Muslims all over the world are observing their religious duty of fasting during the holy month, Ramadan. Hostility being prohibited during this month, many people have the naive hope that the conflict situation in Patani, or the Muslim-majority southernmost provinces of Thailand, will improve at least temporarily. The state seized the chance to mobilize local religious leaders to stage a supererogatory (additional, non-compulsory) prayer for peace via the ISOC Region 4 office, mainly to show that the state is always making its best efforts to create peace in the region.
It certainly cannot be denied that the special status of Ramadan has some appeal to pious Muslims to do good things during this holy month. But such one-sided, so called ‘peace promoting’ efforts by the state, all of which are paid for via the huge state budget, clearly show that the state, especially the military, has never successfully understood the crucial characteristics of the armed groups, the BRN in particular.
When you are engaged in a long battle with a group of people, a common psychological reaction is to unduly underestimate the power of the opposite side, dismissing all evidence that shows that they are in fact powerful. This might be the reason why so many men in uniform, including the top brass, are still inclined to regard the armed groups as ‘gangs of criminals’, the view first expressed by Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was expelled in the 2006 coup. Following this misleading presumption, the Thaksin administration took an iron-fist approach to members of the armed groups in the region, including two notorious massacres at Kru Se Mosque on 28 April 2004 and at Tak Bai on 25 October of the same year. This approach was not only miserably unsuccessful in destroying the armed groups, it also radicalized many local people, especially the young, giving a great advantage to recruiters for the armed groups.
For this reason, the start of a peace process under the Yingluck government with the signing on the General Consensus on the Peace Dialogue Process was significant because this was the first time that the Thai government had officially recognized the presence of “people with opinions and ideologies different from the state” as “one of the stakeholders in solving the Southern Border Provinces problem” (The text of the General Consensus is available here
:). The ceremony, widely reported by the international media, was regarded as the starting point for a proper peace process, the best solution for one of the deadliest conflicts in the region. Finally, the state seemed to acknowledge the most influential armed group based on a proper understanding of its organization. However, this understanding was not shared by the vast majority in the security forces.
After the first round of the peace process came to a dead end, the second attempt by the military government now also seems to be heading for the same fate, after the draft Terms of Reference (ToR) were dismissed by the Thai government. So in the three years since the signing of the historic consensus, only a few preliminary talks or meetings at the working team level have been held, while the actual process has never reached the starting point for proper talks.
Although these abortive processes have brought about some positive changes, including the participation of the public during the first round and the appearance of members of the BRN and other armed groups in public, hardly any political agreement has so far been achieved. The first and last concrete attempt was initiated by the Malaysian facilitator in 2013 in the shape of the “Ramadan Peace Initiative” that was announced by the facilitator himself without the attendance of representatives of either Party A or Party B. Only a few superficially peaceful days passed before this gentlemen’s agreement was suddenly breached, both sides accusing the other side of violating the agreement. Then the rest of the holy month became as bloody as those in previous years.
Ramadan might be a good time to start an attempt at peace, but this assumption, in my opinion, is too naive, because those who make this suggestion have failed to see the organization of the armed groups. A clear overview of the armed groups, especially the biggest and most influential, the BRN, has never been successfully given by anybody, as for these organizations, secrecy is strength. But serious anthropological studies make it clear that the BRN resorts to jihadism (in its highly Malay-nationalized version) for the recruitment of new members. Here, a jihad against the infidels who have colonized their motherland is regarded as one of the religious duties, and the emergency state of the jihad exempts them from other religious prohibitions.
The misunderstanding, or to be more precise, the almost institutionalized underestimate of the strength of the armed groups, dismissing them as gangs of common criminals, is one of the main reasons why the peace process has never been able to move forward. With this assumption, the overall understanding of the armed groups by state officials seems to have stayed at the same level for years. Only a very limited number have ever seriously tried to understand this matter. The majority are still satisfied with their unsupported assumption. Exactly for this reason, the state has never been prepared to engage in a ‘peace process’ of dialogue and negotiation. The total lack of political will on the government side has been obvious. The Yingluck administration, although it had itself launched the process, then assigned Deputy PM Chalerm Yubamrung as the minister in charge. This was a particularly insensitive selection as the politician was notorious for his drunkenness, and he lived up to his notoriety by coming to the south only a few times, each time heavily guarded by the security forces. The actual talks were undertaken by Maj. Gen. Paradorn Pattanatabut, then Secretary-General of the National Security Council (NSC), and Pol. Col. Thawee Sodsong, then Secretary-General of the Southern Border Provinces Administration Centre (SBPAC). They must have been in a difficult position: although the central government was never seriously committed to the process, they still had to attend meetings with hard-liners from the BRN. After the abortive effort of the facilitator for a peaceful Ramadan in 2013, the process came to a dead end, and the political turmoil in Bangkok caused by the PDRC pushed the process completely aside, as if the tremendous noise from the thousands of whistles had overwhelmed the call for peace from the feeble voices of powerless doves.
