Three keynote speeches were delivered at the 3rd Peace Media Day and Peace Assembly held on 28 February 2016 at Prince of Songkla University, Pattani Campus, by the three main actors in the Patani peace dialogue process. Despite the different languages used by the speakers (Lt. Gen. Nakrob Boonbuathong from Party A, the Thai government, in Thai, Awang Jabat from Party B, MARA Patani in Malay and Dato’ Sri Ahmad Zamzamin Hashim, the facilitator, in English), they had many things in common. Only one of them (Party A) delivered his speech in person, whereas Party B and the facilitator sent recorded messages to be played at the event.
All of the speakers expressed their own sides’ readiness to be engaged in a new round of the peace dialogue process. The ‘first’ round of the talks became deadlocked after the political turmoil caused by the whistle-blowing mob in 2014 and the sudden resignation of Ustaz Hassan Taib as the head of the BRN delegation (Barisan Revolusi Nasional, or the National Revolutionary Front). The process really came to a dead end. The Thai government, then led by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, was no longer able to give any political priority to the talks after the emergence of the PDRC. On the BRN side, its armed wing released a statement via a YouTube clip to the effect that the organization wouldn’t come to the dialogue table unless the preliminary five demands were met by the Thai government. At that time there was no way for the process to be resumed.
However, the fall of the Yingluck government after the military coup led by Gen. Prayut and the formation of an umbrella organization called MARA Patani for the non-government armed groups in Patani provided a perfect pretext for all to resume the talks.
According to the speech delivered by the facilitator, the new round of talks started on 1 December 2014 after a meeting between the Prime Ministers of Thailand and Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur. All the main stakeholders also seemed to have agreed that the spirit of the General Consensus for the Patani Peace Dialogue Process, which had been signed on the day of the event in 2013, would be respected in the new round.
Superficially it seems an auspicious sign that all parties are ready to re-engage in the peace process.
In their speeches, all the stakeholders did acknowledge that the new round of the dialogue will face many problems, and they did admit that they were part of the problem, but they carefully avoided admitting any responsibility for this, accusing the others as the causes of these problems, either directly or indirectly.
As political statements delivered at an event commemorating the signing of the general consensus, there is nothing wrong with each party presenting itself as a more sincere participant of the peace process than others, one who is eager to solve all the problems created by the other side or improve the flawed framework of the process to date. Their political will should be respected. Having said that, it would be highly misleading to read only one of these three speeches, whether by Party A, Party B or the facilitator. On the other hand, these stakeholder speeches are extremely valuable, first, to identify the real problems faced by others (as none of them honestly stated their own problems), and second, to understand how they think the talks should be pushed forward.
The following sections will discuss the problems faced by all the parties, starting with Party B, then the facilitator, and lastly Party A.
Basically, despite the change from the BRN to MARA Patani, the core problem related to Party B remains the same: to what extent can they control their forces who are involved in daily military operations. Although MARA Patani is an umbrella organization for all the non-state armed groups in the conflict in Patani, the fact remains that most of the violence has been perpetrated by members of the BRN. The BRN is the biggest organization, but it is not monolithic. Even the facilitator acknowledged in his speech that not all members of the armed groups are supportive of MARA, describing Awang Jabat as simply the best available leader to lead the umbrella organization.
A statement from the Information Bureau of the BRN (whether this secretive organization really has such bureau or not is another question) clearly shows its objections to the peace process, although the name of MARA Patani was not uttered even once in the 2 minute-long YouTube clip released on 7 September 2015. As was stressed by Dato’ Sri Zamzamin in his speech, it is certainly true that there are some senior leaders of the BRN in MARA Patani, but more senior leaders have been keeping an enigmatic silence.
The various armed groups also have experience of failed unity in the collapse of Bersatu, led by Dr Wan Kadir Che Man. The full name of MARA, the Patani Consultative Council, reminds us of the full name of Bersatu, the Patani Malays People’s Consultative Council. Whether history repeats itself, or they learn lessons from history, is to be seen later. They certainly cannot afford yet another internal dispute if they wish to sustain their credibility. Having many organizations renders some strategic advantages, but the lack of unity so far has been a chronic disease. Hopefully some medical doctors in MARA Patani will be able to prescribe effective medicines for this as well.
For Party B, one of the biggest challenges that must be finally faced by the organization is whether or not MARA Patani can really be a credibly representative umbrella organization in the peace process.
