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    Southeast Asia
     Sep 21, 2012


Malaysian role vexes Thai conflict
By Jason Johnson

PATTANI - When Malay Muslim insurgents recently staked Malaysian flags along roads, pedestrian bridges and on electricity poles across Thailand's predominantly Muslim southernmost provinces, the symbolic acts of rebellion highlighted Malaysia's often overlooked cross-border role in the deadly conflict.

Although Thai officials have consistently characterized the situation as homegrown, that interpretation is stretched by the fact that many Malay Muslim Thai nationals share an ethnic and religious affinity with Malaysia's ethnic majority. Malaysia has long served as a source of sanctuary for ethnic Malay separatists who launch attacks in Thailand and flee to safety across the border.

There have been widespread allegations that northern Malaysia, particularly Kelantan state, has been used for insurgent training

 

and planning. Many insurgent fighters and others tied to the separatist rebellion are known to have drawn on the strategic advice of an older generation of Malay Muslim separatists who reside in Malaysia.

The flag hoisting incidents served as a stark reminder that Malaysia will need to play a significant complementary role if the unprecedented levels of violence that have engulfed the historically restive ethnic minority region since early 2004 are to be subdued.

August 31, the day insurgents raised Malaysian flags across the southern Thai provinces of Pattani, Narathiwat, Yala and parts of Songkhla, symbolically marked both the anniversary of Malaysia's independence from colonial rule and the founding of Bersatu, a separatist umbrella group established in 1989.

Sources with knowledge of the clandestine insurgent movement told Asia Times Online that orders for the highly-coordinated incidents were given by separatist leaders based in Malaysia.

Some Malay Muslim sources tied the events to Thailand's colonization of the region, a former Malay sultanate. They believed that precisely 103 incidents were staged, equal to the number of years that the former region known as Patani has been under formal Thai rule. (The Anglo-Siamese Treaty of 1909 demarcated borders between Siam, present-day Thailand, and Malaysia, ending traditional tributary relations.)

The close coordination and wide geographical spread of the events have once again raised questions about the insurgency's structure, which has often been portrayed as highly fragmented and competitive among various groups and factions. While the separatist movement is known to be comprised of many groups, including factions from old rebel groups like the Patani United Liberation Organization (PULO) and Barisan Revolusi National (BRN), a loosely structured secretive senior council coordinates with all of them, according to one informed source.

Delicate diplomacy
Thai officials said soon after the incidents that insurgents were trying to spark a conflict between Thailand and Malaysia. Other sources with access to the movement, however, suggested that the incidents underscored a longstanding desire among many in the shadowy separatist movement for Malaysia to play an intermediary role in a negotiated peace process with the Thai government.

Malaysia's state-influenced media was initially silent on the incidents. Later, on September 2, Malaysian media quoted officials who said only that they did not know why Malaysian flags were raised on Thai territory. Senior Thai government officials, meanwhile, insisted that that they maintain cordial ties with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak's administration.

On September 8, Najib met with the Thai prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting held in Russia. Najib assured Yingluck that Malaysia would cooperate fully in solving problems related to the insurgency and said that he was satisfied with Thailand's policies towards the restive region.

Despite these diplomatic niceties, the two countries have a conflicted history over Thailand's predominantly Malay Muslim southernmost provinces. In the 1960s and 1970s, for instance, Malaysia was complicit in providing assistance to separatist groups fighting against Thai rule.

By the 1990s, Malaysia began to withdraw its support for separatist groups after Thailand played an instrumental role in the eradication of the Communist Party of Malaysia (CPM) in 1989. In 1998, Malaysia handed over key leaders from PULO to Thai authorities, contributing to that period's relative regional calm.

When the separatist insurgency began to resurface in 2001, Thai authorities hoped for cooperation with their Malaysian counterparts to track down separatist figures based in Malaysia, end the use of dual nationality to tighten border security, and clamp down on smuggled goods, particularly oil and narcotics.

A bilateral border agreement signed in 2000 that focused on combating criminality and promoting cooperation in areas of socio-economic development initially signaled a new era of bilateral cooperation, but Malaysian assistance dwindled as the insurgency intensified.

As a result, Thai frustration with Malaysia has lingered over the course of this nearly decade-long phase of the conflict. On August 23, General Akanit Muansawad, director of Thailand's Neighboring Countries Border Coordinating Center, expressed his displeasure over Malaysia's lack of assistance in a local television interview.

Akanit, a long time key figure in unofficial talks with separatist figures based abroad, clearly emphasized that Malaysian authorities knew that separatists used their territory as sanctuary from Thai forces and had not taken any concrete measures to stop the practice.

Sources with access to insurgents said that Akanit's interview added fuel to insurgents' fire to stage the August 31 incidents, which included five bombings that wounded six security officials. Asia Times Online was not able to independently confirm the claim.

While Akanit's views are widely shared privately among Thai security officers based in the South, making such statements publicly went against the grain of recent Thai diplomacy with Malaysia. Since the ousting of Yingluck Shinawatra's older brother, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, in a 2006 military coup, Thai officials have avoided publicly criticizing Malaysia's alleged role in sustaining the insurgency.

Troubled ties
Under Thaksin, bilateral relations deteriorated significantly. Malaysia became incensed with his government's heavy-handed security approach to the insurgency, particularly the human rights atrocities perpetuated by Thai security forces at Kru Se mosque and Tak Bai in 2004. Thaksin aggravated relations further when he repeatedly criticized Malaysia's position, including its treatment of Malay Muslims who crossed the border into Malaysia from Thai conflict areas as refugees.

When the coup-maker appointed government assumed power, prime minister General Surayud Chulanont, a former army commander, worked to smooth bilateral ties. Surayud even gave his public support for a peaceful solution to the situation, viewed in retrospect by some as tacit support for behind-the-scenes Malaysian efforts to mediate the conflict that had recently took place.

