Peace in Thai south: The show must go on

After a lull of nearly four months, representatives of the government in Bangkok are planning to meet southern insurgents for a fifth round of peace talks which can take place any time soon.

If the situation on the ground allows, and concerned parties are reorganised, it is highly possible that the dialogue could move up one notch, becoming a process of negotiation.

Low-level separatist violence has been common in the predominantly Muslim southern provinces of Songkhla, Narathiwat, Yala and Pattani for decades. Since 2004, however, the situation has become far more serious.

Despite confusion at the top Thai echelons, and the continued insurgent attacks since the talks were launched on Feb 28, the Thai government under Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra remains committed to ensuring that the dialogue survives.

Bangkok's perspective

THE stakes are extremely high for Ms Yingluck and her brother Thaksin Shinawatra, who was blamed for the escalation of conflict during his premiership. His record of atrocity remains the biggest scar in Southern Thailand.

With the renewed support from Malaysia after its national elections, and especially from Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak, the Thai government is gaining confidence that additional pressure on the insurgents from Kuala Lumpur will soon bear fruit, eventually producing a ceasefire.

The Thai plan to add other international players has been shelved for now. Malaysia has repeatedly assured the Thai authorities that the security of the southern region is closely connected to northern Malaysia's security and well-being. Leading insurgent figures are still living across from the Thai border.

Both Malaysia and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) tried to broker a deal to reduce the level of violence during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. The attempt failed, and the level of violence during the fasting period was the highest it has been for three years. Insurgents excluded from the peace dialogue were blamed for the violence.

In recent weeks, the Thai government has contacted other parties, including various splinter groups under the Patani United Liberation Organisation (Pulo), urging them to join the talks.

Malaysia has made it clear that it would not support any move to divide Thailand's territorial integrity. The National Revolution Front (BRN), which was the main insurgent group in the peace talks, has also informed Bangkok that the insurgents will not ask for territorial separation. Instead, they are aiming for self-determination, a concept which has yet to be defined.

However, the Thai military top brass, including army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha, are opposed to such an arrangement as they would lose influence in the troubled south.

Bangkok is also looking to Malaysia to implement tighter border controls to prevent the importation of explosive material and incendiary devices. According to the Fourth Army region, from October 2011 to September 2012 there were 954 insurgent attacks with only 174 cases using explosives. However, in the same period this year, the number of attacks was halved. Stringent controls across the border, the Thais believe, would help reduce bombings and civilian casualties.

Insurgent demands

THE BRN has five carefully constructed demands.

These are recognition of BRN as representing all insurgent groups; Malaysia as mediator; the participation of OIC, ASEAN and various non-government organisations in the negotiation process; recognition of the rights of the Malay Patani community; and release of prisoners.

These demands are aimed at augmenting regional and international recognition. The move has brought an inordinate amount of pressure on the Yingluck government to accept the insurgents as liberation fighters, not as insurgents or secessionists.

After brushing aside the BRN demands at the beginning of the dialogue in February, the Thai delegation headed by National Security Council (NSC) secretary-general Paradorn Pattanatabut is now willing to engage in further negotiations. The aim is to arrange for a ceasefire to come into effect in stages in selected areas following the resumption of talks.

The BRN group said that the first ceasefire could begin in Songkhla province in January next year if the negotiations start soon. Then, further ceasefires would cover provinces of Yala in April and Narathiwat in July. They would then conclude in Pattani next October.

Judging from recent comments by the NSC, it is highly likely - if the next round of talks takes place and is accompanied by a reduction in the level of violence - that the BRN's five demands could be discussed in detail. Agreement would come in stages in exchange of halting attacks on soft targets such as unarmed civilians, teachers and economic establishments.

Officials divided

WITH a new line-up expected at the top of the NSC, however, the composition of the Thai delegation is expected to change. It remains to be seen to what extent Lieutenant-General Paradorn will be able to hold on to his position and retain his negotiating team.

The current government wants to hold talks with additional insurgent groups that would impact on the reduction of violence. But this is still a contentious point within the Thai security apparatus. The military and the NSC have not yet settled their differences over the best way to approach the stalled peace process.

A recent survey by the Thai army showed that southerners back the peace process and have more confidence in the local authorities. The reason for the new attitude seems to be a decrease in casualties. From October last year to September this year, 185 people were killed and 644 injured.

This compares to 432 killed and 901 injured between October 2011 and September last year.

Thai security officials believe that the BRN insurgents will reduce their attacks on soft targets. This is because the existing strategy of inflicting violence on whoever is seen to be supporting the government has been hurting the BRN's international image.

BRN more representative

IN THE past eight months, the BRN has risen from obscurity into the international limelight, rivalling long- standing southern Thai insurgent groups such as the Pulo. In fact, the rise of the BRN has also increased its ability to bring in other groups that have been attacking civilian and official targets.

This will result in broadening the BRN delegation to include other insurgent groups such as members of Pulo and the Barisan Islam Pembebasan Patani (BIPP) groups. The insurgents will include other stakeholders such as historians, economists and lawyers. The Thai side could also include officials from the Foreign Ministry, which has so far not been involved in the talks.

The Foreign Ministry's presence is required if future meetings turn into negotiation sessions. This is because one of the BRN's demands is to have the OIC and ASEAN become part of the peace process. Indeed, this demand is aimed at preserving the BRN's regional and international standing. The BRN knows full well that ASEAN will get involved in the peace process only if the Thai side approves of it.

For now, the ball is in the Thai government's court. The BRN has achieved its aims of making its presence and demands felt in the first phase of the peace dialogue, while Thai officials are still divided on which path would best serve its national interests.

The outlook for the peace process in southern Thailand will largely depend on the status of domestic politics.

Future rounds of talks could be further bogged down if the current anti-government rallies in Bangkok intensify, forcing the Yingluck government to shift its priorities.

stopinion@sph.com.sg

The writer is assistant group editor of Nation Media Group in Thailand, which publishes the English-language daily The Nation.

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