The military government set up after the latest coup by Gen. Prayut initially looked more concerned about the peace process than its predecessors. Gen. Prayut’s official visit to Malaysia and his meeting with that country’s PM on 1 December 2014 was seen by some as a new start for the long neglected peace process. However, the recent dismissal of the negotiation team leader, Maj. Gen. Nakrop, from his position and the subsequent rejection of the ToR for the dialogue have shown that the current military government has no more political commitment than the previous one. The fate of the second round of the process is now as uncertain as for the first round.
The latest move by ISOC Region 4 in filing charges against three human right activists whose report revealed torture by the security forces of detainees in security-related cases is yet another reflection of the state’s attitude toward the peace process. If the state has ever regarded the peace process as political, this preposterous accusation would be the last thing to do. The army is always saying that there is no evidence to show that there is torture, but the fact is that the army has never been open-minded enough to accept evidence from the media, human right activists, or NGOs. Some cases are so obviously the military’s responsibility, including the brutal killing of Imam Yapha Kaseng (known as Imam Zakaria by local people) and complaints about mistreatment have been filed by human right organizations such as Amnesty International, the Cross Cultural Foundation, the Muslim Attorney Centre (MAC), and the Duay Jai Group.
I was told by a few people about their experience of torture during detention under the draconian martial law which allows the security forces to detain anyone on suspicion for seven days, wherever they like. Some of them explained the torture methods used by the officers. Although none of these people knew each other, their explanations were alarmingly similar, suggesting the systematic practice of torture by the military. It is highly unlikely that these people would be willing to destroy the credibility of the state by making up stories, as suggested by the spokesperson of the military. Even talking about their experience might be risky, as can be seen from the military’s reaction. So, the question is, why on earth would these people make up stories and risk their safety?
If the military are ready to engage in a political process, the first thing is to accept the report by setting up a reliable fact-finding team. Then they need to file cases against the perpetrators for their misbehaviour according to its severity. In this way, the state would prove its political commitment to the peace process, and it will become clear that the state has recognized Party B as a genuine political stakeholder in the peace process which must be treated properly.
On the other hand, the attempt to criminalize the human right activists is not only detrimental to the peace process, but may in the long run damage the reputation of the army itself. It must be stressed that not all detainees are tortured. So among the military, there must be some (hopefully a majority) who are decent enough to treat detainees in a humane, or less inhumane, way, and only a small number of thugs who are committed to torture. But a stubborn denial by the state of the existence of torture only enhances suspicions of the organized, systematized and institutionalized practice of torture. Unfortunately, the absolute power seized after the coup seems to have already blinded these officers; they are no longer able to judge soundly how their reaction, especially this kind of knee-jerk denial of misbehaviour, might impress others.
In short, this latest development only can happen under conditions where the state still regards the armed groups as gangs of common criminals, who do not deserve proper treatment in a political sense. The very simple fact is that the state has almost no chance of victory over the armed groups, not because of the state’s (and the army’s) weaknesses, which certainly should be addressed, but because the armed groups, especially the BRN, are so well organized and deeply integrated into local society that there is no way to eradicate them completely. (For those who are interested in this issue, the book by Sasha Helbardt, “Deciphering Southern Thailand’s Violence: Organization and Insurgent Practices of BRN-Coordinate,” from ISEAS Publishing is very useful). Only after the authorities acknowledge the armed groups as proper organizations, not as gangs of criminals, can a proper peace process as a political process be inaugurated. As a consequence, a genuine peace process has never been pursued by the state, which has so far seen it as no more than a ‘security process’, persistently regarding the conflict as merely a domestic problem.
