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Referendum, Bombings and Peace Process

With the north and Isan (northeast), the three southernmost provinces (Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat) are where the majority of the people rejected the draft constitution in the referendum held on 7 August 2016. It also must be noted that in 5 districts in the region, a majority of voters failed to cast a ballot (Khok Pho District in Pattani, Mueang and Betong districts in Yala, and Su-ngai Kolok and Sukhirin districts in Narathiwat).

Several reasons behind the overall outcome of the referendum in the region were presented by commentators. Some pointed at fear for the status of Islam under the new constitution in comparison with that of Theravada Buddhism, and others cited the impact on education of cuts to the subsidies to the local Islamic private schools, as most local students attend this kind of school rather than government schools.

There is no doubt that these reasons had some impact on voter behaviour, but it is extremely difficult to know the real reasons for sure. I would like to note here that the atmosphere in this region during the period before the referendum was remarkably silent. Hardly any public discussions on the draft were held, and one held at a local university was very poorly attended. In addition, obviously one-sided implementation of the Referendum Act by the Election Commission of Thailand (ECT) made it unnecessarily risky to have any discussion containing even the slightest objection against it.

In an area where at least two draconian special laws (Martial Law and the Emergency Decree) have been in force for more than 12 years, people have become very aware of any risk related to political activities, which they always prefer avoiding. Although village heads and their deputies had been provided with hard copies of the draft by the authorities, with the expectation that they would “properly” explain the contents to villagers (in line with what had been wished by the ECT), this rarely happened. This is in accordance with research conducted after the referendum showing that over the entire country less than 10 percent of the total population had even read the draft before the referendum.

Under such circumstances, we only can guess the reasons behind voter behaviour on referendum day, and the result can be interpreted in many ways. Here is my version.

Objection to the draft was expressed in two ways, i.e. a ‘no vote’ (boycotting the referendum) and ‘vote no’ (casting one’s vote for ‘no’).The insurgent groups used their usual unofficial public relation techniques in the referendum: hanging banners and spraying messages on roadside signs. On the banners found on 1 August in several places in the region, the term ‘Thai constitution’ written in Thai (ratthathamanun Thai), crossed out in red. This didn’t mean that they were against the constitution draft per se, but any Thai constitution, because this message is a denial of the legitimacy of the Thai state by ‘those who have different opinions and ideologies from the state’.

Those who displayed these banners are highly likely to be local members of insurgent groups who are still against the peace process, especially the General Consensus on the Peace Dialogue Process, which stipulates that the process should proceed “under the framework of the Thai Constitution”. In this context, the framework of the Thai Constitution refers to Article 1 which states that Thailand is an inseparable state.  This message was clearly sent by those who still long for independence in Patani State. Graffiti sprayed on roadside signs, found a few days later, had the same structure. This time the term used was ‘referendum’ (in Thai) with a cross on it. This message is of a more political nature, denying the referendum itself organized by the junta, and leading to ‘no vote’.

Even after these incidents, the percentage of the people in this region who voted is no different from the national average. Some voters surely boycotted the referendum, but it is too farfetched to interpret that all, or the overwhelming majority, of those who did not vote were actually against the draft. So, more than half of the local population exercised their right to vote, and approximately 60 percent of the voters disagreed with a draft constitution which was clearly far less democratic than the previous one, with their political participation greatly reduced but their obligations as citizens greatly increased and imposed by force. They found this unacceptable.

 

I am more inclined to relate the result of the referendum in this region to what happened during the aborted election under the Yingluck government. The result of that election demonstrated the geopolitical difference between the three southernmost provinces and the other 11 provinces in the south. As is widely known, these provinces are the stronghold of the Democratic Party and under the strong influence of the People’s Democratic Reform Committee, known as the whistle mob.

Although the three southernmost provinces elected MPs from the Democratic Party after the iron-fisted crackdown under Thaksin’s government, this should not be interpreted as the same staunch party support as in other southern provinces, but more as political punishment of Thaksin-related parties. Previously, this region had mainly elected MPs from the Wadah Group. After the group formed a coalition with Gen Chavalit Yongchaiyudh and his coalition joined Thaksin’s party, the situation began to change. This group, then under the leadership of Wan Muhamad Noor Matha, kept political silent after the atrocities committed under the Thaksin administration, and the hearts and minds of the local people deserted the faction. The seats won by the Democrats are not a victory for the party, but a defeat for a group which failed to express concern over what was going on then.

Therefore, when the PDRC decided to forcibly disrupt the election called by the Yingluck administration, the southernmost provinces did not follow the lead of the other southern provinces under the PDRC’s influence. Although PDRC members in the region (including a number of Malay Muslims supporting this group) were able to stage rallies in each of the three southernmost provinces to protest the election, they were not fully successful.

