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From santiphap to santisuk: What Mahathir’s visit to Thailand indicates

The peace process to solve the conflict in the southernmost provinces of Thailand, known as Patani, which was officially inaugurated officially on 28 February 2013, has never been smooth. The process is susceptible to any significant political change, and a small hitch may cause a long stagnation. The visit of the Malaysian Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad, to Thailand during 24 and 25 October 2018, seems to have signalled a promising restart. The conflict was allegedly top of the agenda in his meeting with the Thai Prime Minister. [1] During his stay in Thailand, he behaved as the ideal guest in a country which has been governed by a junta since the military coup in 2014. Mahathir, 93, also visited his ‘old friend’, the President of the Privy Council, Prem Tinsulanonda, 99. [2] Quite significantly, his visit took place on the anniversary of the notorious massacre in Tak Bai, Narathiwat Province, on 25 October 2004, in which at least 87 demonstrators were ruthlessly killed by the security forces. Mahathir was diplomatic enough not to mention anything about it during his visit.

After his visit, there have been many discussions and exchanges in the conflict area of Patani about the prospects for the peace process, both formally and informally. In these discussions, I found that a significant number of people saw Mahathir’s visit to Thailand as a promising sign that there would be considerable progress. In fact, the visit can be interpreted as the final piece of the line-up needed by the junta in order to build peace in the conflict area according to their plan. Mahathir practically endorsed santisuk, the version of peace wanted by the Thai state, rather than santiphap, the Thai word generally used for the meaning of ‘peace’.

These two Thai terms, santiphap and santisuk, when translated into English, can both mean ‘peace’. Originally the peace process was named as the Peace Dialogue Process, in which the Thai translation for the term peace was santiphap, not santisuk. The change happened after Prayuth visited Malaysia to see then Prime Minister Najib Razak. He officially asked Najib for Malaysia to continue to act as the facilitator of  the process, which he named as the Peace (Santisuk) Dialogue Process. [3] What are the differences between these two words?

Santiphap means peace, and in a peace process which seeks this kind of peace there would be certain changes in political, legal or administrative structures. In case of the Peace Dialogue Process commenced by the civilian government led by Yingluck Shinawatra, this might be something the state had in mind at that time. The purpose was to find political solutions for the root causes of the conflict, in order to build sustainable peace in the conflict area by recognising legitimacy, identities and demands of the non-state parties. This type of peace is also called ‘positive peace’ or ‘liberal peace’.

On the other hand, santisuk is a term basically used for the settlement of an internal dispute. In other words, santisuk is no more than a condition under which there is no use of violence or disturbance. Therefore, things like a temporary ceasefire, an armistice or even a temporary decline in the use of violence are regarded as peace itself, without requiring any structural changes in the state. In this frame, a peace process is merely a manoeuvre of counter insurgency measures. This type of peace is also called ‘negative’ or ‘illiberal’ peace. Accordingly, the use of the term santisuk by the military government is an indirect assertion that the conflict is an internal problem, not an armed conflict. It is highly likely that the junta wants to apply the combination of partial or limited amnesty and development plans which was effective in quelling the Communist rebels in the past.    

Santisuk, rather than santiphap, also suits what Mahathir probably has in his mind as the solution for the problem in the south. In 2005, he initiated secret talks called the Langkawi Process. A document called the “Joint Peace and Development Plan for Southern Thailand” was signed, which was “handed to former prime minister Anand Panyarachun who forwarded to Thaksin. But Thaksin was too busy with the Yellow Shirt demonstrators that was brewing up in Bangkok.” [4] The contents of the document were no more than the settlement of the dispute by certain measures that did not include any change in the administrative structure.

Mahathir’s controversial appointment of Abdul Rahim Noor is very telling. The former Inspector General of the Malaysian police is known for his misuse of power against Anwar Ibrahim while he was detained. He was later jailed for the offence. His appointment was flatly rejected by Anwar’s daughter, Nurul Izzah, who is also an MP and a Vice-President of the Parti Keadilan Rakyat (People’s Justice Party). She described the ex-police chief as “a brutal assaulter of an innocent man” while “he lay there blindfolded and handcuffed - left without medical attention for days”. [5] Before being promoted to police chief, Rahim Noor was the head of the Special Branch (SB), the section of the police which has been closely monitoring the movements of Thai insurgent members in Malaysia. He is certainly in a position to wield his influence to pressure these organisations, but whether or not he is a suitable person as facilitator of the peace process, which requires a high level of political understanding, is highly debatable.

According to a member of MARA Patani, there was a meeting with the insurgent organisations (apart from the mainstream of the BRN) with the newly appointed facilitator. He explained that he was prepared to use ‘legal measures’ for the success of the dialogue process. Although no detailed explanation was provided, given the fact that a number of insurgent organisation members are in Malaysia without any official documents, it indicates that certain actions might be taken against these members as pressure to join the process. [6]

Rahim Noor also stated in the meeting that he would be in the position of the facilitator for no more than two years, until Anwar Ibrahim, supposedly the next Prime Minister, appoints a new person to the job. There is a high level of uncertainty about this. First, even though at first Mahathir clearly stated that he would be Prime Minister for one or two years, this is a political promise which can be discarded at any point. [7] If his health allows, there is the possibility that he might stay longer than that. [8] Another uncertainty is whether Mahathir will really hand over the premiership to Anwar Ibrahim, his long-time political foe. Everyone understands that the cooperation between these two men is merely for the sake of the defeating the long-time ruling Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition in elections. It is highly likely that the best option for Mahathir is to appoint as his successor somebody who can inherit his political and economic agendas, but not Anwar. If this happens, the facilitator, whose appointment is purely political, will be the same person as the current one.

