Abu Hafez Al-Hakim is a spokesperson of MARA-Patani, a leading insurgent movement in Muslim Malay-majority southern Thailand and is a member of MARA Patani's Dialogue Panel in the Peace Dialogue Process with the Thai government
My previous article
on the peace process ended with a high expectation that Safety Zone (SZ) implementation would be put on trial as a pilot project by the first half of 2017. However, that never materialised. If anything, it goes to show that a peace process is always unpredictable, fragile and never without obstacles.
The Joint Technical Team (JTT) of both parties A and B had been working towards drafting the General Framework for the Safety Zones (GF-SZ) since 26 October 2016. By February 2017 it was completed and was submitted for endorsement in the Third Joint Working Group - Peace Dialogue Process (JWG-PDP) meeting on 28 February 2017, another milestone of the peace process. Interestingly, the date coincided with the historic signing ceremony of the General Consensus on the Peace Dialogue Process in Kuala Lumpur four years ago. Party B named five possible districts, two in Narathiwat, two in Yala and one in Pattani, to implement the Safety zones from which only one would be selected as the pilot project. The names of the districts were however not disclosed to the public.
Following the endorsement of the GF-SZ, the JTT continued detailing the components, regulations and the implementation aspects of the framework. At the core of the agenda were the release of prisoners, its legal procedures and implications, the establishment of the Safe House (SH) as a Coordination Centre and the formation of the Joint Action Committee (JAC) in any designated Safety Zone.
The JTT met again on 6 April 2017 to form an Assessment Team (AT), to mutually explore and identify the one district as the pilot project. However, in the following meeting on 27 April 2017, the AT issue was dropped because party B was given the privilege of choosing the "one district" at the onset of the preparation stage. The meeting, therefore, proceeded with the discussion on the Safe House (SH), a coordination centre to be manned by a joint local working team (7 from each party) that will assist and coordinate the formation of JACs in the SZs.
Similar to the ToR (Terms of Reference), documents about the SZs are still classified. That raised a lot of questions and speculation. The period of "no meeting " for almost four months added more to the queries. Were they having problems at the table? Was the process viable and moving? More questions were asked about SZs themselves. Is it a cease-fire or a safe-area model? The answer is neither.
Basically, the SZ is first of all about CIVILIAN PROTECTION. In any designated SZ, the safety and well-being of civilians in their day-to-day lives is a priority. Both parties (A and B) will refrain from all actions where civilian casualties are anticipated. Ideally, in the SZ there should be no violent incidents from either side. However should there be incidents, both parties would work together to identify the perpetrators whom, when confirmed, will be dealt with based on existing laws.
Secondly, freedom of expression is guaranteed. The people are free to voice opinions, especially political, without pressure, harassment or intimidation. Public forums and debates on all community-related issues are encouraged.
Thirdly, the people in the SZ can actively participate and decide what they need/do not need for their community through the JAC. This is in line with the "self-administered community " policy.
The pilot project in one district would serve as a confidence-building exercise. It would be a testing ground to see if both parties could work with each other after years of armed fighting and their ability to curb violence.
The time frame for the SZ would start with the establishment of the Safe House (SH). Then there will be a period of three months preparation followed by another three months implementation. At the end of the exercise (six months) the JTT will evaluate and make a recommendation to the JWG-PDP whether the SZ should be extended, expanded, suspended or terminated altogether.
Abu Hafez Al-Hakim
On 12 September 2017, the JTT met again. At this juncture, party A was pressing for the "one district", while party B would reserve disclosure until all issues related to SZ are discussed and agreed upon. The disagreement over this issue prompted the Malaysian Facilitator to call off the meeting just before lunch. Both parties would go back, review their stance and return to the dialogue table in two weeks’ time. That was the second obstacle faced at the table (the first one was the dispute over the ToR in the 27 April 2016 meeting )
The expected meeting on 27 September 2017 did not take place. The Facilitator was engaging the mainstream BRN who had earlier issued a media statement and had submitted proposals for their stance on the peace process. It was rumoured that Mr Zamzamin Hashim had tried to arrange a meeting between General Aksara Kerdphol, the Thai panel chief and Dunloh Wae Matnor or Pok Su Loh of the BRN. Despite rumours, vague media reports and diplomatic speculation, the highly controversial meeting has not yet occurred. The initiative is on-going.
There were no other peace talk meetings towards the end of 2017. Both parties, however, conveyed communication through the facilitator on unsettled issues of the SZs. It is worth mentioning here that at the beginning of 2018 the light at the end of the tunnel is becoming clearer. In an off-table encounter in January at Kuala Lumpur, both sides struck a deal, achieved a significant "breakthrough" and agreed to resume the peace talk meetings. This was realized by the JTT meeting on 7 February 2018, whereby the teams wrapped up the remaining issues on the SZs. It is just a matter of another two or three meetings ahead, and both parties are ready to kick-start the SZ exercise in the agreed pilot district.
The success of SZs very much depends on both parties coming to terms on a common agenda: To create a peaceful and safe atmosphere for civilians, to open space for freedom of speech and expression, and to allow communities to manage themselves in all aspects. The NGOs and CSOs will have significant roles in the SZs. They will be part of the JACs and collaborate with the appointed representatives from communities as supportive resources groups. They will also help in organising public forums and fact-finding exercises.
This said, the SZ is not without challenges from both inside and outside. The anticipated sabotage by opponents of the peace process and spoilers is not to be taken lightly. Only through wisdom, cooperation, patience, sincerity and strong commitment from all those who are involved plus strong community support could a safe and peaceful atmosphere be created for civilians, the very first step towards a just, comprehensive and sustainable conflict resolution.
(The article was proofread by Prachatai.)