In almost all districts of the region, the election went ahead, except that in the most of the region, the party list vote could not be carried out because the ballot papers were seized by PDRC members in Songkhla (and no legal action has ever been taken against this political atrocity so far, even by the ECT, whose neutrality is highly questionable). Some of the local people I interviewed expressed their resentment against what they regarded as the theft of their political rights.

One of the most prominent examples of the geopolitical difference during the latest abortive election can be found in Bannang Sata District in Yala Province, where a polling station (in the compound of government offices in the area) was closed by the local PDRC members during their “shutdown” rally, with the gate chained and padlocked in order to prevent pre-election voting. However, the local administrative leaders (kamnans and village heads, most of them local Malay Muslims) gathered to cut the chain to open the compound.

Therefore, the political behaviour of the local people in the latest referendum was in accordance with what happened in the last election. The majority who cast their votes against the draft constitution wanted to preserve democratic channels which they believe might be able to reflect their wishes, especially via elections. In relation to a political solution to the armed conflict, this expression of their willingness to use political channels, and their rejection of the far less democratic system proposed in the draft constitution, which will mitigate their political rights, is a very important message to demonstrate that they still hope to solve the conflict politically and stay in the system as long as their rights are guaranteed.

The behaviour of those who voted against the draft looks more remarkable if we consider the circumstances in which they found themselves. In the referendum in the southernmost provinces, there were pressures from both sides. The government, especially the ECT under the leadership of Somchai Srisutthiyakorn (though he is not the chair of the Commission), as we have acknowledged very well, launched a grotesquely one-sided campaign before the referendum, which practically banned all public debates with any objection against the draft. On the other hand, the insurgent groups clearly expressed their objection against the referendum itself or denial of any Thai constitution. These pressures might have had some impact on voters’ behaviour, but the majority of those who voted didn’t submit to these pressures. Many of them chose to vote ‘no’.

In relation to the peace process, the result of the referendum in this region is encouraging, as a sign of a readiness to seek solutions via democratic channels, rather than military or dictatorial approaches. This message should be taken seriously by the government, because the current noticeable increase in both the number and intensity of violent incidents in the region reflects the frustration felt by the armed groups. As is explained by Sascha Helbardt in his book “Deciphering Southern Thailand’s Violence” (2015, ISEAS Publishing, Singapore), these groups communicate via a strategic use of violence.

Since the simultaneous bombings on Mother’s Day in several upper-south provinces, the violence in the south has received unusual attention both nationally and internationally, mainly because the modus operandi of the bombings is remarkably similar to that of the armed groups in the southernmost provinces. However, as is explained in the latest report on this region by the International Crisis Group (full report available from: https://www.crisisgroup.org/asia/south-east-asia/thailand/southern-thail...), the use of violence has been gradually escalating since the peace dialogue reached stalemate.

Since the referendum, the situation has become visibly tense. On the day before the referendum several bombing attacks happened in Narathiwat. On referendum day, one bomb attack was staged in Saiburi District, Pattani, aimed at local election staff bringing ballot boxes to the vote counting station. A large blast from a bomb in a stolen ambulance at a local hotel in Pattani Province on 23 August killed two civilians (one on the spot and another later in hospital) and injured nearly 30. On 30 August, a truck was robbed, presumably for the purpose of using it as a bomb; it was in fact used for that purpose, but luckily was detected before explosion in Waeng District, Narathiwat on 2 September.

What we can assume from events is that the insurgents are very unhappy with the current situation. Politically, democratic channels for the voice of people under the new constitution will be much narrower. In terms of the peace process, although the framework is still preserved, the government’s attitude toward the process has never been stable. Discussions on the terms of reference (TOR) of the talks are going on, and a meeting between the two conflicting parties is scheduled, but the head of the government just asked for the process to be slowed down. The only way they communicate with the outside world is through the use of violence. Therefore, the recent increase in violence clearly reflects their frustration.             

Here, it should be stressed that although tightening security measures in the region has some effect on preventing violence, the insurgents have adopted guerrilla warfare, making it practically impossible, first, to put the situation perfectly under the control, and second, to suppress the insurgents by using military approaches. From the lessons which should have been learnt, it is crystal clear that the only way out is political: talk.

Having said that, I would like to stress the very basic point that the talks between Party A and Party B must be on the track of a peace process, not a security process which aims only to achieve a temporary ceasefire. In my personal opinion, the real purpose of a peace process is not to achieve eternal peace. Human life teems with conflict, and these conflicts, if not managed well, often lead to violence. When a conflict reaches this stage, it will inevitably involve civilians and causes massive damage, both to lives and property.

