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Symmetry in the peace process for an asymmetric conflict in Thailand's Deep South

At the end of February 2018 there were reports from the mainstream media in Thailand about the detailed plan for the safety zone and the safe house which would be located in the vast precinct of the Pattani Provincial Islamic Council [1]. These reports were based on sources from the Thai negotiation team, such as Gen Aksara Kerdphol, the head of the Thai delegation, and Maj Gen Sitthi Trakulwong, the secretary of the dialogue team. According to the reports, in April 2018 the safe house will be established, and the steering committee for the safety zone, called the Joint Action Committee (JAC) will be formed in May. The safety zone will operate for three months from June until September, followed by a three-month evaluation period [2].
Ever since this plan became known to the public, very few people were confident that such an immaturely ambitious plan would be feasible at this stage of the conflict. The press conference held by three representatives of Mara Patani (Ustaz Shukri Hari and Ustaz Ahmad Chuwo from Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) and Abu Hafez Al-Hakim from Barisan Islam Pembebasan Patani (BIPP) about a month later on 23 March haห made the prospect even dimmer [3]. In the press release, Mara Patani stressed that talk about the safety zone was still at the technical team level, and “has not been endorsed by the Joint Working Group Peace Dialogue Process (JWG-PDP); hence all the agreements reached are not yet final” [4].
This was released just about a week before the scheduled setting up of the safe house previously reported by the Thai media. Therefore at least the timeline of the plan needs be altered (postponed) accordingly, and probably there could be some changes in the entire plan.
Mara Patani also stated it has “confidence in the Thai peace dialogue team mandated by the Prime Minister and we are convinced that it is a formal process that has been adopted as a national agenda.” This statement indicates that the dialogue itself is relatively smooth between the panels from both sides. However, Mara Patani questioned “certain statements and actions by the Fourth Army Commander that contradict the peace dialogue process”. These are the Bring People Home Project and the claim of 14 districts as unilaterally established safety zones. Mara stressed in the same statement that “the two abovementioned issues are not at all related to the peace dialogue process between Mara Patani and the Thai government.”
Since the commencement of the peace process in 2013 to this day, Party B has always been under criticism about its authenticity as the legitimate representative of the armed groups operating in Patani. Ustaz Hasan Taib, the former head of the BRN dialogue team, was exposed to this criticism because he allegedly had not obtained a mandate from the supreme leading council of the organisation, known as the DPP (Dewan Pimpinan Partai). For the second round of the peace dialogue process, although Mara Patani has been joined by at least some senior BRN members, the BRN itself as an organisation hasn’t yet taken part in it. Due to this fact, the criticism of its authenticity is not completely without any sound reason. Don Pathan notes that “the umbrella organisation does not have control over the combatants on the ground” [5].
However, the latest press release from Mara Patani has made it clear that even Party A actually has to face the same challenge as has been faced by its dialogue partner, Party B. It is not about the authenticity of Party A as the representative of the Thai government, which Mara Patani has fully acknowledged in the press release: “We have confidence in the Thai peace dialogue team mandated by the Prime Minister, and we are convinced that it is a formal process that has been adopted as a national agenda.” What this press release has made clear is the very fact that the dialogue team of Party A faces a serious problem in controlling the behaviour of the armed forces in the conflict area which is under the command of ISOC Region 4.
This, in fact, is not something new. Even the peace dialogue team of the Thai government indicated this in a leaflet on the peace dialogue process produced by the dialogue team itself. Apart from the media and academics, it states government officials could be possible peace spoilers, although it does not specify who it means. It states “some government officials still maintain secret contacts with certain groups/factions/sides of people with different views and brought proposals from these groups to pressure the Government” [6]. This happened even during the first round of the peace dialogue, and some insurgent leaders met by the author confirmed that they had been contacted by security officers who were not involved in the peace dialogue.
The same leaflet also said, “There is also a budget issue which comes down to the area but is leaked to support violent groups without the knowledge of the budget allocators, especially the intelligence and development budgets” [7]. It can be implied that the control of the central government over the behaviour of local officials in the conflict region is not as tight as it should be.
The very self-confident attitude of the commander of ISOC Region 4, ironically, instead of doing something good for promoting the peace in the region, testifies to the discrepancy which exists between the dialogue team of the Thai government and its local operating unit.
The commander describes the Bring People Home project as “the right course of action undertaken by the Fourth Army Region, but the project might cause dissatisfaction among some separatist groups because they are losing their support base” [8]. His speculation is highly questionable, though.
A very high profile event of picking up an insurgent combatant, Ahama Duere, by the commander himself in a military helicopter on 24 February 2017 was widely reported by the Thai media. An insurgent source confirmed that he had been a member of the organisation but had surrendered to the authorities a few years before the event.