The facilitator, Dato’ Sri Zamzamin appeared for the first time in front of the public of Patani on the same day (28 February) in 2014, one year after the signing of the consensus. This is the first and so far the only time when he appeared in front of the Patani people. This year he had to appear through a recorded message, understandably, because of his busy schedule.
He might be a good facilitator for the two rival stakeholders, the Thai government and MARA Patani. However, he has done very little for the local people, apart from his work as facilitator for the dialogue itself. His call to local people to take part in MARA Patani by stating that the local people are MARA Patani, reflected his lack of understanding of the situation, if not ignorance. First, about 20 percent of the local people in the conflict area, which in his speech he described as ‘Patani’, are non-Muslims, who have hardly ever had any reason to be supportive for MARA Patani. Setting up an umbrella organization for the non-government armed groups in the Patani conflict is one thing, but whether it can be accepted and recognized by the local people is another problem, especially for those who have nothing to do with the ideology and principles of the struggle of the armed groups. Now that support is not yet strong enough, even among the armed groups which support MARA Patani, how we can expect such support from the non-Muslim or Thai Buddhist society? At least the facilitator should have explained and established a mutual understanding as to why the local people were a part of MARA Patani. I’m sure such a message, if taken seriously, must be perplexing for many.
The more serious problem to be faced by the facilitator is how to deal with the deep-rooted feeling of the people that the peace process, ever since the first round, has always gone over their heads. This time, the facilitator, by urging local NGOs to prepare representatives to take part in MARA Patani, displayed a persistent lack of understanding of the circumstances of the local people.
Since the emergence of the latest wave of violence in 2004, this area has been under the three special laws, and two of them, martial law and the Emergency Decree, are regarded as the source of the abuse of power. According to these special laws, simply being a suspect in security cases can be a reason for detention, seven days under martial law and another 30 days under the Emergency Decree. For this reason, there has so far never been a single local man (almost all security-related detainees and suspects are male) who publically proclaimed himself a sympathizer, let alone a member, of any armed group. Any such statement automatically leads to at least a period of detention up to 37 days (during which, according to a report by the Cross Culture Foundation and other two NGOs, or another by the Muslim Attorney Centre, many cases of human right violations occur), and maybe imprisonment.
In this situation, the facilitator should have considered whether it is feasible for the local people, especially Malay Muslims, to take part in MARA Patani under the current situation and dialogue framework. It is suicidal, at least at this moment. If anything (or things) goes wrong, and the second round of the peace dialogue also follows the example of the first round, what will happen to local people who have already shown themselves as sympathizers of MARA Patani?
Even if this concern about security is dealt with, there is still another problem of how and to what extent local NGOs’ views and opinions will be respected by MARA Patani which is already dominated by the armed groups. This is another question which requires an explanation. What if the needs of the NGOs and those of the armed groups are at great variance?
Under the current circumstances, however, the facilitator calls for the participation of local NGOs in MARA Patani, although the concerns for security are so large that it is highly likely that no organization will be reckless enough to do so.
The biggest problem for Party A in the first round initiated by the Yingluck government was the lack of unity within the government itself. The military, then led by Gen Prayut as the Commander-In-Chief, had never been positively supportive of the process. Even among the cabinet, the political will to pursue the process was very weak. The then PM, Yingluck Shinawatra, herself seldom did anything about the process, simply appointing her deputy, Chalerm Yubamrung, in charge on the process. He, in his turn, did even less, making just one visit to the south. In this respect, the political will of the current military government in relation to the peace process has been far more visible.
However, since its takeover of power via a military coup, the current government has been facing the question of its legitimacy. Therefore, whether or not this process will be ‘inherited’ by the next, more democratic government is totally unclear. On top of that, this peace process can be so easily used as a tool for political advantage. For this reason, responding to the demand from Party B to acknowledge this process as a national process will be very beneficial, as even at this moment it has already become a de facto national issue. What is needed is to proclaim it officially via the legislative body.
There are some other problems with Party A, like overconfidence among their leaders, for instance. The leaders of the Thai government, no matter who they are, have almost instinctively failed to grasp the seriousness of the conflict faced by the local people. They look like sharing the common mistaken notion that if they are really serious, such a small problem as a regional conflict can be solved in a matter of a year or so. This time, Lt Gen Nakrob’s statement suggested a slightly more realistic duration of three years. Certainly, the earlier the conflict is solved, the better. But under the current circumstances, in which even trust-building between those engaged in the dialogue is close to nil, any prospect of such a quick fix for the conflict must be regarded unrealistic.