The real purpose of a peace process is to transform a violent conflict into a moderate and manageable form so that any dispute can be settled via political channels, without the conflicting parties feeling it necessary to resort to violence. In order to achieve this goal, a peace process should create the conditions for a positive peace in which the causes and conditions creating a conflict can be addressed peacefully (without using violence), not a negative peace in which both parties agree to refrain from using violence for a period of time, but where the causes and conditions of the conflict remain intact. I call a peace process which only aims at negative peace as a security process (for further explanation, please read my article on the issue at: http://prachatai.org/english/node/6271).

For this reason, the current peace process, although its prospects are far less promising than they should be, is still crucially important as a communication channel for the armed groups. The relation between Mara Patani and the armed forces on the ground is, at this moment, still very unclear, and the extent to which the very first public political wing of the insurgents can control the soldiers is still to be proved. Some people say Mara cannot control them, whereas Mara, very understandably, say they can. I suppose the real situation is somewhere in between. They can wield control over some soldiers in certain regions, though how many soldiers and regions is totally unknown.

One of the most frequently asked questions concerning the peace process is whether the government is talking to the right group or not. There is a variety of opinion among the insurgents about the process, as in the government. Mara Patani doesn’t represent everyone in the armed groups, but they are surely members of several armed groups. I agree with the Malaysian facilitator who describes Mara as the best available members of the armed groups who are ready to talk. The very basic fact is that so far there is no official denial of Mara Patani issued by the BRN, the biggest insurgent group in the region. According to some sources (members and ex-members of the armed groups), the BRN members in Mara Patani are neither authorized nor denied by the leadership. They are allowed to pursue the peace process, while the BRN will monitor progress. If the process, in the future, is regarded as beneficial for the struggle of the ‘party ‘(this is what BRN members call their own organization), they will adopt the peace process as its official policy.

To be realistic, the accusations that Mara Patani has no control whatsoever on the field soldiers, and that they are false members of the insurgents who represent nobody, are as irrational as the opposite assumption that they can control the soldiers in the entire region and that they have the authorization of the armed groups. Rather than accusing Party B for lack of this and that, I believe it is far more constructive if we think about what can be achieved by using the current framework of the peace dialogue, and how we can upgrade it into a proper peace process, i.e., peace negotiations whose aim is the creation of positive peace in the region.

Some researchers, analysts and security officers have said that Mara Patani is nothing, and no achievements could be expected. Therefore, they continued, a new channel must be established so that the state can directly communicate with those who use violence in the region. I must say they have conveniently forgotten one thing: how will this side-lining of Mara be seen by those who use the violence in the field? These people are extremely difficult to access. While Party A has never been successful in building mutual trust with Party B on the ground, how is it possible to be trusted by those who are far more secretive, fugitive and sceptical? While the government has been engaged in a peace process with Mara Patani, in secret (or by stealth) they double-cross Mara Patani in order to contact soldiers in the field, who will immediately distrust the government.

There is nothing wrong with talking to those in the field who are ready to talk, especially ex-political prisoners, ex-detainees, and those who have surrendered. But this should not be regarded as a replacement of the proper track of the peace process. A successful peace process must be inclusive, but a misdirected and disordered proliferation of tracks leads only to chaos. In the end, this chaos will create a completely unhelpful environment for the pursuit of a meaningful peace process.

The current political situation in Thailand and the lack of preparedness of Mara Patani (including its unity, authorization from all the military groups, and evidence of their control over soldiers in the field, etc.) make it highly unlikely that the current round of peace dialogue can achieve an agreement in near future to completely end the conflict. However, there are still a number of small things which can be achieved.

One of these which should be taken seriously by both sides is the issue of safety zones. Safety has been the most serious concern of the local people, and they have become more concerned with the recent rise in casualties among civilians and the escalation in the insurgent military operations. Some people have demanded safety zones. Though their demands are understandable, this kind of one-sided, unplanned, and unorganized demand will be rarely fruitful. What is important is that this point should be taken up in the peace dialogue and discussed widely in the field by all stakeholders. The operation is highly delicate, but this is a good time. The government is led by the military itself.

Certainly, mutual trust building in this process is going to take a long time, but this kind of joint operation among the conflicting parties on a very small scale in a very limited geographical region is not completely useless. We surely have to condemn the use of violence at all times, but at the same time, if we are really against the use of violence, and it is used by those who are rational, not a mentally disturbed bunch of terrorists, we need to help them by encouraging them to abandon the idea of using violence as a powerful political negotiating tool.

Those around the peace process need to help both sides, and in a vertical conflict, the non-government side in general needs more help than the other side. Of course criticism is always needed and welcome, but continuous meaningless disparagement of the stakeholders leads nowhere. Both sides should be criticized, but they also should be helped when in need. Simply denouncing all sides for everything is not a proper attitude toward a peace process. This is always done by those who are mainly outside the conflict area.