Page 1 of 2 No peace tomorrow for South Thailand
By Anthony Davis
BANGKOK - Four months after the opening of peace talks between the Thai government and Malay separatist insurgents, the conflict in the southern border provinces of Pattani, Narathiwat, and Yala has become, if anything, more violent than ever. While Bangkok puts the best face it can on a purported agreement to reduce violence over the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, many observers are betting on escalated attacks hammering the final nails into the coffin of a failing peace process.
Whatever happens in the coming weeks, rumors of the imminent demise of the talks are probably premature. That they have already survived four months of hard-hitting guerrilla attacks
indicates both sides, albeit to differing degrees, have a stake in a process which was never intended or likely to see dramatic cuts in insurgent violence. As both sides are aware, the process itself has marked a fundamental turning point in the conflict.
For Bangkok, initiating talks with the Barisan Revolusi Nasional Patani Melayu (Patani-Malay National Revolutionary Front, or BRN) has involved publicly coming to terms with reality after years of denial. The government finally conceded the crisis is at root political and pits the Thai state against a movement seeking at minimum a new deal for the majority Malay-Muslim border provinces and at most their outright separation from the Thai kingdom.
Now muted are voices that for years have conflated secondary facets of the conflict - organized crime, corrupt officialdom and local political infighting - with its essential cause: Bangkok's failed attempt to assimilate into the national mainstream an ethnically, linguistically, culturally and religiously distinct region with a strong sense of its own identity, and the rise of a determined insurgent organization committed to exploiting that failure.
Second, Bangkok has also taken the diplomatically unprecedented step of conceding that Malaysia, which has significant security and economic interests in the violence-wracked border provinces, needs to play a role in any settlement. Given long-standing suspicions in Thailand's security establishment over Kuala Lumpur's role and ambitions in the southern conflict, involving Malaysia as the facilitator at the peace table was a difficult and courageous step.
On the other side of the divide, BRN - a movement that for two decades has cloaked its activities in a cult of clandestinity - has finally emerged from the shadows to put forward faces and demands. The raised profile also implies a need for BRN to acknowledge and interact with an increasingly assertive Muslim civil society in a region it claims to represent.
However, beyond these steps forward - virtually inconceivable until quite recently - the talks have also been dogged by three core problems: a dangerous imbalance at the negotiating table, excessive publicity and a consequent resort to "maximalist" demands.
In the first case, it has been clear from the outset that Bangkok has had - and has been seen to have - far more invested in the process than BRN. As was generally recognized in February, the inception of the dialogue was driven primarily by the convergent political and economic interests of two national leaders, Thailand's de facto premier Thaksin Shinawatra and Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak. Albeit for different reasons, these two politicians were determined to jump-start a peace process and, if possible, hammer out a settlement to an increasingly debilitating and tedious conflict.
BRN - assessed by both Thai intelligence services and their Malaysian counterparts to be the driving force behind the insurgency - was pulled into the process largely by the scruff of its neck. Given deep-seated suspicions of both Thai and Malaysian intentions, and arguably as a result of military and political inertia, key figures in the movement's executive council, or Dewan Pimpinan Parti (DPP), were evidently skeptical of, or even opposed to, the Thaksin-Najib entente cordiale.
In contrast to the well-aired differences of policy and personality in Bangkok, divisions in the DPP are opaque. However, what is clear, according to senior separatist and Thai military sources who spoke to Asia Times Online, is that the Thai delegation led by National Security Council (NSC) secretary general Lt Gen Paradorn Pattanatabut had initially expected that Malaysia's Special Branch (SB) Police would in their role as off-camera facilitators produce two central BRN players for the February signing ceremony.
One was Sapae-ing Basor, the movement's 77-year-old "spiritual leader"; the other was Masae Useng, an Indonesia-trained religious teacher from Cho Airing district in Narathiwat who went underground in 2003 to become a key BRN operational coordinator linking DPP-level leadership and field commanders.
Perhaps unsurprisingly given ingrained suspicion of Malaysian authorities, on the eve of the Kuala Lumpur photo op ceremony both BRN "principals" absented themselves from the proceedings, leaving an embarrassed SB to collar Hasan Ta'ib, a long-time DPP member with a reputation for being "close" to Malaysian authorities. Overnight, Hasan, flanked by his former secretary Awang Jabat, a relative of Jabat's and a third sidekick - none of them known to be in or close to the DPP - found himself the public face of BRN.
