No consensus for peace dialogue in the deep South
By Don Pathan
Published on April 5, 2011
Talking to the enemy is nothing new in Thailand's dealing with the insurgency in the Malay-speaking South - as long as it is done outside of the public sphere and does not enhance the legitimacy of the militants.
For the past three decades or so, the Thai Army has dispatched mid-ranking to senior officers to meet with the separatists. The meetings were carried out secretly in Middle-Eastern capitals at times when a number of Arab governments were providing the Malay-Muslim separatists from the deep South with money and training. These encounters were treated mainly as intelligence-gathering exercises and didn't have much impact on policy.
The missions came to a pause during much the 1990s after the militants halted military activities and returned to their villages. Thailand attributed the success to the "Tai Rom Yen" amnesty programme. Meanwhile, the Communist Party of Thailand (CPT) was on its way out. The movement was already in disarray when then prime minister Prem Tinsulanonda signed the famous Executive Order 66/2523 paving the way for non-military means to end the ideological conflict.
Integration wasn't difficult because CPT members didn't have any identity problem. They just didn't embrace the state-constructed identity of what Thai-ness and Thailand should be. The Malay separatists, on the other hand, are part of an ethno-nationlaist movement. Unlike the CPT, which wanted to take over the state, the Malays just want their homeland back.
And while Thai security planners were busy patting themselves on the back, a new generation of Malay-Muslim separatists was already in the making. Unfortunately for Thaksin Shinawatra, this new generation took up arms just as he entered the premiership. He didn't want to recognise them and called them "sparrow bandits".
But when separatists raided an Army camp in Narathiwat on January 4, 2004 and made off with 400 weapons, Thailand could no longer deny the political underpinning of the attacks. Since then, violence has become an everyday reality. More than 4,600 people, mostly Malay-Muslims, have died in insurgency-related violence.
While the government responds with massive troop mobilisation, the idea of talking to the enemy is back on the drawing board. Unable to find an identifiable enemy to talk to on the ground, security officials have turned to the leaders of the long-standing separatist groups who they met in previous decades.
In 2005, former Malaysian prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohammed was asked to help facilitate meetings with the old guard in the hope they could talk sense to the new generation of militants, known as juwae, or fighters, in the Malay dialect. The then Armed Forces' Security Centre chief Lt-General Vaipot Srinuan and General Winai Pathiyakul of the National Security Council represented the Thai side in the Langkawi meetings. Former prime minister Anand Panyarachun received the set of recommendations. But Thaksin, the next prime minister, was in no mood to listen to any of it.
In September 2006, the Army ousted Thaksin. The junta appointed a member of the Privy Council, General Surayud Chulanont, as the country's interim prime minister. Besides restoring Thailand's tarnished image, reconciling with the Malays in the deep South was also on his agenda.
Besides issuing a formal apology for the Tak Bai massacre and for other atrocities committed against the Malays by the Thai state, Surayud also reached out to neighbouring countries and foreign experts to help jump start a peace process with the separatists. Executive Order 206/2523 permits Thai officials to explore ways to carry out dialogue with the separatists.
During a visit to Yala in May 2007, and two months later in an address to the nation, Surayud thanked the international community, including the UN and Malaysian government, for their assistance in facilitating dialogue with the separatists. But the foundation he laid was never carried forward by subsequent administrations, at least not in a meaningful way.
In September 2008, more than two years after the Langkawi Process, then vice-president of Indonesia, Jusuf Kalla, had a crack at organising a similar forum. Kwanchart Klaharn, a former Fourth Army commander, represented the Thai side in Bogor, Indonesia. The process immediately hit a snag when news of the event became public. Bangkok quickly distanced itself from the meeting for fear of political backlash.
Former Thai Army chiefs, including Chavalit Yongchaiyud and General Chettha Thanajaro also tried their luck, but neither had much political capital to give their initiative any meaning.
Last but not least, the Organisation for Islamic Conference (OIC) has also come into the picture, and since late last year has held meetings with leaders of the long-standing separatist groups. The same old guard that has been meeting with Thai representatives over the past three decades was called up to take part in meetings with OIC secretary-general Dr Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, who chaired a gathering in Jeddah, while Talal A Daous, the organisation's director for minority affairs, chaired one in Kuala Lumpur. The simultaneous meetings were held on September 30-October 1, 2011.
A source in the separatist BRN-Coordinate was blunt about the OIC's credibility gap: "The OIC granted Thailand the permanent observer status knowing that such status should have gone to the Malays," he said. "How do you expect the OIC or any other so-called mediator to understand the needs of a non-state actor like us?"
At a gathering last week at Thammasat University, academics dug up Surayud's Executive Order 206/2523 and called on the authorities to explore the concept of "peace dialogue". They went to length to explain that "peace dialogue" is not in any way a formal negotiation, possibly out of concern that a more formal process would be dismissed outright by the government or security planners, many of whom don't like the idea of talking to the enemy for fear that it would legitimise their movement.
Citing foreign examples, academic Mark Tamthai said a "peace dialogue" could help build momentum that could attract more hardline groups if and when they see benefits generated by the process itself.
Fearing that they would be kept out of the loop as the idea of a "peace dialogue" gains momentum in some quarters, the Army has gone back to the drawing board.
"The Army must be in the driver's seat, not the passenger seat, if a peace process is to have any chance of success. We can deliver on the separatists' request and guarantee continuity, but civilians can't," said one officer.
