Srisompob Jitpiromsri on the latest round of Deep South peace talks

The latest round of peace talks has just started in early June in Kuala Lumpur -- quietly. The talks were reportedly initiated and supported by Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha, the junta leader, himself. Srisompob Jitpiromsri, a renowned academic and authority on the Deep South conflict discusses the prospect of the talks under the military regime.
 
During the Yingluck Shinawatra government, the first ever open peace talks between Bangkok and the insurgent groups, led by the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), took place in Kuala Lumpur. Before the talks were interrupted by the political conflict and demonstrations in Bangkok in late 2014, the BRN submitted a five-point proposal to Bangkok:
 
1 Bangkok must accept Malaysia as a mediator, not just a facilitator; 
2 The talk is between Patani nation, led by BRN, and the Thai state;
3 The talk must be witnessed by the ASEAN members, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and NGOs;
4 Bangkok must unconditionally grant amnesty to all suspects and convicts and nullify all arrest warrants related to Deep South insurgency;
5 Bangkok must recognize BRN as a movement for Patani independence, not a separatist movement. 
 
The Thai government responded saying that it would consider the proposal. 
 
The latest round of peace talks has just started in early June in Kuala Lumpur -- quietly. The talks were reportedly initiated and supported by Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha, the junta leader, himself. The junta established a mechanism to support the talk, while the insurgent groups established an umbrella organization for the unity in negotiating with Bangkok. 
 
Prachatai's Thaweeporn Kummetha discussed the prospects for the peace process in the Deep South under the Thai military junta with Ass Prof Srisompob Jitpiromsri, Director of the Centre for Conflict Studies and Cultural Diversity at Prince of Songkla University, and an authority on the Deep South conflict, who participated in the peace talks under the Yingluck government. 
 
Srisompob Jitpiromsri
 
What do you expect from the military junta under the leadership of Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha, on the peace talks on the restive Deep South? 
 
We can at best hope that they will continue the talks. That's already very beneficial to the situation. The talks will help curb the violence and bring the insurgent groups back to a peaceful path. But will the junta be able to solve the problem? I don't think so. [The problem might be solved] in the next civilian government. Having the talks, however, can at least curb the violence. It helps make the situation positive. It builds a political environment that will calm the situation. 
 
Now, both sides are preparing for the new round of talks, which are undisclosed. These are pre-negotiations for future talks. At this stage, confidence between both sides will be built. 
 
What is discussed in the pre-negotiation stage?
 
The insurgent side has established an umbrella organization called Mara Patani which is composed of the BRN, the Patani United Liberation Organisation (PULO) and Barisan Islam Pembebasan Patani (BIPP), among others, in order to submit a joint proposal to the Thai government. The Thai state has also created a mechanism and a committee to support the negotiations. A few days ago, the first meeting under Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha between representatives from Bangkok and MARA took place in Kuala Lumpur. 
 
This is progress. However, if there are real negotiations, they should be conducted openly, with witnesses and a mediator. The military junta is likely to accept Malaysia as a facilitator, not a mediator. 
 
The junta is very careful. They don't want the negotiations to be in the news. The junta is concerned about the role of the international community in the Deep South problem. It wants to keep the Deep South conflict a domestic problem.
 
The military is really afraid of the secession model. In fact, this is one of the alternatives. There are also other models, such as autonomy In my opinion, the factors which lead to the conflict in the Deep South are not serious enough to justify the secession model. The Thai military did not make so many mistakes like in Aceh, or Timor-Leste. The factors of the conflict are gravely different.  
 
In my opinion, if the international community interferes, it will merely aim to pressure Thailand to continue toward solving the problem. 
 
What is MARA Patani?
 
MARA Patani is a form of cooperation between several insurgent groups. Mara's proposal is supported by most of the insurgent group members, especially the BRN. 
 
BRN knows very well that it must have an organization whose role is to negotiate with Bangkok. Nevertheless, MARA has a limited mandate. MARA cannot make important decisions by itself, only those under the mandate given by the member groups.  
 
I don't think any particular group dominates MARA. MARA is working under an agreed framework, which is quite similar to the five-point proposal submitted before by BRN. 
 
Which point in the five-point proposal is unlikely to be accepted by the Thai state? 
 
The fourth one: unconditionally granting amnesty to all suspects. The military junta is unlikely to accept it. It may come about when we have a civilian government. Before that, the issue must be a national one; parliamentarians, as well as all people in Thailand, must discuss the issue. There must be an open political atmosphere to discuss such a sensitive issue. It may be followed by a referendum. We have to decide again if the referendum should be conducted across the country or only among people in the Deep South. 
 
