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 fighters. However, on 22 November, MARA Patani’s Shukri Hari described reports that the meeting addressed safety zones as “untrue and baseless”, and a deliberate effort to undermine the dialogue. MARA, he said, would not discuss safety zones until the dialogue was official.
On 10 January 2016, MARA Patani met in Kuala Lumpur with the OIC secretary general, Iyad Ameen Madani, at, according to Abu Hafez, the OIC’s initiative. Several civil society representatives from the deep south also attended. Madani went on to Bangkok, meeting on 12 January with Prayuth, who said Madani praised Thai efforts and sincerity in solving the problems of the southernmost provinces; however, the OIC meeting rankled Thai officials. A retired army officer speculated that Malaysia organised it to help MARA gain OIC observer status as part of a strategy to achieve “special administration”, or autonomy, like Mindanao’s Moro National Liberation Front in the Philippines, an OIC observer since 1977.
The technical teams met again on 25-27 January to address the conflict parties’ names; geographical scope of the conflict area; promotion of justice; and facilitation and logistics. In February, Major General Nakrob Bunbuathong, the Thai delegation secretary, said a ToR document was 95 per cent set. Recognition of MARA Patani was resolved by a footnote that Thailand would refer to Party B, though Party B refers to itself as “MARA Patani”. Immunity for MARA members and arrangements for travel to Thailand remained open, but Nakrob said he expected ToR agreement in June. MARA was similarly optimistic.
On 28 February, a Pattani university hosted a Peace Media Day to mark the third anniversary of the General Consensus on Peace Dialogue at which Nakrob spoke for the Thai delegation and Malaysian facilitator Zamzamin Hashim and MARA Patani’s Awang Jabat sent video statements. Zamzamin acknowledged the high mutual mistrust: MARA, he said, had concerns about NCPO sincerity and its interim government status; Thais had misgivings about whether Awang Jabat had a mandate from BRN’s leadership, though he is “the best available BRN leader that had agreed to come out in public to initiate the process”. Awang Jabat said, “MARA Patani is not confident of the Thai government’s commitment to seek fair, holistic and sustainable solution to the conflict”. After three rounds of technical meetings over five months, the sides agreed to an eight-section ToR on 23 March, covering guidelines for talks, including identification of dialogue parties, formation of a Technical Working Group and security for Party B.
III.BRN Weighs In
A.Spike in Violence
In February, after several years of declining violence, militants stepped up operations. Over the course of the insurgency, violence has regularly risen and fallen, conditioned by insurgent strategy and resources and state countermeasures. Improvised explosive device (IED) and shooting attacks left 44 dead between 10 February and 1 June. On 27 February, a 100kg bomb exploded in a stolen car in front of a roadside restaurant next to a police post in Pattani’s Muang district, injuring seven police officers and five civilians. The site was just metres from a main security checkpoint leading into Pattani town, near to the university where the Peace Media Day was to be held the next day and the hotel where many participants were staying. This suggested the bomb was a BRN statement of opposition to the dialogue process.
In a bold 13 March raid in Cho Airong district, Narathiwat, some 50 militants seized a hospital for more than an hour, detained staff and fired almost 2,000 rounds at a ranger base. Seven rangers and one militant were wounded; rangers did not return fire on the hospital. Diversionary attacks took place in the district the same day. It was the largest militant operation since February 2013, when sixteen militants were killed attacking a marine base in Bacho district. A military officer said a “hard-core” BRN faction sought to commemorate the BRN’s 56th anniversary and signal opposition to the dialogue process. Several sources said the intent was to embarrass the security forces, if not entice them to fire on the hospital. It was also widely viewed as a repudiation of the military’s unilateral designation of Cho Airong as one of two prospective safety zones.
Thai authorities, local human rights and international organisations and MARA Patani all condemned the raid. The attack on a health facility highlighted belligerent obligations under International Humanitarian Law (IHL), which applies to non-state as well as state armed groups. Reproof fell on militants, but attention was also drawn to the military’s practice of stationing forces in or near public buildings, including schools and health facilities.
A decision to seize the land of a small pondok (traditional Islamic boarding school) in Yaring, Pattani, gave militants a cause and helped drive another wedge between the state and ordinary Malay Muslims. Authorities closed Pondok Jihad, the Jihad Witaya school, in 2005 on suspicion its grounds were used to train militant fighters. The Anti-Money Laundering Office filed a case against the school in 2013. On 14 December 2015, the court ordered confiscation of its 14 rai (2.24 hectares).