That he has retained that role for over four months has arguably stemmed from two factors above and beyond SB's confidence in his availability. First is that more powerful figures in the DPP have found him useful in providing the distance they themselves wish to maintain from the cameras and the Thais.
The second is that younger, harder men from BRN's youth wing with undoubted links to operatives in southern Thailand, notably Abdul Karim Khalib, have been drafted into the process to exert a measure of supervision and control. The frequently repeated objection from Bangkok-based pundits that Hasan does not exercise control over fighters is indeed accurate enough but irrelevant: his role is that of a cut-out and mouthpiece, not a decision-maker or commander-in-chief.
The guarded nature of BRN's participation in the talks has, however, injected a basic imbalance into the process. While the Thai government has invested considerable political and diplomatic capital into a high-profile and inherently risky venture, BRN has much less to lose from a collapse of the talks. And hardliners in the movement can be reasonably confident that if the Thai team were to walk away from the process it would for two simple reasons eventually need to return to the bargaining table.
For one, Bangkok is in a bad place militarily and politically. In nearly 10 years of counter-insurgency operations, Thai security forces have managed at best to contain the conflict; suppression of the insurgency is not even on the horizon. BRN meanwhile is stepping up the military's body-bag count while benefiting from watching open debates in civil society forums over the relative virtues of autonomy and merdeka (independence). Unimaginable as little as three years ago and magnified by the rising use of social media, such public discourse is effectively transforming the political back-drop to the military struggle.
Secondly, the Bangkok fallback option floated in recent weeks of talking to "other groups" is largely hot air. Significantly, the "other groups" are never named and for good reason: in terms of separatist organizations with a more or less coherent political leadership and a reasonable degree of command and control over most forces on the ground, BRN is, for all its ambiguities, the only game in town. Which is precisely why the Thai government sought to deal with it in the first place.
Unsurprisingly, Bangkok's predicament has encouraged maximalist demands from BRN. These were set forth first in the five-point demands delivered via a YouTube clip on April 28 prior to the second round of talks scheduled for the following day and in the more recent seven-point conditions for suspending hostilities over Ramadan. Including demands for a sweeping rescinding of arrest warrants and the withdrawal of large numbers of security forces from the region, these demands have appeared almost - but not quite - calculated to torpedo the whole process.
At one level, YouTube has provided BRN with a platform for grandstanding as an anti-colonial liberation movement, both to its Malay-Muslim constituency in the border provinces and to a wider regional audience. Arguably more importantly, however, BRN's extravagant demands are also intended to assure troops and supporters on the ground that a political sell-out in the air-conditioned comfort of a Kuala Lumpur hotel is not in the cards. This speaks directly to the relationship between the movement's political wing and the fighters on the ground, a vital element in the southern equation.
For years, this relationship has been persistently misinterpreted as a dynamic in which an "old guard" of former separatist leaders active in the 1970s and 1980s and now resident in Malaysia has attempted to reinvent itself and gain relevance (and money) by latching onto the struggle of a "new generation" of angry young men in southern Thailand. This simplistic dichotomy has always been false for reasons that are obvious.
First, the struggle of the "younger generation" did not begin overnight or from nowhere in January 2004. Rather it emerged from - and over the past nine years of conflict has been sustained by - a decade of political and military planning and preparation. Between the early 1990s and the early 2000s, this process put in place a clandestine structure of political committees, recruitment networks, military teams and training systems, and was the work of an organization implementing a strategy drawn up when many of today's "new generation" insurgents were either toddlers or not yet born.
As Thai military intelligence has understood since at least 2007, that organization was BRN Coordinate, a faction of BRN that following a 1977 split returned to political work through the network of Islamic schools where the party had its roots. The rival Congress faction, which pursued a jungle-based military strategy, had largely withered by the mid-1990s, though many of its stragglers joined the ascendant BRN Coordinate campaign in what is today viewed as a reunited movement.
Secondly, the purported generational divide between an "old guard" and "new generation" has simply air-brushed out a middle-aged generation of political and military operatives in their forties and fifties. Critical in any insurgency, such cadres coordinate operations, organize logistics support networks and training programs, and liaise between senior political leaders and field commanders.
In the Thai context, many have played important roles both in the clandestine preparatory phase of the insurgency and more recently in the actual fighting. The most prominent example of such a cadre is probably Masae Useng. Now in his 50s and a key organizer in Narathiwat before the beginning of the armed struggle, he is understood not to be a member of the DPP but coordinates between older political leaders and provincial-level military commanders, many of whom are themselves in their 40's.