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Southern Thai insurgents stake out peace terms

BANGKOK -- The dominant insurgent faction behind the protracted Malay-Muslim separatist conflict in southern Thailand has disavowed a Malaysian-led peace process, indicating that a quick end to the 11-year-old insurgency remains remote.

Armed soldiers are a common sight on the streets of Thailand's deep south.

     In a rare and exclusive interview with the Nikkei Asian Review, representatives of the secretive Barisan Revolusi Nasional, or National Revolutionary Front, said that their organization was not involved in talks facilitated by the Malaysian government and viewed them as a "negative phenomenon".

     Formally initiated in May after months of preparation, the talks have brought together Thai negotiators appointed by the military government and an umbrella organization of several separatist factions known as "MARA Patani," which Malaysian officials have suggested includes BRN representatives.

     Following the collapse of earlier peace talks in 2013, their renewal has raised hopes that some common ground might be found to end the brutal insurgency that has killed at least 6,500 people, mostly civilians, and left over 10,000 wounded in Thailand's majority Malay-Muslim border provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat. There has even been discussion of setting up possible cease-fire or "safety zones."

     "Let me be very clear about the current peace process: BRN is categorically not involved," one of the BRN officials told the NAR. "The way in which this process has been set up is flatly rejected by BRN." But he added that the party was not opposed to dialogue and a peace process, "provided such talks follow international standards and norms."

     Speaking in a hotel room in a regional capital outside Thailand, four members of BRN's so-called Information Department discussed at length the party's views on negotiations that might end the bloodshed as well as noting concerns over the potential influence that the extremist ideology of Islamic State could exert in the violence-plagued border region.

     BRN is generally recognized by both the Thai military and independent observers as the driving force behind the latest and most serious insurgency in the perennially restless region. Once an independent Muslim sultanate, the southern Thai region finally came under direct rule from Bangkok in 1902 but has periodically resisted assimilation into the Thai-Buddhist national mainstream since then.

     One of several factions that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s to wage an "anti-colonial" struggle for independence, BRN is today believed to command most of the fighters responsible for a relentless campaign of bombings, shootings and arson attacks that since 2004 has made the border provinces all but ungovernable.

     In their interview, the BRN officials, led by a spokesman who introduced himself simply as 'Yusuf', said they had been authorized to speak to the NAR by the party's senior leadership, a shadowy underground group known as the Dewan Pimpinan Parti, or Party Leadership Council, that existed well before the current insurgency.

     Speaking in Malay, Yusuf noted that BRN's rejection of the talks involving MARA hinged on several issues. "There are many aspects of this process that we see as unsettling and many of these things are caused by the fact that the process bears no relation to the earlier peace process of 2013."

     The talks initiated in 2013 by the civilian administration of former Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra were held with BRN but were broken off late that year following the collapse of an attempted Ramadan ceasefire in July and August, along with BRN's move to issue five demands in a Youtube posting that Bangkok has so far ignored. These included demands for international mediation, the release of detainees, and Bangkok's recognition of BRN as a liberation - rather than separatist - movement.

     Yusuf added that BRN now believes the current MARA peace process, which involves three other separatist factions based outside Thailand and three individuals claiming to represent BRN, is discredited and that it should be scrapped in favor of an entirely fresh initiative. Any new talks might involve a range of separatist groups and southern civil society organizations.

     "We are prepared to invite or make space for other parties as this problem concerns all of Patani," he said.

     But the main sticking point is likely to be BRN's insistence on international mediation. "We welcome Malaysian involvement in any peace process. But for Malaysia to be acting alone is insufficient" said Yusuf. "There need to be other international actors involved as, bluntly speaking, we are deeply suspicious over any form of dialogue with the Thai government which does not involve the international community."

     "We do not feel this is in any way a peculiar position," he added. Wherever there is political dialogue (between belligerents), you will find the involvement of the international community be it in the shape of other states or international non-governmental organizations. This is entirely normal."

     This runs counter to Thailand's position, which has consistently maintained that the conflict is an internal matter that can be settled by improving the justice system and accelerating government initiatives for economic development in the south. Any suggestion of international intervention will almost certainly remain taboo for Bangkok, particularly when there has been a marked decline in violence over the past year, which has given rise to hopes that Malay-Muslim hearts and minds are slowly being won over.

     While conceding that violence had eased, the BRN officials rejected the suggestion that the insurgency was slowly losing steam due to increased counter-insurgency operations and lack of popular support. They asserted instead that the party was expanding its political campaign both inside southern Thailand and internationally while maintaining military pressure.

     "Our domestic political mobilization and recruitment continues but there is also a new external political focus and we are cultivating a wider international network," said Yusuf.

     "Any decline you see in military operations may just be temporary and as a whole the party is evolving and growing. The proof of this is that after the [May 2014 Thai] military coup, this government went all out to put pressure on us, but we remain active. If anyone in the Thai military imagines this might all be over in a few years, I would simply urge them to wait and see."

     In September, there were 13 bombing incidents in the three contested provinces, which killed two paramilitary Rangers and two others while wounding 40, including 23 security force personnel, according to official Thai statistics. The guerrillas have also continued targeted killings and mounted ambushes of military patrols and vehicles, killing two soldiers and wounding three.

     The BRN officials said they were not authorized to discuss military operations and tactics. However, when asked whether BRN was responsible for bomb attacks outside the border region, Yusuf replied that "in principle, operations beyond the greater Patani region are not our policy. However, under certain conditions it's certainly not impossible for such events to take place."

     In April, a large car bomb exploded in an underground carpark of a shopping mall on the southern resort island of Samui, wounding eight, reviving longstanding fears that Thailand's important tourism industry could be affected by concerns over the separatist conflict. In December 2013, another large car bomb failed to explode outside the main police station on Phuket island, another popular tourist destination.

     The danger of extremism fuelled by the radical Islamist ideology promoted by Islamic State is being closely monitored by BRN, said Yusuf. "Events in the Middle East and extremist ideology are things we feel to be very far removed from us. Since the party was established in 1960, BRN has developed an ideology which preceded religiously-inspired terrorism and extremism, and we have nothing to do with any of that."

     However, he added that BRN was concerned about the influence of Islamic State on Muslim youth in the border region. "We live in a globalized world and it's very difficult to prevent people accessing information from outside. But we are vigilant that this sort of global trend does not infect our youth."

     BRN's new but still limited outreach to media suggests it is determined to disassociate itself from the MARA initiative. The group appears to have little expectation that Thailand's military-controlled government is ready to make the concessions it is demanding in order to resume direct negotiations. That almost certainly means continued violence across the border region as BRN attempts to explore and expand its political options.

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