Peace talks get cold shoulder from villagers: local Deep South media

After being forced to shut down since the 2014 coup, along with many other community radio stations in the area, Media Selatan, a local Malay radio station in the Deep South, is coming back on air early this year. The director of Media Selatan states that shutting down local media is tantamount to closing channels for citizens to express their opinions about the ongoing peace process. 
 
Peace talks between the Thai state and the Patani freedom fighters have been at a standstill for over four months. Meanwhile, locals are indifferent to the proceedings, which are closed and unofficial. The standstill seemed to have started when the freedom fighters’ party presented three demands to the Thai state. 

The current dialogue between the junta and the freedom fighters is called Dialogue 2. The talks were initiated by the Thai military government and the Patani independence movement’s umbrella organization, called MARA Patani. The 2013 peace talks between the Yingluck Shinawatra administration and BRN led by Hassan Taib were called Dialogue 1. Dialogue 1 ended abruptly after BRN, the insurgent group with the most firepower in the area, presented five demands that the Thai government found difficult to fulfil. At the same time, the Yingluck administration was beset by anti-government protests, leading to the usurpation of power in the coup d’état. 

 

BRN’s 5 preliminary demands during Dialogue 1:

  1. Malaysia must be a mediator in the peace talks, not just a facilitator.
  2. The Thai state must recognize the talks as being between Malays in Patani, led by BRN, and the Thai state. 
  3. This negotiation must be witnessed by representatives of the ASEAN countries, the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), and NGOs.
  4. The Thai state must release all insurgent suspects and inmates, and cancel all arrest warrants without condition.
  5. The Thai state must recognize BRN as an independence movement, not a separatist one. 
 
MARA’s 3 proposals during Dialogue 2:
  1. Recognize MARA Patani as an official dialogue partner
  2. Place the peace talks as an issue of national importance endorsed by the Thai Parliament, so that future administrations must continue to work on it.
  3. Immunity for MARA members, so that they can enter Thailand and converse with citizens.
MARA includes delegates from organizations such as Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), Patani Liberation Organization (PULO), Barisan Islam Perbersasan Patani (BIPP), and Gerekan Mujahidin Islam Patani (GMIP). The BRN representatives of MARA refused to answer press questions on whether BRN’s involvement in MARA was mandated or not. However, they did comment that they were the “real BRN.” 
 
 
Prachatai talked to Waehama Waekuejik, director of Media Selatan, a local radio channel with a large following among grassroots villagers in the Deep South. Media Selatan has been following political and violent issues since its founding in 2008. They even had a prominent role during Dialogue 1. Waehama talks about the role of local media as broadcasters of citizens’ opinions to both parties at the peace talks, stimulating dialogue relevant to citizens’ needs. However, Media Selatan and other community radio stations in the Deep South have been forced to shut down since the junta came into power. These shutdowns have killed local interest in Dialogue 2, says Waehama. 
 
Nevertheless, Media Selatan, which usually features call-in segments, is coming back on air in January 2016. 
 
Waehama Waekuejik
 
 
How do the peace talks during the Yingluck administration and the NCPO administration differ?
 
During Dialogue 1, news and information about the dialogue was more accessible to citizens. Everyone had hope in the talks: not so much as to expect results, but at least they see it as a possible solution.
 
During Dialogue 1, citizens received a lot of suspicious, unverified information and media campaigns regarding the talks. But when the news broke that Hassan Taib and Lt Gen Paradorn Pattanabut were negotiating, the false information started disappearing. The Thai state’s negotiations took on a new dimension. Locals got excited, especially since the talks were open. The state continuously kept the media and the citizens updated. The opposition also spread their information, for example through YouTube. So, citizens were informed from both parties and were able to decide for themselves what to believe.
 
Luckily, at the time there was a lot of media freedom, so the media could do their job disseminating information. I remember that there was a lot of information floating around and people didn’t believe that the Dialogue could present a solution. But when Ramadan came around, we actually saw results. In the first two weeks, there was almost no violence at all. People who didn’t believe in the talks started to believe that it could be a solution towards peace. In the last two weeks of Ramadan, however, violence flared up again. Hassan Taib said through YouTube that Bangkok did not abide by the conditions of halting surround-and-searches and violence, since there was a killing of a suspect at Bannang Sata District, as well as multiple surround-and-searches, while the BRN had ceased all violent activity. After the surge in violence, BRN communicated through YouTube three to four times to the public, causing people to have many questions about the whole process. 
 
