No clear signs in southern Thailand
By Jason Johnson
PATTANI - A new sign appeared throughout the insurgency-torn provinces of Thailand's ethnic Malay-Muslim minority region in December. The three heads of the Provincial Islamic Committees from the southern provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat are pictured with the message: "We ask for the support [of insurgents] to come out and talk [with authorities] for peace."
Since January 2004, Malay-Muslim separatist insurgents have waged a guerilla warfare campaign against state security forces. Most recently, insurgents endured arguably their worst military defeat on February 13 when Thai Marines were tipped off about a planned ambush and killed 16 of the some 50 insurgent attackers. Three more insurgents have since died as a result of injuries
sustained during the firefight.
In what was widely viewed as a violent response to that setback, insurgents launched a spate of some 50 attacks over the course of two days, including a bomb blast in Pattani town that left three dead. The violent uptick has prompted the Peua Thai party-led government to consider lifting the region's highly controversial Emergency Decree, replacing it with the softer Internal Security Act.
Insurgents have never revealed their leadership or issued a set of formal demands to end their struggle. Since discreet informal talks first began outside of Thailand in 2005, Thai state representatives are believed to have met only with middlemen separatist figures who hold little or no influence over insurgent fighters on the ground or those who may oversee their operations.
However, the new signboard ostensibly suggests that ethno-religious minority leaders are pushing the clandestine movement to initiate dialogue with state authorities. One of the leaders in the sign has long been suspected by state authorities as a key figure in the Barisan Revolusi Nasional-Coordinate (BRN-C), an insurgent organization that most analysts and authorities believe to be the primary group behind insurgent-instigated violence.
In spite of this apparent appeal, Malay-Muslim political leaders are compelled to communicate frequently with security officials in the turbulent region, where more than 5,500 have been killed in violent incidents since early 2004. That is why observers in the region, including some army officers, believe that the Islamic leaders were prodded by army leaders to agree to the production of the signs for army propaganda purposes.
Instead of symbolizing ethnic Malay leaders' position on dialogue, the sign may more accurately be read as a public message from the army, one of the Thai state's most powerful institutions. Significantly, the army is for the first time publicly displaying to locals its recognition of the need for dialogue with the insurgent movement.
To date, many high-ranking soldiers and officials have played down the degree to which violence is ideologically driven and emphasized instead of the region's rampant criminal and personal violence. The sign's plea plainly highlights army acknowledgement that a rebel movement is behind much of the violence.
The signboard also signals army recognition that security forces can not defeat the rebel movement through counter-insurgency strategies that include armed suppression and hearts and minds campaigns. Those sentiments have long been conveyed in private by many security officials based in the region but the army is now in effect publicly revealing those internal opinions.
At the same time, the sign portrays the army's limited stance on the highly sensitive issue of formal dialogue with insurgent figures. In the background of the sign is a dim photograph of the region's army commander, Lieutenant General Udomchai Thammasarorat, shaking hands with one of 93 alleged insurgents who surrendered to authorities last September.
The surrender was hailed by the army as a counter-insurgency success and sign that more insurgents were poised to lay down their arms. However, multiple sources later revealed that only a small minority of those who turned themselves in were actual insurgent fighters and that many of them surrendered unwittingly.
Although since then only nine other alleged insurgents have come forth to give up their armed struggle, the army continues to try to gradually eradicate the insurgency through counter-insurgency and quasi amnesties, such as the one outlined in Article 21 of the Internal Security Act (ISA).
That program, which allows insurgent suspects exemption from punishment in security and criminal cases after six months of voluntary "re-education" training, has only been completed by two insurgents since it was first implemented nearly two years ago in five of the region's least violent districts. In spite of this clear lack of success, the sign indicates that the army still holds out hope for these programs and prefers them to initiating a formal dialogue process that would potentially lure relevant separatist figures to negotiate.
The army's hardline stance and the separatist movement's recalcitrance was most recently demonstrated through a dialogue held between state authorities in neighboring Malaysia. In early January, a Thai government delegation led by Deputy Prime Minister for Security Chalerm Yoobamrung made a publicized trip to the Malaysian capital to meet with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and Interior Minister Hishamuddin bin Hussein.