The verdict echoed Bangkok’s efforts in the early 1960s to control Islamic schools that helped spur armed resistance to the state and disturbed many locals, who regard pondok as repositories of Malay identity. Recognising popular blowback from the ruling, Thai officials attempted to persuade Balyan Waemano, son of the school’s former administrator, and his family to appeal and offered to allow them to rent the land. The family, in consultation with villagers, decided not to seek legal redress, but to accept the court’s authority and vacate the property. In so doing, it sought an end to the case and formally demonstrated due regard for the judiciary. But it also ensured that the land seizure would be a cause célèbre.
The authorities contributed to this by prevailing on religious leaders and the Pattani Provincial Islamic Council to issue a statement urging the family to heed the advice to appeal and complaining that local civil society organisations were causing confusion. This coordination with the military tarnished the Council and associated religious leaders in the eyes of many Malay Muslims. The school’s history added a political dimension. Dolloh Waemano became headmaster after the founder, his father-in-law, was murdered in 1979. Dolloh, whom authorities believe is a senior BRN leader, fled Thailand in 2005, before the shutdown. In June 2005, his son, Ridwan Waemano, was killed in his Pattani apartment, with two other men, in what many locals consider an extrajudicial killing.
On 19 March 2016, Pondok Jihad supporters organised an event to raise funds for the owner’s family, featuring traditional local food and a panel discussion. Such fundraisers are common in the region, but the school’s purported links to BRN charged it with political significance. Roughly 50,000 people attended, donating 3.9 million baht ($110,740). It was the largest gathering of Malay Muslims since the 1975 Pattani protests that precipitated a new era of Patani-Malay activism. Many liken the Pondok Jihad issue to earlier state blunders that excited public contempt and played into BRN’s hands, such as the Kreu Se mosque massacre and the Tak Bai incident, both in 2004.
Faced with an uptick in attacks and widespread disaffection, the military tightened its grip on the deep south. The Pondok Jihad case convinced the army it had allowed a dangerous degree of political space there. The government was reportedly increasingly worried about BRN’s long-term strategy, purportedly based on indoctrination of tens of thousands of youths in Islamic schools who might, in a decade or two, form a broad base of support and pool of recruits.
Tightened military control took various forms. The army barred the Federation of Patani Students and Youth (PerMAS) from staging an event on public participation in the peace process, scheduled for 13 February 2016. A spokesman explained it was prohibited because it concerned self-determination, meaning independence: “[PerMAS] is trying to internationalise the issue. Using the words ‘right to self-determination’ is against the law”. On 12 April, 4th Army Region Commander Lieutenant General Wiwat Pathompak, warned he would begin summoning for discussions those who “spread misinformation”, especially on Facebook. This was already the practice in other army regions since the coup. Release of two reports by human rights groups detailing allegations of torture and other mistreatment of detainees by security forces in the deep south elicited another combative army response. On 17 May 2016, the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC) Region 4 filed criminal complaints against three authors of one report, accusing them of defamation and violation of the Computer Crimes Act.
On 4 April, Prime Minister Prayuth completed subordination to the military of the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Centre (SBPAC), a special agency established in 1980 charged with coordinating civilian development and administration in the five southernmost provinces. The new regulations diminish its status, concentrating its budget with ISOC’s military officials. The move was presented as a way to increase efficiency, but the effect is that many local people are losing the confidence SBPAC had gained under its previous director.
Through March and early April 2016, members of the Thai and MARA delegations were upbeat on the dialogue’s prospects. That changed on 20 April, when the army chief transferred Nakrob from his ISOC position and thus his post as secretary of the Thai delegation. NCPO officials insisted the move was routine, with no bearing on the dialogue but its abruptness, a week before a scheduled JWG meeting, appeared to signal something more, particularly given Nakrob’s energetic efforts to finalise the ToR and build public support for the process.
It was at that next JWG meeting that Aksara declined to sign the ToR, saying Prime Minister Prayuth had not approved it. Foreign affairs and justice ministry officials reportedly persuaded the NCPO to reverse course out of fear the ToR would boost MARA’s international status and trap Bangkok into concessions. Explaining the refusal to sign, Aksara also questioned MARA’s standing to conduct negotiations. Questioned by reporters, Prayuth expressed annoyance with the dialogue, saying he had to contend with it as an inheritance from the old government. It had to be held abroad because the law and constitution prohibit negotiations with “lawbreakers”, he said; recognising Party B by name would encourage others to make similar demands, embroiling the state in difficulties.
Abu Hafez conveyed MARA’s disappointment but said the delay would give Bangkok “ample time to reconsider and reverse that decision” and reminded Prayuth that he had requested Malaysia’s help to resume the process. MARA’s Shukri Hari expressed concern about Prayuth’s subsequent comments, which, he said indicated “that the peace talks are only a false promise despite the fact that we are in the process of confidence building”. Thai officials insist the process will continue. Aksara said the ToR would be reviewed by the National Security Council and other agencies, amended and submitted to the prime minister for approval. The sides reportedly exchanged letters stating their willingness to continue through facilitator Zamzamin on 1 June during his visit to Bangkok.
