Southern Thailand’s Peace Dialogue: No Traction


I.Overview

The peace dialogue between Thailand’s military government and some Malay-Muslim separatist leaders in exile has foundered. Coordinated bombings in August on tourist areas outside the customary conflict zone in the deep south bear the hallmarks of the separatists and indicate that the government’s approach of containing the insurgency is not working. The National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), which seized power in the 2014 coup, professes to support dialogue to end the insurgency but avoids commitment, and the prime minister has questioned the talks. The main insurgent group has rejected the process, and the number of fighters the umbrella entity set up to negotiate in 2015 controls is unknown. A decentralised political system could help resolve the conflict by giving respect to Malay-Muslim identity and aspirations while preserving the unitary state, but a pernicious stalemate prevails, with both state and militants preferring hostilities to compromise. The August bombings in the upper south should encourage the government to seek talks for a comprehensive settlement.

Since seizing power, the NCPO has been preoccupied with running a politically divided country slipping toward the uncertainties of the approaching end of King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s seven-decade reign. Though the army opposed the dialogue process when it began under Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s government in 2013, the NCPO pledged to restart talks and invited Malaysia to resume facilitation. However, the NCPO appears caught between the imperative of talking to show locals and the international community that it does the right thing and an abiding fear that dialogue will legitimise the separatists and pave the way for international intervention and eventual partition.

In March 2016, after two plenaries and three rounds of technical talks, the NCPO’s dialogue team and the MARA Patani – the Majlis Syura Patani (Patani Consultative Council) umbrella body established in 2015 to negotiate with Bangkok – reached preliminary agreement on an eight-point Terms of Reference (ToR) that would open the way for official talks. But the next month, the army abruptly transferred the secretary for the Thai dialogue team, who had led efforts on the ToR. At a 27 April meeting in Kuala Lumpur, the Thai team declined to sign, saying it needed to review the document, and questioned MARA Patani’s standing to engage in official talks. Despite a further meeting on 2 September, dialogue remains at a preliminary, unofficial stage.

The NCPO’s preferred approach has more to do with convincing militants to surrender than achieving a settlement with leaders in exile. It has suppressed political engagement countrywide, suspending elections and curtailing civil liberties, while seeking to establish a foundation for long-term control after the general election promised for late 2017. Its argument that rebels should give up violence and work for peaceful change rings hollow, since it allows no political activity. With local civil society increasingly stifled, prospects for bringing popular pressure to bear for genuine dialogue are slim.

Serious talks are also hindered by the militants’ disunity and parochialism. While proponents of the dialogue argue that other factions will join once the process gains momentum, many observers doubt MARA Patani currently can speak for a critical mass of fighters. Professed members of the main insurgent group, the Barisan Revolusi Nasional Melayu Patani (Patani-Malay National Revolutionary Front, BRN), hold leading positions in MARA Patani, but do not have the sanction of the group’s leadership. BRN has questioned NCPO sincerity and emphatically rejected talks without foreign observers, a stipulation that stokes the regime’s fears of internationalisation. There are no indications that Islamic State (IS) or proponents of its global jihadist ideology have made inroads with Thailand’s ethno-nationalist Malay militants.

Divisions and capacity constraints pose major challenges but are a less immediate obstacle than lack of determination to negotiate a settlement. The NCPO appears interested primarily in mere semblance of dialogue and opposed to any solution involving devolution of political power. BRN has not advanced a political platform that could serve as a basis for talks. MARA Patani has yet to demonstrate an ability to influence events on the ground. The stalemate is insufficiently painful to induce the parties to seek a negotiated end to the conflict with a sense of urgency. The 11-12 August bombings indicate the militants’ capacity to inflict greater damage on lives, property and the economy, however. The government should recognise this threat and reconsider its approach to dialogue. The militants should recognise that a wider conflict and continued targeting of tourist areas is likely to bring an uncompromising military response from Bangkok and international opprobrium.

