Thai peace talks come to light
By Anthony Davis
Posted on Apr 6, 2011
BANGKOK - After six years of secret contacts disrupted by political turmoil and mutual distrust, high-level peace talks aimed at addressing the roots of Thailand's bitter Malay-Muslim insurgency are moving into a more open and substantive phase.
Senior negotiators from both the Thai government and separatist sides of the conflict expressed optimism in recent interviews that key issues should now be tabled, while conceding that the secrecy and denial that have shrouded the talks to date have outlived their usefulness.
"Keeping things secret was killing the process," said a senior
Thai official closely involved in ongoing talks between a government delegation and an alliance of two insurgent factions recognized by Bangkok as playing a central role in the conflict: the Patani-Malay National Revolutionary Front or Barisan Revolusi Nasional Patani-Melayu (BRN), the shadowy faction that has been the main organizational driver behind the violence that escalated sharply in 2004, and the more moderate Patani United Liberation Organization (PULO), which has re-emerged as the internationally active political wing of the movement.
"It was concluded there was a need to gradually acknowledge to outsiders at least in broad terms that there is a peace process," said the official in the Thai government's first detailed briefing to the media on the initiative. "The Pattani movement wanted a signal that the government was really serious about peace talks."
A member of the government's delegation added: "There comes a point when you can't do substantive things if the process is not public. And this is something I have passed on to the top level of government."
Notwithstanding the new openness, independent analysts concur that the coming months will likely tax the skills and resolve of both negotiation teams. Against a backdrop of sustained violence, they will need to maneuver between negotiating measures aimed at giving real administrative, linguistic and symbolic shape to the conflict-ridden southern provinces' distinctive Pattani-Malay identity on the one hand, while on the other allaying the ingrained skepticism of both sides' hardliners.
Bangkok's interest in establishing communication with the armed opposition in the predominantly Muslim provinces of Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala and parts of neighboring Songkhla was first triggered by the disastrous Tak Bai incident, according to one official involved in the process.
On October 25, 2004, security forces shot dead seven Muslim protesters in Narathiwat and were responsible for the deaths in custody of a further 78 who suffocated while being transported in trucks for interrogation in Pattani. A propaganda windfall for the rebels, the incident added fuel to an already escalating conflict but prompted then-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra to explore the possibility of opening contacts with a still ill-understood insurgency.
Brokered by an international non-governmental organization acceptable to both sides, the process of contact and dialogue gathered slow momentum between 2005 and 2007 with a series of secret meetings in various countries outside of Thailand.
Deep-seated mistrust in the Pattani movement over the government's motives in agreeing to secret contact - a mindset honed by experience of perceived military intelligence-gathering ploys in the 1980s and 1990s - all but precluded early progress.
"The first three years of this process were about confidence-building, but initially it was difficult as they didn't trust us," noted the senior Thai official who has played a key role throughout.
A framework for the process was established in 2007 and appeared to promise real movement when in December that year then-prime minister General Surayud Chulanont met in Bahrain with senior representatives of both BRN and PULO - the first time a Thai head of government had sat with Pattani separatist leaders.
Political turmoil in Bangkok and disinterest by Samak Sundaravej, General Surayud's successor as prime minister, resulted in a loss of momentum throughout 2008. In 2009, the process was revived and reformatted by the administration of Abhisit Vejjajiva in the context of a National Security Council (NSC) policy on the south that was first endorsed by the coup government's cabinet in October 2006.
The NSC policy allows for "promot[ing] dialogue with individuals or groups of people who hold different opinions or ideological views from the State regarding how to resolve the conflict" in the border provinces.
Currently, a six-man government dialogue committee is headed by a senior academic with longstanding experience in the region, ranking officials from the NSC, and significantly, since earlier this year, a general from the Royal Thai Army nominated by army commander General Prayuth Chan-ocha.
Official sources noted that this team answered to a steering committee headed by the prime minister, in his capacity as NSC chairman, and also includes Prayuth and permanent secretaries from the ministries of Justice and Foreign Affairs.
On the insurgent side, a seven-man team under an umbrella organization called the Patani Malay Liberation Movement (PMLM) is headed by Kastori Mahkota, PULO's Sweden-based vice president and foreign affairs chief, and flanked by other senior leaders from both PULO and BRN.
Importantly, it also includes representatives from armed elements operating inside the three main violence-prone provinces. While the actual identities and residential details of these Thailand-based cadres remain unknown to the government, their credentials as real actors on the ground have been validated by the Thai security services, noted one source.
To date, the talks have been sporadic and arguably lacking in real substance. But as one directly involved source noted, the series of meetings has been crucial in building a level of trust and channel of communication between key figures in Bangkok's governmental and military establishment and senior figures in the insurgency.
The process has also been productive conceptually, sources say. "The talks have helped the Thais to have a debate about the future that has moved the goal posts in terms of what might be acceptable for an eventual settlement," said the source involved in the talks. "They have also encouraged the Pattani movement to consider options beyond all-or-nothing demands for independence and helped them shape their ideas."
More recently, two factors converged to lend the process new impetus. The first was an initial stab at a substantive confidence-building measure (CBM) in the form of a controversial month-long suspension of hostilities by insurgent forces in three districts of Narathiwat province in June-July of last year.
Agreed to by both sides with the government selecting the specific districts - Cho Airong, Ra-ngae and Yi-ngor - the move was aimed at demonstrating both insurgent good faith and, importantly, a convincing degree of command and control by those talking to the government over fighting forces on the ground.
As a result, the PMLM undertook to suspend "organized attacks", meaning broadly bomb and small-arms fire attacks on security forces by groups of insurgents. The agreement specifically did not cover targeted killings of individuals, which were acknowledged as difficult to control in any decentralized insurgency, and which in any case in Thailand's violence-prone southernmost provinces are not all the work of insurgents.