This misleading view has always been enforced by an ignorant and irresponsible media, especially some newspapers (mainly owned by the conservative elite of the country) who call the armed groups ‘southern bandits’ (chon tai). These newspapers have large circulations, and repeatedly reproduce misunderstandings about the situation. They have hardly ever played any role in peace building, concentrating instead on selling newspapers with pictures of dead bodies stained in blood.
The perception of the state is in clear contrast with that of Party B, which, since the beginning, has seen the peace process as a chance to upgrade or transform their struggle from military-dominated operations to a political process. The Five Preliminary Demands presented in the first round, even when the state was not prepared at all to negotiate on anything, clearly show their standpoint. This crucial difference of perception became gradually clearer, and in the end a video clip released by BRN, featuring the head of the delegation, Ustaz Hassan Taib, announced his retirement from his position. MARA Patani, the political coalition of most of the armed groups initiated by one of the BRN factions, also basically keeps the same standpoint. The armed groups have been expecting political negotiations in the future, and see the peace dialogue as the entry point for future steps. However, given this clear difference in the perceptions of the peace process, it is highly unlikely that anything can be achieved. Sooner or later, the second round of the peace process will follow the same fate as the first round. There was nothing astonishing about the dismissal of the head of the delegation, Maj. Gen. Nakrop, by the state just before the meeting scheduled in Kuala Lumpur.
In order for this current “security process” to become a proper “peace process”, the state perception of the armed groups needs to change. Media, academics and NGOs are among those who might be able to play a role in this, though under the current military government such a change is extremely difficult.
Another obstacle to the process becoming a genuine peace process lies on the side of the armed groups. Ever since the process began, people have always been asking whether or not those who came to the talks were the real representatives of their organizations. The biggest concern has been whether they are actually able to control their armed forces in the field.
This point is really controversial. So far, there is hardly any concrete evidence to show that they can command the rank-and-file soldiers who form the RKK in the field (which is the smallest military cell of the BRN, not an independent organization as grossly misunderstood by some). Some scholars and journalists have described Ustaz Hassan Taib as a ‘self-appointed liaison officer’, as if he has no mandate whatsoever from the organization, and accordingly has no influence at all on the fighters in the battlefield. This view is as unlikely as the assumption that they wield full command over them. Neither the negotiation team lead by Ustaz Hassan Taib, nor MARA Patani, especially its BRN members, are the political wing of the armed groups. In my opinion, they come from the pro-peace process faction of the BRN that has its own military forces, and the anti-peace process faction also has both political and military wings. According to almost all sources, the majority of BRN members are still against the peace process, regarding the political process as an unacceptable compromise. We might safely assume that this might be true. But some sources also told me that support for the peace process is increasing. It is still impossible to answer the question about how many percent are for or against the peace process. And apart from these two groups, there must be a number of opportunists who have not decided on their position.
Under these circumstances, however, the state, especially the army, is always suspicious about this matter, which in turn affects their commitment to the peace process. In this we cannot accuse the state. In negotiations to solve an armed conflict, when the opposition’s ability to control its armed forces is unclear, they will not be regarded as a fully eligible stakeholder. MARA Patani, especially its BRN members, have to demonstrate their influence, or at least show some evidence that their political activity is approved by most of the military members.
In addition, MARA Patani needs to improve its communication strategy. As a political gathering of the armed groups, the organization is remarkably silent. It had only one press conference, and the President, Awang Jabat, appeared at a peace media event held in Prince of Songkla University, Pattani Campus, on 28 February. Since then, MARA Patani has kept silent. Only a few non-BRN members of MARA Patani try to communicate with the outside world, whereas no personal attempt has been made by any BRN member. The latest (and controversial) peace poll showed that only 25 percent of local people had ever heard the name of MARA Patani (compared to more than 50 percent for PULO and BRN). They declare themselves to be the representatives of the Patani people. But when an overwhelming majority of the people do not know about MARA Patani, how can they dialogue or negotiate with the Thai government on the Patani people’s behalf?
To sum up, at this moment, both Party A and Party B face several serious obstacles before they can fully engage in a proper peace process. Unless these issues are properly dealt with, the process will remain at the level of a ‘security process’, while more damage to the local society in Patani accumulates, and Ramadan is no exception. Let’s be realistic.