II.The Second Dialogue Process

The ethno-nationalist insurgency stems from the region’s 1902 incorporation into Siam. Beginning in the 1960s, but dormant for most of the 1990s, when BRN, the major militant group, was building a clandestine network in the southernmost provinces, it re-emerged with new vigour in 2004. Since then, more than 6,670 have been killed and 12,231 wounded; some 6,000 children have lost a parent and 3,000 women been widowed.

BRN and other Malay nationalist movements cast their struggle as one of self-determination and liberation from Thai rule. BRN recruitment appeals emphasise the discrepancy between an idealised, prosperous and pious past with what they portray as present degradation and injustice resulting from Thai subjugation. Support is hard to measure, but the insurgents’ ability to sustain operations over twelve years in the face of determined countermeasures is telling. While Bangkok has eschewed overtly assimilationist policies since the 1980s, BRN continues to harness disaffection arising from the rigid emphasis on Thai identity at the expense of Malay identity. Its aims are above all local and nationalist. It has spurned foreign jihadist efforts to establish links, and there is no evidence of such presence in the deep south.

A.Legacy of the Kuala Lumpur Process

The dialogue process the NCPO military government initiated is a legacy of the Yingluck Shinawatra government (2011-2104). On 28 February 2013, in Kuala Lumpur, its representatives, identified as Party A, and BRN, then recognised as Party B, signed a “General Consensus on Peace Dialogue Process”, inaugurating the first official talks between Bangkok and Malay-Muslim separatists. Malaysia facilitated via Datuk Seri Ahmad Zamzamin Hashim, ex-director general of the prime minister’s department. This dialogue collapsed after three plenaries amid disarray on both sides and political turmoil in Bangkok that preceded the May 2014 coup. But it was also a breakthrough: Bangkok’s first public acknowledgement of the need to negotiate an end to the conflict with “those with different views and ideologies from the state who use violence”.

Another outcome of this process was that BRN issued five conditions for continuing talks: Malaysia must mediate, not just facilitate; the Thai state must recognise the talks as between it and Patani Malays, represented solely by BRN; the Association of South East Asian Nations, the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) must observe; the state must release all insurgent suspects and revoke all arrest warrants; and it must recognise BRN as an independence, rather than separatist movement.

In spite of the army’s well-advertised opposition to the Kuala Lumpur process, the NCPO, headed by General and Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, publicly committed to a second dialogue process. On 26 November 2014, Prayuth issued Prime Minister’s Order 230/2557 establishing a three-level dialogue mechanism: at the policy level, the Steering Committee for Peace Dialogue, chaired by him; a peace dialogue delegation, headed by General Aksara Kerdpol; and at the local level, an interagency coordination working group, headed by the commander of the 4th Army Region, Ltieutenant General Wiwat Pathompak. The order authorises the dialogue panel to hold official talks with “those who think differently”. The NCPO set out three phases of dialogue: confidence building, an agreement, and a roadmap for its implementation.

B.Re-starting Preliminary Talks

The second dialogue process started in Prayuth’s 1 December 2014 meeting with Prime Minister Najib Razak, when he asked that Malaysia again facilitate. In March 2015, militant-group representatives established the MARA Patani for united participation in talks with Bangkok. It nominally brings together five groups: BRN, Barisan Islam Pembebesan Patani (Islamic Liberation Front of Patani, BIPP), two factions of the Patani United Liberation Organisation (PULO), and Gerakan Mujahidin Islam Patani (Patani Islamic Mujahidin Movement, GMIP). MARA’s leaders are senior figures with long ties to the separatist movement who have been in exile, often for decades and mostly in Malaysia.