At the time, Abhisit and other informed officials were reluctant to publicly confirm or deny that the exercise had taken place, let alone lend it full endorsement. Local officials were entirely unaware of the ceasefire and, in the aftermath, mostly dismissive of reports it had taken place.
Their skepticism was understandable enough given that "organized attacks" in any district in the border provinces are relatively few in the space of a single month and the difference between none and one can easily be viewed as "business as usual", particularly against a backdrop of continued sporadic assassinations.
Nevertheless, in retrospect both dialogue teams saw the exercise as useful, notwithstanding frustration on the insurgent side by the absence of any real endorsement from Bangkok of their temporary suspension of hostilities.
The ceasefire was marred by only one "organized attack", a failed roadside bombing in Cho Airong on June 18 that targeted a policeman driving a private vehicle from Narathiwat city back to his station in Sungai Padi district after delivering an insurgent detainee to the provincial court. The attack, which clearly involved knowledge of the officer's movements, was arguably more likely tohave been carried out by insurgents from Sungai Padi than by local fighters in Cho Airong.
Another goad towards greater openness has been awareness in Bangkok that continued secrecy runs the risk of foreign governmental bodies, notably the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), being drawn into what the Thai government has throughout insisted is a domestic conflict. Such official fears were given edge in September last year when OIC secretariat officials met Pattani separatist figures in both Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
Moreover, going public with an already well-established peace process serves to fire a shot across the bows of concerned foreign parties while preempting any need for elements in the PMLM or the Pattani diaspora more broadly to appeal for outside mediation. For a kingdom with a proud history of resisting 19th century colonial designs, involvement in its internal affairs by foreign states or government bodies is viewed by officials as the thin end of a humiliating wedge that risks broadening into territorial dismemberment.
Several issues now confront the dialogue teams. First and arguably most important is a gesture from Bangkok that sustains the confidence built to date and reciprocates last year's insurgent-organized ceasefire. As one member of the government committee summed it up: "The challenge right now is that the government has to show that forward movement has a momentum that will continue, and that this [process] is not just tactical stalling."
One undoubtedly substantive gesture that has been mooted by the PMLM during talks would be the release of one or more of four PULO chiefs detained in Malaysia in early 1998. The four were later convicted in a Thai court for treason and murder and handed down life sentences.
"A release [of a PULO prisoner] is only one sign but it's a really important one," said PMLM committee chairman Kasturi Mahkota in a recent interview in which he conceded the government side was "more serious than ever before over finding a solution". "I can't say I'm 100 percent optimistic [over a release] but I'm still hoping."
In the context of an ongoing debate between moderates and hardliners in the insurgent camp, a significant public gesture from the government side would also serve to strengthen the hand of those prepared to compromise rather than fight on indefinitely, independent analysts familiar with the peace process contend.
According to other informed sources, any conciliatory move by the Thai side could lead to a further limited suspension of hostilities by the insurgents - although this is again unlikely to be made public in advance given the danger of the move being sabotaged by spoilers from one or both sides.
Beyond CBMs lies the fundamental issue of the PMLM's putting forward substantive political proposals. The need to agree on and negotiate specifics will not be easy for a movement that has hitherto enjoyed the luxury of making grandiose demands for independence untroubled by the exigencies of practical politics. A move towards real give-and-take poses the danger of exacerbating differences within a notoriously fractious movement.
However, sources note that such work is already underway and that study groups set up by the insurgent negotiation team are looking to lessons learned from a range of separatist conflicts, including in Northern Ireland, Spain's Basque region, the southern Philippines and Indonesia's Aceh.
The PMLM team is also examining ideas and proposals drawn up by increasingly active civil society groups in the border provinces, something that Kasturi has repeatedly stressed as important. As one government committee member noted: "Our last meeting with the [Pattani] movement was particularly productive in that for the first time they conceded that for any durable solution the role of civil society is important and necessary."
For its part, the NSC is currently formulating a new policy on security in the border provinces to replace the one it drafted in 2006. From the outset, civil society organizations have been invited to participate in this exercise, according to the senior Thai official, who added that ideas brought up at the dialogue table by the PMLM were also being incorporated.
Nevertheless, in the coming months dialogue will inevitably transition into more detailed negotiations over decentralization of power, the role of the Malay language and a range of other issues - a process that will be contentious and carry no guarantee of success.
Despite the fact that its mandate and framework extend beyond any single administration in Bangkok, the peace process will inevitably remain hostage to events both at the national and regional levels. Thailand's national political divide poses the threat of further upheavals in Bangkok and the danger of a lack of policy coherence on the southern crisis.
Equally, major insurgent attacks or other outrages also risk impacting the tentative talks. As one experienced observer put it: "Even though the military has joined the process, there's always going to be a link between the level of violence and their commitment to genuine dialogue and reconciliation."
Assuming unforeseen events do not conspire against the process, there are still several overarching obstacles to a peace deal. One is mainstream Thai Buddhist society and media that, even after seven years of unrelenting violence, have minimal understanding of the roots of Malay-Muslim disaffection and are generally prepared to back hardline responses that have only exacerbated the problem.
Another is the Thai constitution. The sanctity of the national charter and indivisibility of the Thai state it enshrines remain sacrosanct to the government. However, hardliners in the insurgent camp have pointed out with some justification that the Thai military has regularly abrogated and rewritten constitutions since the end of the absolute monarchy in 1932. To their minds, there is no reason the current charter could not be revised to accommodate their vision of Pattani's unique place in the national body politic.
For a still tentative peace process only now emerging into public view, the challenges promise a far rougher ride than the secluded road already traveled.
Anthony Davis is a Bangkok-based security analyst for IHS-Jane's.