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Thailand eyes next moves in southern peace talks

Military leaders and Islamist insurgents must compromise to end violence

| Thailand
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Thai army soldiers search the area of a roadside bomb blast in the southern province of Pattani, Thailand, June 19, 2017.   © Reuters

Four years on from the launch of peace talks aimed at ending a separatist insurgency in Thailand's three southernmost provinces, progress is moving at a snail's pace. Some critics say that both the Thai government and Islamist militants appear to be going through the motions of a bogus peace process.

Both sides need to find a fresh approach. Divisions among the insurgents need to be overcome, allowing collective negotiations with the Thai government, and the ruling junta needs to stop ignoring the cultural and historical grievances between the population of the South and the Thai state. There must also be justice for innocent civilians killed and injured by both sides.

Only if these issues are addressed can there be hope for the peace process, launched by former Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in Kuala Lumpur in February 2013 in an initiative that amounted to little more than a leap of faith in the possibility of a political solution to the crisis.

Muslims account for less than 6% of Thailand's overall population, but make up about 90% of the population in the three southern provinces. In these regions, they have a greater affinity with neighboring Muslim-majority Malaysia than with Thailand's predominantly Buddhist heartland. Armed insurgents seeking independence have staged terror attacks for more than a decade, causing thousands of deaths.

The current peace initiative got off to a rocky start. The Barisan Revolusi Nasional, the main Islamist group leading separatist militants in the region, sent representatives to the talks but appeared determined to derail them, making tough demands that included the release of all detainees held on treason charges.

It also demanded the participation of the international community, and called on the Thai government to recognize it as the sole representative of all the people in the region, including ethnic Chinese and Thais. Bangkok rejected these demands, giving the BRN a pretext for walking out of the talks, which it did by the end of 2013.

The peace initiative suffered another blow when Yingluck, its main sponsor, was removed from office by a court ruling followed by a military coup in May 2014. The military, which has since run the country, had not been closely involved in the peace talks. Thai Army sources say the generals were not told about the initiative until a few days before the launch.

This partly explains why Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who led the 2014 coup, waited seven months before making an official visit to Malaysia to ask Kuala Lumpur to "facilitate" the talks. Refusing to consider negotiating solely with the BRN, the junta called on all separatist groups to deal with the government under a common banner.

The insurgents are now represented by MARA Patani, an umbrella group made up of ethnic Malay separatist movements, which has been bolstered by recognition from Malaysia and others in the international community.

However, the BRN refuses to join MARA Patani. Since it controls virtually all the insurgents on the ground, the BRN believes it should be dictating the terms for talks. A handful of BRN mid-level cadres have joined MARA Patani, but Thai security officials and separatist sources said these individuals do not have a mandate from the BRN's ruling council, which controls the combatants.

Bad blood

Most observers agree that the talks will not progress unless the BRN returns to the negotiating table. MARA Patani does not have much influence over the fighters, despite efforts to win them over, while the BRN does. Much bad blood remains between the two groups.

A BRN cadre told the Nikkei Asian Review that the group has made clear it will consider joining the peace talks only if the Thai government accepts some of its demands -- primarily that members of the international community should help to mediate the peace process. The BRN argues that this is in line with international practice in peace processes that followed similar conflicts in Mindanao, in the Philippines, and Aceh, in Indonesia.

One of the obstacles to the process is Bangkok's insistence that the discussions should adhere to the Thai constitution, which clearly states that the kingdom is indivisible. The BRN said Bangkok's position was a "non-starter," and it would be unwilling to enter the talks unless this constitutional stipulation is removed. In return, however, the BRN would not propose the issue of independence.

Over the past few weeks, the BRN has agreed to soften its position and give Thailand and MARA Patani some breathing space. According to Thai official sources, Abdulloh Waemanor, a senior member of the BRN ruling council, has sent a message to the Thai government through the Malaysian facilitator that his group will not sabotage any effort to establish a demilitarized "safety zone" in the region.

The topic was discussed at a recently concluded meeting between Thai negotiators and MARA Patani representatives in Kuala Lumpur from Aug. 8-10. The two sides plan to announce the first district to be designated a safety zone at their next meeting, which is scheduled for the end of August or early September.

Officials in Bangkok welcomed the news, but a BRN source said Waemanor was being "diplomatic," and urged stakeholders not to read too much into the gesture. BRN militants on the ground pointed out that there is a great deal of animosity between them and MARA Patani. In the end, the significance of the gesture will depend on how meaningful Waemanor and the BRN ruling council want it to be.

Another problem is that MARA Patani wants Thailand to grant its executive members legal immunity -- particularly those who are subject to arrest warrants. However, Bangkok is resisting. "The Justice Ministry is against the idea of giving any separatist leaders immunity for fear of a political backlash and the possibility that it would set an unwanted precedent," said a government official.

While the insurgent forces remain divided between MARA Patani and the BRN, there are also signs of bickering among top Thai officials. In late June, Deputy Defense Minister Udomdej Sitabutr said MARA Patani might not be the right group to talk to because of its apparent lack of control over the insurgents.

Udomdej's remarks have irked Gen. Aksara Kerdphol, who is Thailand's chief negotiator in the dialogue process. Aksara and others in the government, including the prime minister, believe that if the BRN wants to join the talks, it must come under the MARA Patani umbrella.

Extrajudicial killings

The BRN is unlikely to budge unless Bangkok agrees to internationalize the process. But allowing foreign governments to sit at the negotiating table could prove unpopular with the Thai public. Thais have proven indifferent to the southern Malays' historical grievances and cultural narrative, which sets them apart from the rest of the kingdom.

In addition, allegations of extrajudicial killings and assassinations by both sides have darkened the atmosphere in recent months. BRN members accuse senior Thai military officials of ignoring the extrajudicial killings of suspects.

The militants had earlier stepped up attacks against "soft" targets, as well as hitting areas outside the far south. In August 2016 BRN militants carried out a wave of bomb and arson attacks in seven provinces in the upper south region, which is popular with foreign and Thai tourists.

The two-day blitz demonstrated that the BRN retains the capacity to inflict damage and to undermine the state security apparatus. But neither its demonstration of its power nor the alleged extrajudicial killings by the authorities appear to have brought a resolution any nearer.

Thailand stands to endure another decade of low-level lethal strife unless the military regime reconsiders its position and permits members of the international community to help with the peace talks. With the assistance of international facilitators both sides could explore ideas within reach, such as rules of engagement at the operational level, ceasefire arrangements for various small areas and other confidence building measures.

About 7,000 people have been killed in insurgency-related incidents since January 2004. The junta needs to stop pretending that it has the situation under control and that it has contained the violence in the far South. The BRN has already shown that it is capable of operations outside the traditional theater of separatist violence, and that it is willing to export its campaign to other regions.

On the insurgent side, the BRN and MARA Patani need to overcome their differences and think seriously about a division of labor. MARA Patani could act as the political wing of the movement, with the BRN retaining control of the fighters on the ground. Collectively, the two arms could then negotiate with the Thais.

There must also be justice for the victims -- Muslims who have been unlawfully killed by soldiers and Buddhist civilians murdered by insurgents in an effort to demoralize the local population and discredit the security apparatus. An independent inquiry into atrocities committed by both sides would help to build confidence in a peace process that has been limping since day one.

Don Pathan is a Thailand-based associate with Asia Conflict and Security Consulting.

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