V.Bombs of August
On 7 August, voters approved a draft constitution prepared by the NCPO’s handpicked committee, with 61 per cent voting in favour and 59 per cent turnout. The three Malay-Muslim majority southern provinces, however, voted 60 per cent “no”. The draft codifies semi-democracy, including an appointed senate, the possibility of an unelected prime minister, and a continuing role for the NCPO after the next general election. That Section 67 enjoins the state to propagate Buddhist principles does not sit well with many Malay Muslims. The deep south experienced a wave of bombings, at least 50 in the first ten days of August, and graffiti condemning the draft appeared across the three provinces.
On 11-12 August, coinciding with Mothers’ Day and Queen Sirikit’s birthday, seventeen coordinated bombing and arson attacks in tourist destinations in seven provinces of the upper south killed four and wounded 35. Targets included Phuket, Phang-nga, and Hua Hin, which suffered four bombings and two fatalities. NCPO officials were quick to blame domestic political foes ostensibly upset at the referendum, and to dismiss the possibility Malay-Muslim militants were involved. Consistent with BRN operations, there was no claim of responsibility, but the attacks bore its hallmarks. Investigators considered the devices and tactics, including coordination over wide areas and blasts in sequence to hit responders to the initial bombing, the same as those employed in the deep south. Arrest warrants were issued for suspects associated with the insurgency.
These attacks were not the first by militants outside their customary operations area of the four southernmost provinces. In addition to periodic attacks on Hat Yai in Songkhla province, the largest city and commercial centre of the south, militants deployed a truck bomb to Phuket, which did not explode and was discovered in December 2013. A car bomb on Samui Island in April 2015 wounded seven. But the scale of the August attacks, geographic reach and choice of targets mark a clear shift, and apparent decision to expand the conflict.
Speculation about the timing of the August attacks has centred on BRN’s displeasure with Bangkok’s approach to dialogue. Proximity to the referendum and the bombings that preceded it suggest a political message to the NCPO. An experienced analyst said, “it was a signal to warn the government that [dialogue] is a big issue for them … and the government will pay more attention from now on”. Diminishing returns from twelve years of insurgent operations in the deep south may also have factored into the unprecedented scale and choice of targets beyond the traditional area of the insurgency.
In the wake of the Mothers’ Day attacks, the dialogue process began to move again. A technical meeting took place on 16 August, and on 23 August, Prayuth told reporters a plenary meeting could take place on 2 September. That night, a car bomb – the fourth of 2016 – exploded in front of a hotel and nightclub in Pattani, killing one person and wounding more than 30.
The dialogue teams met on 2 September in Kuala Lumpur. The day before, women from 23 deep south civil society organisations marched in Pattani calling for safety zones, a longstanding NCPO precondition for official talks. The Thai delegation tabled a proposal from one such group, Women’s Agenda for Peace, on a safety-zone concept, which MARA said it would evaluate. The sides reportedly reached preliminary consensus on a revised ToR, but nothing was signed, and the meeting ended with agreement to continue the unofficial dialogue.
VI.Intractability and Other Obstacles to Dialogue
The conflict has characteristics of a “soft, stable, self-serving stalemate”, which is “generally bearable to both parties, both in the absolute and relative to any likely solution on the table at the moment”. The protagonists still seem inclined to preserve the status quo rather than opt for the uncertainties of compromise. This is evident in the military’s tacit aversion to substantive dialogue and political change and BRN’s explicit opposition to the current talks. MARA’s uncertain influence over fighters and civil society’s limited role complicate matters.
The NCPO and army are guided by two imperatives in their approach to dialogue. The first is that the conflict is and must remain domestic. They harbour an abiding fear it will be internationalised, leading to foreign intervention and, eventually, partition. The second is that it must be resolved without political reform or devolution of power, which many officials regard as a potential precursor to national fragmentation. Proposals for “special administration”, such as a regional governing council or popularly elected provincial governors, were widely discussed in the region prior to the 2014 coup but today are again taboo. Asked if autonomy was needed, Aksara replied: “What year is this? Is there anyone still talking about this?… We passed beyond the old context”. The government needs to relinquish the wish to resolve the conflict without devolution. A recent regional survey found 61 per cent of respondents considered new administrative arrangements appropriate to local conditions necessary to end the insurgency.
