Buddhist-dominant Thailand.

A similar justification was behind the BRN-C’s fifth demand: for the Thai authorities to unconditionally release all Malay-Muslims in custody for alleged links to the insurgency and “remove all warrants.”

Such openly publicized demands by the BRN-C caught Mr Paradorn off guard, forcing him into damage-control mode before he met Mr Hassan in Kuala Lumpur on April 29. Malaysia’s role as a facilitator will remain unchanged and there is no need for other international observers, Mr Paradorn remarked, striking a dismissive tone. Yet to the other demands, he appeared conciliatory. It aimed to calm the worries of Thai nationalists, while at the same time convey to the BRN-C that he was prepared to listen to keep the peace talks on track.

He expressed a similar sentiment after he returned to Bangkok following eight hours of talks with the BRN-C. “There is something positive in the message they made on YouTube. It means they trust us to share their views,” the tall and calm-looking Mr Paradorn revealed to a small group of foreign journalists at his office. “That is important because at this stage we need to create mutual trust and understanding.”

And given the nature of the discussions so far, Mr Paradorn viewed the BRN-C’s five-point demands as hardly a source of alarm—at least for now. “At this stage, there haven’t been any negotiations, only a dialogue,” he noted. “We are listening to each other.”

Yet he has not stopped there. “We have asked Thai officials to listen to the conditions made by the BRN,” he explained, revealing the extent to which Bangkok is prepared to go to keep the BRN-C and other Malay-Muslim negotiators at the peace table. “It is important to listen to the different views of local people.”

If bending over backward to keep the BRN-C negotiators on board is Mr Paradorn’s strategy, so far it has had little success in winning over the Malay-Muslim militants on the ground. The violence has continued with regular ferocity before and since the April 29 talks. One particularly gruesome attack happened in Pattani two days after the second peace dialogue, when four armed men dressed in black drove to a grocery store and killed six Buddhist civilians. The victims included a three-year-old boy.

And roadside bombs continue to be used by the insurgents targeting the military, police and government officials. The violence between Feb. 28, when Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra first acknowledged that her government had endorsed a peace pact with the BRN-C, and the second peace dialogue, at the end of April, has seen 23 people killed and 117 injured. They have contributed to a grim picture in the troubled south, where more than 5,300 people have been killed and over 9,000 injured since this latest cycle of the ethnic conflict erupted in January 2004. A majority of the dead are Malay-Muslims, with various arms of the security forces being fingered for the body count, as well as the Runda Kumpula Kecil (RKK), the armed fighters of the BRN-C.

That these setbacks have not dimmed the Yingluck administration’s quest for peace is winning praise from a few conflict resolution experts based in the south. “The government is approaching the peace talks as a longer process, which is an important message to get out to those involved in the violence,” noted one expert, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “The idea of sitting around the table is a significant step to stop the violence.”

Such an attitude is a shift from the attempts by past Bangkok administrations. “The previous efforts were not process driven. It came across as an exercise in firefighting,” the expert added. “And those efforts offered nothing to convince the Malay-Muslim militant groups that the Bangkok government was serious about resolving the conflict.”

Already, the Yingluck administration has achieved a few milestones to its name since Feb. 28, when, during an official visit to meet her Malaysian counterpart, Mr Najib, a peace pact was signed between Mr Paradorn and Mr Hassan. The current government is the first to openly acknowledge that the conflict in the south is a separatist insurgency. It contrasts with the way the militants were described by previous governments (including one that was headed by a former army chief) as being members of drug networks, bandits, misguided Muslims or even mysterious “armed ninjas.”

The BRN-C’s YouTube statement to shape the peace dialogue also broke new ground. It is the first time that an organization involved in the Malay-Muslim insurgency has revealed a face in public offering a political manifesto, of sorts. Hitherto, the rebel groups preferred to spread their messages and demands through flyers, banners and posters that bore no hint of their authors’ names.

The ground for these shifts was prepared by Ms Yingluck’s elder brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, the former prime minister now living in exile to avoid a two-year jail term in Thailand for corruption. He turned to Malaysian premier Najib and the country’s powerful Special Branch to rope in leaders of the BRN-C for a peace pact, says a source well connected to the Malay-Muslim insurgents. “Thaksin tried it last year, in March, when he met some of the Malay-Muslim leaders in Kuala Lumpur,” the source revealed. “But it did not go anywhere, since Thaksin was in a big hurry, and there were no serious offers made.”

Yet Mr Thaksin persisted, a fact that he even acknowledged in an interview with Thai Rath, Thailand’s largest daily newspaper. The deal had been shaped over a year of discussions, he told the Thai-language newspaper shortly after the late February peace pact was inked.

For an insider of the governing Pheu Thai party, where Mr Thaksin is the de facto leader, the latter’s role in the quest for peace is hardly surprising. After all, he admitted, the current cycle of violence was triggered during Mr Thaksin’s first term as premier and escalated until he was ousted by the military in a September 2006 coup. “He has already made a public apology for his harsh policies in the Deep South,” says the Pheu Thai insider. “The current peace process is one way of making amends.”

But for the Yingluck government, challenges lie ahead once the current listening phase shifts gear to the tougher negotiating phase. After all, the current ethnic conflict is rooted in a troubled history going back to 1902, when the three southern provinces were annexed by Siam, as Thailand was called. Until then, these provinces were part of the Malay-Muslim kingdom of Pattani, which also stretched into northern Malaysia.

Bangkok-centric policies, coupled with economic, cultural and linguistic marginalization, fed resentment among the locals in Narathiwat, Yala and Pattani. The cry for separation and the rise of a Malay-Muslim militancy emerged in the last century.

“The Thai state see itself as superior and the Muslims [as being] at the receiving end of the state,” says Sunai Phasuk, Thailand researcher for Human Rights Watch, the global rights campaigner. “The peace process will have to eventually address issues like discrimination and the lack of justice.”

This story appeared in the June 2013 print issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.