Southern Thai peace talk stumbling at the very outset

PHOTO: Reuters

The ongoing peace talks between the Thai government and a recently launched umbrella organisation, Mara Patani, is evolving into a spitting contest as Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and representatives from the separatist movement take up microphone diplomacy to make their case.

The sad thing about this is that the formal negotiations have not even begun.

About three weeks ago, Mara Patani met at an informal "pre-talk" session with a Thai "Dialogue Panel" led by chief negotiator General Aksara Kherdphol. After the talks, Mara Patani introduced themselves to the media at a press conference represented by leaders from six different organisations.

Mara Patani issued three demands for the pre-talks to become formal negotiations: Recognise Mara Patani as an official entity; grant immunity to all Mara Patani representatives; and designate the peace talks on the national agenda by Parliament.

Ten days later, Abdulkarim Khalid, member of the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN)'s youth wing who had sat in the previous round of talks initiated by the former government of Yingluck Shinawatra, issued a strongly worded statement on YouTube, slamming the Thai state of being cruel and insincere in its policy towards the Malay-speaking region of the southernmost border provinces.

Thai officials and Mara Patani members tried to play down Abdulkarim's statement, saying while he was attacking the state, he did not specifically single out peace talks between the government and umbrella organisations.

Nevertheless, Abdulrahman's statement is a testimony to the difficulties that lie ahead for the dialogue process that was about to get off the ground.

But before the initiative could go anywhere, Prayut decided to pour cold water on the three demands.

He said there was no need to make the talks a national agenda because it already exists on the national agenda. But then again, just about every issue in Thailand is a "national agenda" so one wondered how important the conflict in the deep South is for this government.

Prayut shied away from the issue of immunity, probably because he wants to keep this big stick with him in case the peace process doesn't go the way he wants it to. But this is not very surprising because the junta, regardless of the issue at hand, has shown that they have difficulty understanding logic or accountability.

When pressed by reporters about the acceptance of the three points, Prayut shot back and asked if he was to grant Mara Patani these three demands, would the violence end and the conflict be resolved? This is what you call negotiation.

For the record, Prayut is not saying there will be no more talks. He is saying there has to be a new understanding between the two sides before the process can move further.

First thing is the need to establish confidence-building measures (CBMs). This is sensible. But what he didn't say is that just about every administration that comes to power, always goes back to square one with a brand new team of negotiators and its CBMs all over again.

To call it a let down would be an understatement if one looks at it from the perspective of the separatist movements.

Prayut also stated that inclusiveness is still lacking, pointing out that not all separatist movements have joined or agreed with the Mara Patani forum. Khalid's video statement is a testimony of that. And even though he did not single out Mara Patani, his statement undermined the so-called BRN representatives who had joined the umbrella organisation.

Khalid is not a non-entity. He had taken part in the peace talks launched by the Yingluck government.

Kasturi Mahkota, the president of one of the three Patani United Liberation Organisation, blasted Prayut's outburst as "unprofessional", saying official channels of communication should have been used to relay the message, not through the public microphone.

But then again, there has not been any professionalism among the Thai negotiators, whether it's this government or the previous one.

Unfortunately, Bangkok never had a policy regarding the southern conflict. It has an attitude, sometimes confusing it with good intention, but never a meaningful policy that addressed the issue of historical mistrust and grievances of the Malays of Patani and how the state and the Muslims there could overcome these differences.

Like the previous policymakers, the current crop of junta is too full of themselves and don't seem to realise that their inflated ego, as well as their ethno-centric nation-state construct, is costing the lives of their own men, as well as innocent bystanders. More than 6,000 have died from this wave of insurgency violence that has been in full swing since January 2004.

The junta and the future government of Bangkok can talk to the armed separatists all they want - even into the next life, as Prayut said he was willing to do.

But if they don't realise that their state policy of assimilation is the problem, then there is not much hope for peace.