At the time, I was in the media, so I was neutral. I presented stories from both parties in equal amounts. When locals had questions for Hassan Taib, I gathered those questions and went to ask Malaysia to connect me through to him. Therefore, Media Selatan was able to interview Hassan Taib. Some of the questions from the locals were about the care and protection of minorities in the three southernmost provinces. Hassan said, “I practice my religion, you practice yours.” He gave an example of Malaysia’s multiculturalism and multi-religious coexistence, where there are a lot of direct, up-front dialogues. He answered many questions, and I replayed the messages to citizens, even translating what he said into Thai. This made citizens even more excited about the peace talks. We were the main source of information about this for locals. Radio is a great medium to reach grassroots locals.
 
Around that time Media Selatan received both flowers and threats. The Thai state saw us as a loudspeaker for the BRN, while the BRN thought we were working for Bangkok. But we proved ourselves to an extent. The military invited us for a talk. They asked us why we interviewed BRN, and who sent us to do so. The Thai state’s policies may have changed, but at the operational level, their practices remain the same. They are always suspicious and thinking negatively. I tried to present a balanced view of the issue. I didn’t just interview one side. Luckily at that time, key men on the Thai state side, such as Lt Gen Paradorn and Pol Col Thawee Sodsong, were talking to the media. I was able to access the state’s side and interview them, too.
 
For Dialogue 2, even though we received more information than in Dialogue 1, a lot of the information is missing a certain “something,” causing locals in the area to respond coldly to Dialogue 2. They’re a lot less interested and active, but why? This is an issue that’s being discussed in the teahouses.
 
People don’t really have any hope in Dialogue 2, since 1) the military is seen as the party of violence. The soldiers carry arms and are belligerent, opposed to the BRN. 2) People are suspicious about whether MARA is really mandated. Before, the lead agency of the freedom fighter side was BRN, mandated by the Council of the BRN, while MARA’s status is quite obscure. BRN doesn’t seem to be either accepting or rejecting MARA, so the efforts seem lukewarm, exacerbated by the reticence of the Thai state’s own actions.
 
The BRN’s previous five demands still have not been addressed, and now there are MARA’s three new demands as well. Citizens see this as an unrealistic lakon [soap opera]. Communication with grassroots villagers has also been lacking. Communication is very important since peace talks are a complicated issue. We must talk about difficult issues in a way that makes them accessible to villagers.
 
The task at hand is to create an atmosphere of communication, helping people to understand and become further interested in the issue. We should make villagers feel like this is a crucial issue to follow. We had that kind of atmosphere during Dialogue 1. In teahouses, people would discuss the issue passionately. There’s nothing like that nowadays. There’s no criticism either, maybe because people are afraid of the military. The local Malay-language media channels, which usually communicate to the villagers, have also been shut down. 
 
You gave so much leverage to the BRN. How about MARA Patani in your view and in the locals’ view? 
 
First, we have to ask the question about how MARA came to be. Is it because Malaysia pushed for it, or because Thailand did, or because they wanted it themselves? If you can’t answer this, then it’s hard to determine whether MARA has legitimacy or not. 
 
People in the area do not really respect the authority of MARA, as evidenced by their indifferent reaction to it. People aren’t following, aren’t connected to MARA. 
 
At the very beginning [of Dialogue 1], people didn’t even believe Hassan Taib was real. That issue, of course, was quickly cleared up. But there’s no face for MARA as of now.
 
Do you find MARA’s request for impunity to enter the Patani area to converse with the locals and civil society groups an unconventional effort to solve the problem?
 
I’m indifferent to it since I view it as something that’s impossible. Even asking to talk, to converse is a pipe dream, and the military would be hard-pressed to allow that. It would also be difficult for MARA to come and talk to the people and exchange opinions since their non-violent faction is rather powerless. Talks would only be possible if BRN’s non-violent faction had more say and more power in the movement and their organization adopts a political structure, to ensure the safety of the people they talk with. For example, if I were to go and talk to MARA, I could be in danger. A civil society organization might be able to do so, but they’re very varied in terms of structure. Who would you go talk to? After talking to one organization and wanting to continue on a project and keep in contact, would you be viewed as a loudspeaker for MARA? 
 
The freedom fighters had their first press conference in Kuala Lumpur in August, hosted by the Malaysian government. Why do you think Malaysia has such a large role in the peace talks?
 
I predicted that there would be a press conference, since it was Malaysia’s time to act. If Thailand’s three southernmost provinces are not peaceful, then local development is held back. Malaysia is thinking of their own interests. 
 
It seems like the peace talks have come to a dead end. What should be done now?
 
A middle, neutral ground should be set up for the media and those curious about the issue to be informed about it. I don’t think only the “inner circle” should be informed, since it makes the villagers look unimportant. At the moment there’s not even a space or a platform for villagers to voice their opinions. The state should allow local media to do their job and play a larger part than they are currently allowed to. Citizens’ opinions should be communicated. If the local media can’t do their job, then it’s hard to get a feel of the people’s sentiments, which are key to citizen involvement. 
 
This article is first published in Thai and translated into English by Asaree Thaitrakulpanich