Thus, many regard dialogue with MARA as little more than the NCPO’s “flagship public relations project”. Some military officers share the view it is primarily about improving the regime’s image. Many officials understand dialogue as a means to persuade militants to lay down arms and accept an amnesty or plea bargain rather than a process aimed at achieving an agreement with militant leaders. This is the army’s traditional approach to talks with militants, currently embodied in the “Bring the People Home Project”. The aim is to reach out via family or civil society organisations to sway insurgents to give up violence. “The idea”, an army officer said, “is to coax them out to talk; that’s real dialogue”.
The NCPO’s lack of a democratic mandate and restrictions on civil liberties are another problem. Those who oppose the NCPO or the political status quo do not enjoy the right to call for political change without fear of reprisal, not only in the deep south, but also nationwide. This renders hollow army arguments that militants should abandon armed conflict to pursue peaceful change. The NCPO has promised a 2017 general election, but the draft constitution provides for a five-year transition during which the military regime retains broad powers. Protracted military tutelage bodes ill for decentralisation prospects.
A related issue is the diminishing space for civil society to engage on political issues. For various reasons, locals are less interested in the current dialogue than they were in the previous process. The army is on one side, a separatist diaspora leadership on the other, and they are excluded. Zamzamin’s encouragement of them to get involved with MARA Patani, even elect representatives to its central committee “to synchronise your demands and aspirations with those of the Armed Groups”, misapprehends conditions in Thailand: authorities would not permit collaboration with armed rebels. After more than a decade of conflict, many in civil society who work on peace issues are exhausted, and their groups lack space and resources to push for greater popular engagement with dialogue.
Another critical impediment is BRN’s refusal to participate. A process that does not include its armed wing will not deliver a lasting resolution. It questions Bangkok’s seriousness and has reiterated in public statements its demand for international organisations to observe the talks. A lack of technical capacity and a detailed, long-term political platform also inhibit it. “In terms of personnel, preparation, platform, BRN is not ready”, a sympathiser said. This must change. BRN should subordinate military operations to pursuit of viable political ends and observe its obligations under IHL, including an end to targeting civilians. Many militants have misgivings about Malaysia’s facilitation. A PULO member said the dialogue has failed twice, and new personnel and procedures in facilitation, such as including third-party observers and advisers, could help rebuild confidence.
Though MARA has some support in the southernmost provinces, it also faces indifference and antagonism. Many locals know little about it. Only 21.8 per cent of respondents to a recent survey in the region reported having heard of MARA Patani. This is one reason it emphasises proposals for immunity and safe passage, without which it cannot build links to its ostensible constituents. Some locals consider MARA a creature of Malaysia, lacking the local support BRN has cultivated over two decades. A prominent Muslim human rights activist said MARA must prove itself, and that people need more than a binary choice between it and the government. The extent to which MARA might eventually represent BRN’s militant wing, as well as separatists in exile, remains an open question. Popular support will ultimately be determined by its ability to deliver a deal, which requires buy-in from BRN and local people.
Given NCPO aversion to participatory politics and fear of internationalising the insurgency, near-term scope for breaking the stalemate is narrow. But the Mothers’ Day attacks illustrate the risks of attempting to preserve the status quo while engaging in a pro forma dialogue that leaves out the main insurgent group. The attacks should also encourage the NCPO and any successor government to develop avenues of exchange with BRN’s leaders so as to start official peace talks. The alternative could be further, more damaging attacks outside the customary conflict zone as BRN seeks leverage. BRN should facilitate and reciprocate overtures from Bangkok. It should also be prepared to implement a ceasefire or safety zones to satisfy the government’s preconditions for talks. MARA Patani should be candid about the extent of its influence inside Thailand and encourage a broader dialogue with BRN. The NCPO should also restore rights to freedom of expression and assembly. A lasting resolution to the conflict is unlikely without sustained public participation.
The protracted conflict is more than twelve years old, with no signs of abating. The dialogue process is beset by deep mutual mistrust that a year of preliminary talks has done little to dispel. The failure to sign a ToR agreement and comments by Thai officials questioning MARA Patani’s status cast doubt on NCPO willingness to engage in an official dialogue. The assumption that the dialogue’s momentum will sway BRN to join is improbable at best. The belligerents need to take seriously their obligation to those they claim to represent to find a peaceful resolution, based on a political order that accords with local aspirations.
The August bomb attacks in the upper south raise the spectre of a wider conflict, with more attacks in tourist areas. That should prompt the NCPO to reconsider its approach of containing the insurgency and seeking militant capitulation rather than a comprehensive political solution. In view of the military government’s antipathy to decentralisation and determination to keep control after the promised 2017 election, however, there is little scope for a breakthrough. An earnest attempt to decentralise power, the best hope for resolution of the conflict, is unlikely to materialise under the current government.
(c) 2016 International Crisis Group