No progress in deep South unless Thailand drops strongman act

No progress in deep South unless Thailand drops strongman act
Thai bomb squad members inspect the site of a roadside bomb attack on a patrol vehicle carrying soldiers in the Rueso district of Thailand's restive southern province of Narathiwat on December 10, 2014.

General Aksara Kerdphol, Thailand's chief negotiator in the deep South peace efforts, is heading to Malaysia to follow up on the recent visit made by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha.

The chairman of the Thai Army's advisory board is expected to get into the nuts and bolts of a peace process that the central government in Bangkok seems somewhat reluctant to put into action.

Its predecessor, under Yingluck Shinawatra, prematurely launched peace talks knowing that key players such as the Thai Army and the separatist Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) inner circle, plus the militants under its network, were not on board.

What the Yingluck initiative did was set the stage for a political circus. It placed the Thai side on the receiving end of a "spitting contest" that centred on a five-point demand from the BRN that was meant to test the water and see how the Thai side would react.

In the end, the Yingluck team was author of its own downfall - a superficial peace process prematurely launched without first resolving serious issues and obstacles.

These included immunity for the BRN negotiators and formal recognition of the group's political wing, so that the separatists could surface publicly and engage Bangkok and the world community on their own terms.

Prayut is determined not to make the same "mistakes". In his mind, Thailand has to be the one dictating the terms to the BRN and other separatist organisations, not the other way around. In other words, Thailand can't afford to look weak.

Moreover, the Army never liked the idea of a formal peace process anyway. They preferred discreet meetings that involved a small number of people.

"Even the idea of providing a legislative backing for an agency to ensure continuity for further peace talks regardless of a change in government is not in the minds of the current crop of rulers," said a government source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

During his recent trip to Malaysia, Prayut's message to the separatist groups was that if they wanted to talk peace with the Thais, they would have to do it from a common platform.

And there would have to be a "period of peace" before talks could begin.

Both demands are virtually impossible to meet at this point in time, given the fact that the group that controls the vast majority of insurgent combatants - the BRN - is not prepared to come to the table.

As for unity among the separatists, there was some progress late last year when the three Patani United Liberation Organisation factions agreed to take part in the Yingluck administration's peace initiative.

But then came the Bangkok Shutdown, which put the Yingluck government into survival mode for the next six months until the coup.

BRN sources said its negotiators/political wing need capacity building and a better understanding of international norms and practices before they could surface to meet the Thais and the international community.

Until then, the best Thailand and the world are going to get is a "cut-out" guy like Hasan Taib, who will continue to act as a go-between for the secretive BRN inner circle and the outside world.

Observers say the Thai side is not eager to talk or make any sort of concessions, and the BRN is not prepared to come to the table until its people are prepared.

The end result, it seems, is the continuation of violence, and military means to quell the conflict.

And while Bangkok has announced a large budget for development in the deep South, money never seems to solve anything in this historically contested region, much less close the trust gap between the Malays of Patani and the Thai state.

The Thai military is banking that violence will continue to drop as they take the fight to the insurgents by stepping up their long-range reconnaissance patrols.

That's one of the reasons why the central government is playing up the so-called Tung Yang Daeng model - a shabby effort to outsource security work to villagers, while government soldiers go out and hunt down the militants cell by cell.

The Thai side is also hoping to set up a back-channel dialogue with individual separatist organisations in a bid to get a better assessment of which combatant groups are capable of what.

They would prefer the meetings to be small and secret - just as they were in the 1980s - and small-scale horse trading can be expected.

The BRN say they haven't ruled out back-channel talks, while other long-standing separatist groups say they would like to use this forum to show the Thais what they are capable of.

Publicly, the central government is taking credit for the drop in violence in the region.

But BRN sources, as well as observers of the conflict, say the drop in the number of incidents comes against an increase in their intensity.

It also needs to be emphasised that the nature of this conflict is not conventional warfare. And as long as the insurgents can prove they are "relevant" with sporadic attacks, the southern insurgency will be far from over for Thailand.

Over the past year alone, insurgents have shown an ability to expand their operations to new territories - areas such as Yala's Betong or Songkhla's Sadao district, which had been left untouched for a decade.

Then there was the massive double bomb hidden in the back of a pickup truck stolen from Pattani that was parked behind the police station Phuket in December last year.

Thai security officials said the bombs, each with a blast radius of 500 metres, were expertly assembled and the switch left off on purpose.

Separatist sources said the twin-bomb was a stern warning to the Thai side of what the insurgents were capable of. The next one, they added, might not be a warning.

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