What is the biggest obstacle to the peace process in the Deep South, especially the peace talks?
 
The unstable politics of Bangkok. The red-yellow conflict overshadows everything, including the Deep South problem.
 
As long as Thailand cannot solve problems of democracy and decentralization, it will be very difficult to solve the Deep South problem. We must be under a democratic atmosphere, then we will be able to raise and discuss the issue. 
 
Do you mean the red-shirt conflict must be solved first before the Deep South problem will be solved? I can't imagine how many years that could take. How many years, in your opinion, before the Deep South conflict might be solved?  
 
I don't know. It can be sooner or later. Well, there may be a turning point. If there is one, it can be soon, like 10 years. 
 
Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha shows a nationalistic and conservative attitude through his national policies. In your opinion, what is the attitude of the junta leader toward the peace process in the Deep South?
 
Gen Prayut knows about the Deep South problem in detail because he has worked in Army for so long. Although the national policies are kind of conservative, Gen Prayut is more flexible on the Deep South. 
 
The latest round of peace talks was initiated and supported by Gen Prayut himself. This shows that Prayut is more open on the Deep South. 
 
Having a military government hinders the development of the country. But is it an advantage or liability for the peace process?
 
There are both advantages and liabilities. The Thai state will be united in making decisions. If it was a civilian government, the government would have to talk with the Army first. 
 
What are the statistics on violence in the Deep South?
 
Quite stable. The patterns are a bit different. For example, the number of attacks on civilians, especially children and women, has decreased. Still, the number is higher than during the peace talks. You can see from the 40 simultaneous explosions in Yala last week (3 June); there were no casualties from the explosions. There is a trend for explosions to occur late at night when people stay at home. You can see that the insurgent groups have adjusted for the new round of negotiations. They refrain from killing innocent people. They refrain from causing trouble for the people, but continue the attacks to pressure the Thai state.  
 
I notice that there is a positive trend in the area. There are floating markets, night markets and traditional festivals like Tadika, which has been unofficially banned for several years. What do you think about that?
 
I'd like to see an openness of political and cultural space. It makes the local people happy and feel safe. There should be more evening and night fairs and festivals. 
 
The insurgent groups should realize the value of the "middle space" which allows people to get together and exchange views. The Thai state must allow open spaces. It should lift the ban on local radio stations, which have been shut down since the coup. The military said it would re-open the community radio stations when Ramadan comes. We're waiting for this order to be implemented. 
 
In Bangkok, if a person is calling for the abolition of Article 112, she may be viewed as an anti-monarchist. The authorities, the nationalists and the royalists see no shades. How about the Deep South? What are the Thai state's approaches toward the differences in culture and political ideology of people in the Deep South? Is it open-minded? Can it differentiate between people who hold nationalistic views per se and people who support the use of armed force? 
 
Bangkok is OK with the campaign on Malayu identity because the Thai state has been aware that the suppression of cultural identity would lead to the problems we have nowadays. They therefore try to be more open about it. If anyone talks about merdika (independence), however, he will be watched, even though it is merely a call for independence without violence. The Thai state cannot yet see any shades.  
 
We can talk about decentralization and autonomy myself have long been talking about this. The approach is accepted by both the locals and the state. 
 
We propose to the state that the state must be open-minded. It should allow people to propose anything if they do not endorse violence. However, it may be very difficult for the junta to accept this. Only a democratic government will. 
 
Here, if we talk about peace and look balanced, we won’t be watched. But if we side with a group which talks about Patani nationalism, they will be watched by the Thai authorities. I'd like to propose that the state should open the space for discussion. The people here are politically active. They understand the insurgents' proposals and the nationalist idea very well. If the junta chooses to implement Article 44 in full measure, it will surely lead to violence. 
 
I think what the 4th Army did is good. It supports people's participation in solving the problem. The Army should treat this area with great care, should allow for the opening of space. In general, we still have academic freedom here. In Prince of Songkla University, there's no problem. Military officers come and participate in academic seminars, but they just come to listen, not for surveillance or anything. The military knows that if there's suppression of the locals, there is real retaliation -- serious stuff. We have to open the space for expression.
 
What would you like to say to the current government? 
 
The government should continue the talks in an open manner. The junta has done it secretly. Well, they can do it secretly, but an open talk must be held too in order to create political repercussions. The public should be informed about the talks too. Secondly, the military should be more careful not to violate human rights. The military has been more careful in the past years, but there still are complaints about human rights violations.