The reason why the leaders of the Thai government, especially the current one, always fail to grasp the seriousness of the conflict is partly because they shut the mouths of all critics who are ready to say something inconvenient to them. On the other hand, so called ‘reports’ delivered to them are carefully selected so as not upset them. In a conflict, this bureaucratic attitude brings little benefit. The government, as the most legitimate administrative body, should open up public space in a genuine sense. So far, only certain pro-government NGOs/CSOs are allowed to speak, as these organizations usually say things in line with what is wanted by the government. How about those who are ready to say the opposite? These days, pressure, intimidation and harassment against them are enhanced, to the extent that the space for free speech is becoming extremely narrow in the conflict area. No matter how the government tries to impress the public that they are serious about the peace process, as long as free and safe expression about the needs and opinions of the local people is not guaranteed, the process itself will never be fully recognized by them, especially those who have different opinions not only from the government but also MARA Patani.
Even under the current circumstances, an agreement might be achieved between the current Party A and Party B in the dialogue. However, while the majority of local people have hardly any chance to voice their needs, and most of the soldiers in the field are reluctant to acknowledge the process itself, or are even ready to sabotage it, the dialogue will lead to no effective solution to the conflict. After a transition to an elected government, if it happens, all the decisions made by the military government could be cancelled by the incoming democratic government.
Personally, I believe that the Patani Peace Process as a whole must be supported, while all the stakeholders, especially Party A, Party B and the facilitator, must be realistic. Hardly any condition promises any kind of pragmatic achievement in the dialogue process. On the other hand, the importance of this dialogue lies in the creation of an atmosphere conducive to the solution of the conflict via peaceful ways rather than violent military action.
A peace process is not a guarantee of an immediate reduction of violence in the battlefield. The terrible fact about any conflict is that as long as the conflict is not solved, killings continue. I would like to encourage all the parties to consider every single death as a horrible loss for the victim’s family and friends. Let me add that there is no peace as long as people still enjoy the deaths of people from the opposite side, referring to them or regarding them as no more than animals.
All parties have their own problems to solve. They are part of these problems, and they do have responsibility to solve them. There is no need to accuse others while they do hardly anything to face these problems honestly. This kind of boring political stage show will never be supported by the local people. Don’t forget the simple fact that the purpose of the peace process is to solve the conflict for the benefit of the local people and to relieve their sufferings, not to benefit any party politically.
The following are my personal recommendations for all the main stakeholders.
Party A should provide an open space to discuss all matters related to the peace process, with guarantees that no legal or extra-judicial action shall be taken because of what the local people or others might have to say. They also have to listen to all opinions, not only from their pet organizations/individuals, but also those who are outspoken on certain issues. The current reaction from the government against activists, especially human rights activists, is exactly at variance with the creation of an atmosphere conducive to a solution of the conflict through political means. At the same time, they do have to upgrade their operations so that they are in accordance with both domestic and international law. They should remember that any kind of extrajudicial action leads to the creation of yet another condition for conflict.
Party B should present themselves far more often and needs to state their political views, their purposes, their standpoint and so on. They have provided hardly any information that would be necessary for the local people to really provide any support, if that is what they want. At the same time, they also have to clarify their internal status, i.e., to what extent they are supported among the fighters, and how they are going to solve the problem. Just stating that they can control the soldiers in the field is not at all convincing when they have never shown any evidence of it, and while killings continue in the field.
For the facilitator, it is necessary for him and his team to communicate with the local people. They shouldn’t be too selective or too elitist in choosing who might be able to see them. In these three years, the facilitator showed up only once in front of the local people. Such infrequent appearances are not at all sufficient to convince the local people that he is actually working for them. To change the perception that he’s working only for Party A and Party B is a big challenge for him. It is too early for him to encourage the participation of the local NGOs/CSOs in MARA Patani. What he might able to do is to provide more opportunities for these two parties to exchange their views in terms of a solution to the conflict in Patani.
Let the peace dialogue go forward, but don’t leave justice behind.
About the author: Hara Shintaro is a Japanese academic who has been living in the South of Thailand since 1999. He is a former Deputy Director of the Institute of Southeast Asian Maritime States Studies, Prince of Songkla University, Pattani Campus.