In an event organised on 14 February 2018, 103 people, including women and children, who were the members of an insurgent organisation, PULO (Patani United Liberation Organisation), and their families, who had escaped to Malaysia, were brought back. However, Kasturi Mahkota, one of the senior leaders of the organisation, describes it as “a cheap political play” [9].
Despite its dubious characteristics, the commander seized an opportunity when the conflict area was visited by representatives from the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). According to the commander, the OIC had been satisfied with the project, which in turn convinced him that the southern unrest would be over soon [10]. The OIC is most unlikely to have uttered anything counter-diplomatic, and the organisation also has connections with Mara Patani. Therefore to what extent the OIC could be convinced by his project remains unclear.
The Bring People Home project itself assumes characteristics of social re-integration and social rehabilitation. In order that these processes should be effective, transitional justice is an integral part, and in other parts of the world, this only can happen in a post-conflict era. Don Pathan describes it as ‘a half-baked amnesty programme’ [11]. Such one-sided social re-integration and rehabilitation is simply not feasible under the current circumstances.
Even faced with the press release from Mara Patani, the commander’s determination was not affected, and he will not relinquish his plan to pursue another one-sided peacebuilding activity in his version of the safety zone. According to Thai PBS, he said “The more they (MARA Patani) talk, the more I like it because this shows that our policy has achieved its target. That is why they woke up and started talking, and they will talk more because those who are liable for the unrest in the past decade will steadily emerge” [12]. It is difficult to find any objective or academic sources to verify the effectiveness of his policy. His attitude and speeches might give the impression that the Thai state is not monolithic in solving the conflict.
Following recent developments, it has become clear that the safety zone project is highly unlikely to happen according to the original plan as was broadcast by the Thai media. Apparently, the negotiation teams from both sides are facing the same problem of controlling the operating forces on the ground. As long as this issue is not solved, no significant progress will be possible in the dialogue process.
The process itself has been felt as something very remote from the local people. The Thai representatives are from Bangkok, whereas MARA Patani members live in other countries, and talks are always held in Kuala Lumpur. The facilitator, who appeared in Patani during the last round of the dialogue, has deserted the conflict area for such a long time, and has not come to Patani ever since the beginning of the second round of the dialogue. In a closed discussion, many local observers described him as the facilitator for Party A and Party B but not for other stakeholders. If he is really committed to his duty, one of so many things he could do is probably to come to the conflict area, both to provide explanations of the process and to listen to the opinions from various groups in the region, many of whom might present severe criticism.
Currently, there are not many positive factors which might drive the process forward in the near future, but it doesn’t mean that the process itself is utterly useless. The relative expansion in public space to discuss the matter openly is a significant by-product of the process.
In these discussions, especially closed ones, local activists, researchers, journalists, observers and so on often conduct analyses of local actors in the conflict. As far as I can remember, there has been not a single discussion of this sort which does not include ISOC Region 4 as one of the most significant, powerful and influential actors. It outdoes, for instance, local politicians and other government agencies such as the Southern Border Provinces Administration Centre (SBPAC). Whether or not peace can be achieved in this conflict area largely relies on how this important actor behaves.
The selection of the commander by Bangkok still shows that serious engagement in solving the problems in the southernmost provinces is not given the highest priority. Gen. Piyawat, apart from his tough-talking which is admired in Thai society and the policymakers in Bangkok, as is stated in an opinion piece in the Nation [13], has a very strong connection with the ruling elite. His brother, Gen. Teerachai Nakwanich was commander-in-chief of the Thai army [14] and is now a member of the Privy Council [15].
The current commander will be here until his retirement in September 2018. Among the things the Thai government can do is to choose someone who is conducive to peace-building following the national policy of solving the conflict in the southernmost provinces through the dialogue process, not somebody who is always providing tough talk which is music to the ears of those who are outside the conflict area. The commander can claim that he can ‘Bring People Home’, but there is no way for other stakeholders to bring him back to Bangkok.
[1] Following my previous articles, the name ‘Patani’ is used to refer to the entire conflict area in the southernmost provinces of Thailand, while ‘Pattani’, with two ‘t’s, is the name of one of the provinces in the conflict area.
[2] ข่าว สามมิติ 24 February 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=om4oh5s0D9E
[4] Press release by Mara Patani, 23 March 2018.
[5] Don Pathan, 29 Mac 2018, “Southern Thai Peace Talks Hit Snag Over Rebel Group’s Demand”, https://www.benarnews.org/english/commentaries/far-south-view/Don-Pathan...
[6] p.19, การพูดคุยเพื่อสันติสุขจังหวัดชายแดนภาคใต้, by คณะพูดคุยเพื่อสันติสุขจังหวัดชายแดนภาคใต้, 2016
[7] Ibid.
[11] Don Pathan, ibid.