The top positions are held by professed BRN members – Awang Jabat is chairman, Shukri Hari delegation chief and Ahmad Chuwo a steering committee member. However, that group’s senior leaders have not endorsed their participation. Movement sources say these MARA delegates were senior BRN figures but were suspended after violating its code of secrecy to participate in the dialogue. They may keep unofficial links to BRN and followers in the region, but their participation in MARA is freelance. The other MARA groups are not known to command significant numbers of fighters. Supporters have played this down, arguing that as the process shows progress, BRN will eventually join.

The sides convened for a low-key introduction on 8 April 2015 in Kuala Lumpur. At the first “unofficial meeting” of the Joint Working Group (JWG)-Peace Dialogue Process on 8 June, Aksara, the Thai delegation head, proposed creating safety zones in which the militants would cease attacks. MARA said these could only be discussed after an agreement to begin official talks.

At the second JWG meeting, 25 August, each side tabled three proposals. MARA Patani demanded, as preconditions for an official process, that the government acknowledge it as Party B, rather than merely “those who have different views from the state”; the legislature endorse the process, thus making it part of the “national agenda”, to ensure continuity; and MARA members receive immunity from prosecution to facilitate visits to Thailand. The Thai delegation proposed to identify priority areas for development to improve life quality; mutually determine safety zones; and ensure equal access to the judicial process. These are standard formulations of NCPO policy for resolving the region’s problems, but, a Malay-Muslim noted, development, security and justice are existing governmental responsibilities, so not appropriate peace dialogue topics. The facilitator circulated a draft ToR, intended to set guidelines for official talks.

On 27 August, MARA Patani met the press in Kuala Lumpur. Abu Hafez Al-Hakim of BIPP said sovereignty remained the ultimate goal, but MARA was “considering other options”, and the independence issue would be determined by negotiations. He conveyed MARA’s intention to be a platform for all Patani liberation movements and civil society organisations, including Buddhist and women’s groups. MARA, as well as non-MARA BRN representatives, have said that Patani independence would benefit all those native to the region, including Chinese and Thais, and that an independent Patani would protect freedom of religion.

C.BRN Opts Out

With MARA’s unprecedented press conference and the exchange of proposals, the dialogue appeared at last to be making modest progress, but insurgent unity did not last. BRN broke its silence with a 7 September 2015 video declaring its intention to continue fighting for Patani independence. Its message was unequivocal rejection of the process, but not of dialogue in principle. Abdul Karim Khalib, speaking as a representative of its information department, noted the suspension of political rights under the military government and asserted that “establishment of a democratic government that respects the will of the people is the way out of the conflict” in the deep south. He also accused the “Siamese colonisers” of lacking sincerity and mentioned the challenge posed to Thailand by imminent royal succession.

In a rare interview on 11 October 2015, another information department representative criticised discontinuity with the 2013 dialogue process and declared “BRN is categorically not involved”, and “the way in which this process has been set up is flatly rejected”. Its statement the next day referred to the five conditions submitted under the previous dialogue and reaffirmed willingness to participate in peace talks if there was “engagement of a mediator and observers from other states”. Echoing Abdul Karim, it cited UN General Assembly Resolution 1514 (1960) on decolonisation as a basis for Patani self-determination and rejected “a peace process used as a form of political subterfuge in order to deceive and undermine the strategy of the Patani-Malay people’s advancement”.

A few days after the video, Prayuth said he had not accepted MARA’s conditions, would not be pressured, and dialogue was already a national priority, codified in national security strategies for resolving the conflict. Recognising MARA as Party B, he added, was not needed; trust had to be built first.

D.Technical Team Meetings

In October 2015, MARA received a more detailed response to its proposals that reportedly linked its three conditions to each of Thailand’s proposals in a manner that a member called “vague and not up to our expectation”. MARA did not respond, preferring to wait for the next JWG meeting. In view of substantive disagreements, the sides decided to hold separate technical talks on the sticking points of the draft ToR. Unsourced Thai-language media later reported that the meetings produced agreement on safety zones in Narathiwat’s Bacho and Cho Airong districts. From the Thai perspective, this would help establish which groups were able to control fi