The two sides signed a joint agreement that included new cooperation on combating transnational crime, extraditing criminal suspects, and exchanging prisoners. More significant, however, the meeting served as a warm-up to future talks on the much more sensitive issue of dialogue with separatist figures, some of whom are based in Malaysia.
Several sources said that Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, the younger sister of 2006 coup-ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra, will travel to Malaysia at the end of this month to engage in more high level talks with Malaysian authorities.
Thai politicians and security officials have long been frustrated with Malaysia's role as a safe haven for separatist figures. Since Yingluck's Peua Thai party entered office in mid-2011, Thai political figures, including Thaksin, the de facto leader of the current government, have requested Malaysian Special Branch police to put pressure on high-level separatist figures known to be based in Malaysia to talk with Thai state representatives.
Sources familiar with this year's talks in Kuala Lumpur said that members of the Thai delegation met with older exiled figures from the separatist groups Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) and Patani United Liberation Organization (PULO). At least two members of the Thai delegation asked to meet with Sapae-ing Basor, believed by some Thai officials to be a key separatist figure, sources said.
Thai officials have long sought to meet with Sapae-ing but separatist representatives have repeatedly denied he has a substantial active role in the current insurgency. The Thai side was told by separatist representatives at the Kuala Lumpur meeting that Sapae-ing is only a "spiritual" figure for the movement, according to sources familiar with the discussions.
In the early years of this current decade-long wave of insurgent activity, Thai officials pegged Sapae-ing as a core leader of the movement. In recent years, however, some security officials based in the far South have backed away from those initial claims and now generally echo the view of movement representatives on Sapae-ing's role.
Sources added that the movement's representatives were so disillusioned with the Thai side for again asking to meet with Sapae-ing that they would not be interested in future talks. Sources from the army and civil society in the far South also said that Chalerm's lack of knowledge of the conflict and his reputation as an old-style patronage politician means he lacks the stature to lead talks.
From the reputedly factionalized insurgent movement's perspective, the more salient factor preventing key figures from engaging in dialogue is the government's persistent unwillingness to move towards a formal, open negotiation process, according to multiple sources familiar with the situation.
Several Malay-Muslims with intimate knowledge of the movement admitted that many key figures are still adamant about winning outright independence from predominantly Buddhist Thailand but noted that many others are open to some form of autonomy.
To engage these insurgent figures, the government will need to both formalize the dialogue process and take steps towards developing more confidence-building measures, the sources said. Past measures requested by separatist representatives have included the release of insurgent prisoners on security-related charges, the lifting of the Emergency Decree, the abolishment of insurgent blacklists and a reduction of the number of security forces in the region.
Mediation or facilitation?
Multiple sources emphasized that the government will need to conscript a third-party mediator such as the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), Indonesia or Malaysia to get relevant insurgent representatives to the negotiation table. Malaysia is the preferred choice of the insurgents, they said.
Following the recent government-to-government meetings, Najib told reporters that Malaysia would be willing to help mediate the simmering conflict. In early February, Thai media reported that Chalerm said he would propose that former Malaysian premier Mahathir Mohamad serve as a third-party representative for dialogue. However, Chalerm told Thai media that the government will only enter talks, not negotiations.
One source familiar with the situation claimed that talks will likely take place in Malaysia's Langkawi Island beginning in April. In late 2005 and early 2006, Mahathir led a series of talks on the Malaysian tourist island but Thailand's national-level divide between Thaksin's political camp and royalist establishment forces effectively prevented those talks from gaining traction.
One highly-placed source close to Thai army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha told Asia Times Online that Thailand and Malaysia are continuing to work on Malaysia's possible role in pacifying the conflict. However, Thailand wants Malaysia to "only facilitate" dialogue, "not mediate" between the warring sides, the source said.
Some long-time followers of the conflict, including foreign embassy officials, analysts, and local activists, have commented that the Peua Thai-led government would likely be willing to shift towards a formal dialogue if it did not have to look over its shoulder towards the royalist establishment, including the army's top brass.