For three decades, the so-called Thai representatives have been meeting with the same leaders from various separatist groups. This time, there is a new generation of militants and they don't always take orders from the old guard, said a senior Army officer working on the conflict in the deep South. The most important thing, said the officer, is to be able to deliver on whatever request the separatists toss out in order to generate confidence.
"And if you cannot deliver on their request, you can forget about the militants coming on board any peace process, or dialogue, or whatever you want to call it."
Can the old guard get peace talks going in the South?
By Don Pathan
Published on April 6, 2011
Like the interim Surayud Chulanont administration, the Thai Army plans to consult with Malaysia and Indonesia on the insurgency in the deep South of Thailand because many of the old guard Malay-Muslim separatisits now live there.
Like former Malaysian prime minister Dr Mahathir's Langkawi Process, the idea is to get the old guard to convince the juwae, the new generation of separatists, that there is an end game to the violence that has rages since 2004.
"It's embarrassing to go the Malaysians and the Indonesians right now to ask for help knowing that we don't have unity among ourselves or a real commitment to this idea of talking to the enemy, much less a guarantee of continuity, especially when we go from one administration to another," said one unnamed Army officer. "Moreover, there is no political stability in our country," he added.
The way things stand, the juwae don't seem to be eager to talk peace either. The past four months have been extremely bloody and brutal, forcing intelligence agencies to come up with all sorts of conclusions, including one that said the juwae wants to attract the attention of the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) to legitimise themselves. But then again, they have been saying that for decades.
Such an argument coincides with the concern of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who has been urging the international community not to "legitimise" the militants on the ground.
Officials say Abhisit should worry less about what the foreigners think and more about the support and sympathy that local Malay-Mulsims have for the juwae. But admitting that the government is not winning the battle for hearts and minds, especially after billions of baht have been spent on development projects, is tantamount to committing political suicide.
A source in the BRN-Coordinate - one of long-standing separatist groups with the strongest working relationship with the militants on the ground - said the juwae are extremely sceptical about any peace or dialogue process because they think it's part of a ploy to get them to surface so they can be killed.
Indeed, target killings carried out by pro-government death squads have been extensively documented in the deep South. There is no indiction that such a tactic has improved the situation or created the kind of atmosphere that could lead to peaceful dialogue.
Beside the lack of unity among the old guard, said the BRN-Coordinate source, their dialogue with the juwae has taken on a sour note. "We are concerned with the collateral damage and the deaths of civilians. Many of the cells appear to be indifferent to the fact that their activities on the ground undermine what we are trying to do abroad. We talk to them but we still lack shared command to truly influence them," the BRN-Coordinate cadre said.
Thai intelligence agencies sometimes paint a neat-and-clean organisational chart of the shadowy movement, but security and civilian officials in the deep South, as well as sources in the separatist movements, say there is a considerable gap between the current generation and the old guard.
"I have interrogated hundreds of juwae and recall only a couple identifying themselves with the long -standing separatist groups," said a police officer working in the deep South since 2004.
Given the organic nature of today's movement, as well as the alarming trend of younger juwae selling their skills to crime syndicates, getting anybody on board a meaningful peace process will be extremely difficult, said another civilian officer. Nevertheless, all parties on both sides of the fence pretty much agree that the only exit strategy is through the old guard, simply because the new generation of juwae will not surface to talk.
Nobody understands this more than the old guard. That's why since 2004 many have been trying to reinvent themselves, reaching out to foreign mediators to raise their profile and present themselves as the representatives of Malays in the deep South.
A senior government officer at Government House joked about the proliferation of foreign and local NGOs wanting to do mediation work, saying, "We need a mediator for the mediators."
According to one government source, the authorities have been permitted to explore ways to carry out dialogue with people who are "one-step removed from the insurgency" as a way to establish a channel of communication with the militants. The ambiguous language is necessary here, according to the source, because there is no executive order or legislation to support direct talks with anybody who identifies themselves as separatist.
Academics and members of the civil society, especially those advocating peaceful means, have been consulted by Thai security planners and officials as well. Some of their concepts have been debated publicly but it is not very clear as to how much influence these ideas will have on government policy.
"In spite of what these peace-loving academics and NGO people say or try to do, there is a danger in bringing any of the so-called dialogue into the public spotlight. You unnecessarily up the ante by doing it," said a former member of the now-defunct Communist Party of Thailand (CPT), which used to run with the BRN-Coordinate decades ago.
"For one thing, how will the government explain to victims' family members, both Muslim and Buddhist, when they ask about justice," he added.
"Moreover, it was [former premier] Prem's 'non-military approach', not 'peace dialogue', that helped paved the end for the communists and permit us to reintegrate into society," said the former CPT member.
In his executive order, Surayud Chulanont pointed to the ethno-nationalist nature of the conflict between the Malays and the Thai state. But policy -makers didn't really know how to follow up on the order or his public apology for past atroccities, and so they turn to development projects, hoping that this will win hearts and minds. No one wants to admit that the problem is rooted in Thailand's nation-state construct that leaves virtually no room for the Malay narrative.
"We will never see peace if Thailand is more concerned about state consolidation, as opposed to national unity. There has to be an arrangement that permits Malay identity, ethnicity, culture, narrative and way of life to flourish and co-exist peacefully with the rest of the country," said the former CPT cadre. "Can the state do this for the Malays?"
"It won't be easy," said the Army officer, "but there is a growing number of people in the military who are willing to explore other non-military ideas, such as greater cultural space for the Malays. It's about their dignity. Essentially, all these killings are political in nature. And somewhere in there is an end game to it all."