In late 2005 and early 2006, Malaysia's former premier Mahathir Mohammed facilitated a series of secret talks between top Thai security officials and separatist figures in Malaysia. That initiative ultimately failed because it lacked top level support from both Thai officials and separatist figures with prominent roles in the insurgency. Some familiar with the talks suggest that Thailand's reluctance stemmed in part from a belief that Malaysia is not a neutral broker and thus can not be trusted to mediate the conflict.
While Thai officials wish Malaysia would launch more initiatives to gather and share intelligence and crack down on separatists on their side of the border, many Malaysian politicians are believed to strongly feel that the Thai government should be more open to addressing identity-based and other grievances among ethnic Malay Muslims in its southernmost provinces.

In July, several ethnic Malay Malaysian politicians expressed those sympathies during a visit to southern Thailand. Politicians from several political parties, including the ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the Pan Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), and the People's Justice Party (PKR), visited Pattani province and met with powerful local elites, including some widely-believed sympathizers of the insurgency.

In early September, Mahathir spoke at an international conference in Thailand's southern city of Hat Yai where he said that Malaysia had not and would never intervene in the conflict. He also said that Malaysia could provide more intelligence, information and advice to resolve the situation peacefully.

However, Malaysia is unlikely to fully comply with Thai demands on intelligence matters, particularly in an election season where the ruling UMNO party faces potential dwindling support in northern swing regions where sympathies for Thailand's Malay Muslims run deep.

Limited dialogue
Independent analysts and others monitoring the conflict believe that as long as Bangkok refuses to seriously engage in a formal peace process with the separatist movement, Malaysia will remain aloof towards helping to resolve the conflict.

Thai authorities have been consistently nudged by international mediation outfits and others to intensify dialogue with the shadowy separatist movement, to which their typical response has been "talk with whom?", according to people familiar with the situation.

To Thai security officials, separatists are bent on achieving independence and thus any negotiations would be a non-starter. Others familiar with the situation recognize the zero-sum orientations of many separatists but firmly believe that the separatist leadership could be cajoled to emerge from the shadows if Thai authorities showed sincerity towards entering a formal peace process.

The current Puea Thai-led government is believed to be keen to start a peace process that would eventually result in substantial concessions for the ethnic minority region, including special regional governance arrangements with elected representatives.

Thaksin, who has lived in self-exile since fleeing Thailand on criminal corruption charges in 2008, is known to have held meetings earlier this year with an older generation of separatists in Malaysia. The influential former Thai leader, however, was unable to meet with figures known to play prominent roles in the current insurgency, according to sources with knowledge of the meetings.

During those meetings, one source said that the Malaysia-based separatists recommended that the Thai government release insurgent prisoners held on security-related charges, lift the controversial Emergency Decree, abolish its blacklist handbook of suspected insurgents, and reduce the number of security forces in the region. The same source said that the Thai government was unwilling to comply with those calls.

In apparent response to that failed overture, insurgents carried out bombings in Yala town and a shopping complex in the Thai south's largest city Hat Yai on March 31. Fifteen people were killed and hundreds more injured in the apparently coordinated car bomb attacks.

With that violence fresh in mind, Police Colonel Tawee Sodsong, secretary-general of the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Center (SBPAC), traveled to Malaysia prior to the start of this year's Ramadan period to meet with Malaysian Special Branch police officials.

A source familiar with the meeting said Tawee requested Malaysian authorities to contact separatist leaders to persuade insurgents on the ground to ease attacks during the Muslim holy month, which spanned July 20 to August 19 this year. The insurgents responded by intensifying attacks, leading to one of the deadliest Ramadan periods in Thailand since the insurgency dramatically escalated in January 2004.

Political ammunition
The surge in violence has given political ammunition to the Yingluck government's opponents, including accusations that her ruling party has not honored its election campaign pledge to bring peace to the region. Certain analysts, however, believe that the Peua Thai party-led government is constrained by the royalist establishment, especially by the powerful army's top brass.

Akanit, a known close ally to army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha, a staunch monarchist and known Thaksin adversary, has stated that the government can not negotiate with insurgents because it would violate provisions in the country's 2008 constitution.

The head of the army's south region, Fourth Army Region Commander Lieutenant General Udomchai Thamsarorach, reiterated that position in a TV interview released following the highly publicized defections of 93 alleged insurgents in Narathiwat on September 11.

Many commentators have already discredited the unprecedented number of defections, claiming the surrenders were a publicity stunt staged by the army to demonstrate it is making progress in containing an insurgency few if any analysts believe it can control. Sources claimed that some of those who turned themselves in had previously taken refuge in Malaysia.

Others here have speculated that the defection announcement was a last ditch effort by Udomchai to keep his position as army commander in the region. There has been widespread speculation that Udomchai, who has acquired a reputation of building strong ties to religious leaders relative to past regional commanders, may be replaced in next month's annual military reshuffle.

Though the recent surrenders may ostensibly indicate progress for the army, some army insiders told Asia Times Online that attempts to reach hard-line separatist leaders would still likely fail. That includes reported army efforts to reach Sapaeing Basor and Masae Useng, alleged key figures in the separatist movement, the sources said.

Both are claimed to be living in Malaysia and past efforts by senior Thai officials, including the SBPAC's Tawee, to contact with them have failed, according to other sources. But if relative peace is ever to be restored to the troubled ethnic minority region, Thailand will need to find a way of not only negotiating with top-level separatists but also with its southern neighbor.

Jason Johnson is an independent researcher and consultant covering southernmost Thailand. He is currently based in Pattani province, southern Thailand, and may be reached at jrj.johnson@gmail.com

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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