Tension between the Prayuth-led army leadership and Yingluck's government is well-known and competing views of how to handle the insurgency has prevented a comprehensive state response since Yingluck was elected in mid-2011. However, her government has recently been allowed more space from the powerful army commander to establish dialogue with the movement.
Prayuth, a known loyalist to the country's influential monarchy, has this year been quiescent on the issue of talks. Last year the army chief voiced criticism towards Thaksin and his point-man based in the far South, Tawee Sodsong, secretary-general of the government's Southern Border Provinces Administrative Center (SBPAC), after insurgents launched near simultaneous attacks in Yala and Hat Yai towns last March. Prayuth suggested that the bombings resulted from the movement's opposition to talks that took place earlier that month in Malaysia between Thaksin and some exiled separatist figures.
General Akanit Muansawadt, Prayuth's recently retired close confidante, continues to closely monitor government moves towards initiating dialogue with insurgents. Akanit, formerly a high ranking official in the army's southern command, served as a representative in overseas talks with proclaimed movement middlemen in recent years.
Some sources believe that Akanit's looming background presence constricts the government's ability to formalize a dialogue. Yet, several Malay Muslim intellectuals pointed out that it is absolutely critical that Thailand's powerful army is on board with any government plans for dialogue if they are to succeed.
While both Thai politicians and security officers would prefer to limit any potential third-party interventionist role in the conflict, in light of the protracted violence Yingluck's government is believed to be more open to formal dialogue than previous Thai governments.
Multiple sources claim that Thaksin in particular is strongly supportive of kick-starting a more formal peace process. The former premier who fled the country in 2008 after being charged with corruption is on record saying that the only way to end the conflict is "at the negotiation table".
Two sources noted that Malaysia feels that Thaksin and the current Thai government is much more "sincere" about dialogue than the previous Democrat Party-led government. One of those sources claimed that Thaksin has worked towards establishing stronger ties not only to incumbent premier Najib but also his political opponent, opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim.
Anwar leads a coalition of opposition parties and could possibly become Malaysia's next prime minister in this year's election. Thaksin's critics, however, suggest that he is willing to appease Malaysia and shift towards more formal dialogue because both he and insurgents have a mutual interest in a full amnesty, one that could pave the way for Thaksin to return to Thailand.
The international community, however, also backs more formal dialogue. Some Bangkok-based foreign embassy officials and nongovernmental organization representatives have pointed to last year's Bangsamoro Peace Framework Agreement between the Philippine government and rebel Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) as a possible model for Thailand.
Malaysia played a leading role in brokering that deal but one source familiar with the process told Asia Times Online that Philippine government negotiators felt Malaysia was biased against it and more supportive of the MILF's position.
Thai officials are known to have followed closely the negotiation process in the Philippines. But because many ethnic Malay Malaysian politicians are highly sympathetic to the rebels' cause in Thailand's predominantly Malay-Muslim far South, Thai army leaders will no doubt continue to resist granting mediation powers to any ethnic Malay Malaysian. Both Thai government sources and analysts say that the Thai side feels that Indonesia would be a more neutral broker.
Army and other officials have consistently asserted that the movement lacks a unified voice to elevate talks to such a higher level. In what one source claimed is an effort to facilitate a more unified response from the ethnic Malay-Muslim side, on February 17 Chalerm appointed several former Malay Muslim politicians from the once influential Wadah group as government "consultants".
Wadah politicians dominated the far South's parliamentary seats from the late 1980s until the insurgency reignited in 2004 and they lost power at the 2005 election. Army figures who spoke with Asia Times Online doubt that Wadah politicians have the influence to create unity within the nationalist movement, especially among older hardliners who maintain lofty pipedreams of independence.
But faced with an international community increasingly supportive of a formal peace process, a southern neighbor extremely sympathetic to the rebels' nationalist agenda, and a protracted military stalemate, Thailand may have no choice but to initiate a formal dialogue with insurgents. Army-endorsed signs acknowledging that reality will surely not be posted anytime soon across the troubled region.
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 [email protected]
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