Given the circumstances in the south where the draconian special laws (martial law, the Emergency Decree and the Internal Security Act, all of which violate very basic human rights to different extents) have been imposed for more than ten years now (compared to just six months for the rest of the country), there is no proper and official communication channel for the non-state armed groups (NSAGs, which despite their official protests are often referred to as separatists by both the Siamese colonialists/Thai governments and Thai media). Therefore, banners with the same messages which appear simultaneously in different places shall be regarded as a ‘public relations’ effort by the local NSAGs (the biggest and most influential of which is the BRN).
Similarly, under the same circumstances, it is suicidal for local NGOs/CSOs to state clear objections to the Thai state, and now the situation under the junta is much worse than before. However, many local NGO/CSO leaders, especially those who are regarded as supportive of the ‘Patani freedom fighters’, state their objections and suspicions on their personal Facebook pages. Only those NGOs/CSOs which are related to the military seem positive about the current developments.
For the local people who are most defenceless and therefore most vulnerable to the misuse of state power, including arbitrary detentions, house searches without a warrant, extrajudicial killings and killings by the military (both by proper soldiers and volunteer defence forces) under the laws that violate human rights, it is too risky to say anything about that openly. However, the continuous but fruitless efforts by the military to ‘win the hearts and minds’ of the local people clearly and ironically reflect how estranged the hearts and minds of the local people actually are.
These reactions clearly show that the talks, which the junta one-sidedly calls ‘happiness talks’, do not enjoy wide support from the local people. Personally I find hardly anything to be optimistic about on the issue. The three principles presented by Najib scarcely convince me that the peace process will proceed even a single centimetre.
First, a period of no violence. In a conflict, a period of no violence will come after proper peace negotiations in the shape of a temporary ceasefire. When one of the most important stakeholders in the conflict, the local NSAGs, are not represented in the talks, how it is possible to agree on a temporary ceasefire? This in itself is contradictory to his second point, that all parties be represented in the peace talks. A successful peace process is an inclusive process. When such an important issue is agreed by excluding an important stakeholder, it only makes the process less inclusive. Najib also should have reprimanded the junta leader for his restriction of freedom of expression in the country. When freedom of expression is highly restricted, and stating certain points in public can land you in prison, how is a peace process possible which is genuinely inclusive?
At the same time, the Malaysian PM also should have noted that ALL parties should stop violence, not only the NSAGs, but state agents too. In a conflict area, violence is committed by every side. This applies to Patani as well.
However, I do agree with the last point in demanding that all stakeholders in the peace talks be united. This also applies to the BOTH sides, i.e. the Thai state and the local NSAGs. The lack of unity among the NSAGs should be addressed by them, but the Thai state also should make sure that there is no fissure on their side.
In my opinion, what can be done under the current situation is to make sure that the issue of the south is on the national agenda. Actually this was promised by Prayut since the very beginning of the coup, but, very typical of him, the promise has not been fulfilled yet.
I question whether any peace talks can achieve significant success under a junta which has no responsibility to the people, as they came to power by a coup, not via an election. The very military mindset is an obstacle. They believe that they are respected and favoured by the people because their orders are obeyed by the people, whereas in fact many people obey simply because the consequence of disobeying their orders is unacceptably harsh. The very simple fact of peace talks to solve a conflict is this: they have to deal with those who have been most disobedient to them. Their military mindset is among the biggest obstacle for that.
What the current junta might be able to achieve is to pave the way for a proper peace process to begin after a democratic government is established. In a peace process, mutual trust-building is crucial. My question is: have the Thai state and the Malaysian government as a facilitator ever been serious about this issue? No fruitful talks will come about where there is no trust.
About the author: Hara Shintaro is a Japanese academic who has been living in the South of Thailand for since 1999. He is new a deputy director of the Institution of South East Asian Maritime States Studies, Prince of Songkla University, Pattani Campus.