Mahathir is seemingly ready to help the Thai government to settle the problem in Patani which borders his country following the line of santisuk, not santiphap. For this purpose, he picked a person who can directly pressure the insurgents. Rahim Noor “spent a great deal of his career back in the 1980s clamping down on a communist insurgency along the Thai border”. [9] Mahathir is also known among the insurgents as the Malaysian PM who was responsible for the arrest of two prominent PULO leaders from Tha Nam, Haji Ismail and Haji Daud (respectively known as Sama-ae Thanam and Dao Thanam in Thailand). There is no guarantee that he will not use the same method to pressure members of the mainstream BRN who have been persistently reluctant to join the process. 

Those who have Malay nationalistic tendencies in the conflict area see the role of Malaysia in the peace process as that of an ASEAN country which helps its fellow ASEAN government to solve an internal problem, rather than a country of Malay Muslim brothers. Mahathir and Najib Razak, the former PM of Malaysia, have at least two things in common. First is the appointment of a crony as facilitator. Najib’s appointment of Ahmad Zamzamin Hashim, an ex-chief of the national intelligence, was in essence no different from Mahathir’s appointment of Rahim Noor. Second, and more important, is that both Mahathir and Najib are staunchly against the independence of Patani. This attitude is convincing the Thai state rather than the insurgents, their supporters and sympathisers in the region.

The Thai state is also preparing for a santisuk form of settlement. In the 20-year National Strategic Plan, there is no space for political solutions for the conflict, such as significant changes in administration. [10] Basically the plan is to maintain the structure set up by the NCPO (National Council for Peace and Order) for at least two decades. The problem in the south is regarded as a security problem like drug abuse and crime. This plan indirectly indicates that the solution for the unrest in the south must be in the form of negative peace or illiberal peace.

The head of the peace dialogue panel for the Thai side, Aksara Kerdphol, was also replaced by Udomchai Thammasaroraj, former commander of the Fourth Army Region. Aksara never succeeded in bringing the mainstream BRN into the talks, and his dispute with then commander of the Fourth Army Region, Piyawat Nakwanit, was publicly known. Certainly Udomchai has much better connections with the Fourth Army Region where he worked for many years. He is also a member of the Forward Cabinet set up by the NCPO to solve the problem in the south, and comes to the conflict area much oftener than his predecessor. However, probably the most significant reason for his appointment is that he is the mastermind behind the Bring People Home Project, a replication of the scheme used by the Thai state against the communist rebels. This project, that is in essence a combination of partial amnesty and development schemes, is perfectly in accordance with the concept of peace held by the state, represented by the term santisuk. 

Under these conditions, what will be the future of the current peace dialogue process? In his meeting with the insurgent organisations, according to the same MARA resource mentioned above, Rahim Noor stated that they had spent long enough building mutual confidence. Therefore, there would be no more talk on the establishment of safety zones, the regional ceasefire plan which had never been realised. Rahim Noor, by resorting to his connections to the police and SB, will pressure mainstream BRN members to join the process. This is certainly something he is capable of doing. Nonetheless, what is outside his control are the military forces which have been staging violent incidents in the conflict area.

Ideologically speaking, all the insurgent organisations, including the BRN, have certain limitations in their operations based on Islamic humanitarian values. However, the extent to which these ideological limitations have been digested by their armed forces is highly questionable. A local Malay activist explained that for those who are involved in the struggle which they firmly believed as a jihad, becoming a martyr (shahid) is sufficient justification to join. [11]

For this reason, even if a peace agreement for santisuk is achieved in these circumstances after strong pressure from the new facilitator, how well it can be actually enforced is still another question. On top of that, there is the possibility that several insurgent leaders have already left Malaysia as soon as they found out who the next facilitator would be.

We are now at a turning point which will decide what kind of peace we shall see in the conflict area in the future, either santiphap or santisuk. For the Thai state, a temporary decline in the number of violent incidents over a long period of time, like the one realised by Prem Tinsulanoda through his famous Tai Rom Yen (South in the Cool Shade) scheme, is regarded as a success of the counter insurgency measures. Mahathir’s visit to his ‘old friend’ can be interpreted as a message to the southerners that he will follow Prem’s lead in solving the problems in the south. It cannot be denied that during this period the number of casualties can be reduced. However, as long as the root causes of the conflict are not addressed, another surge of violence might resurface in the future.

The Thai state is eager to set up a frame for the peace process heading for santisuk, and apparently Malaysia is fully prepared to help. The insurgents will be pressured by the new facilitator and the scheme could be successful. Nevertheless, the result of the coming election of Thailand, currently scheduled on 24 February 2019, might change everything. If a civilian government is returned to power, there could be a chance for santiphap.

Whatever type of peace is achieved in the conflict area, there is still another problem to be considered seriously, i.e. the influence of transnational jihadism. At this moment, as is explained in a report from the International Crisis Group, there is hardly any space for this kind of extremism to infiltrate into Thailand. [12] All the insurgent organisations abide by an ideology which is fundamentally ethno-nationalistic. However, the ideology is being transformed. For example, the current line of insurgent ideology is much more Islamic when compared to the 1960s.

Although the visions for peace between the Thai state and the insurgent groups are certainly different, they do have at least one thing in common. Neither party wants to see either the influence of transnational jihadism or the next Marawi in Patani. The current increase of Islamophobia in Thailand is alarming, and the state is still seeking an appropriate way to handle the issue. [13] Radicalisation of anti-Islam sentiment might lead to the radicalisation of Muslims too. Preventive measures against radicalisation of both Muslims and Buddhists in the southernmost provinces can be properly discussed only at the dialogue table. I end this lengthy article with the recommendation that they should put this issue on the agenda of the peace dialogue. 


Notes:
[1] “Deep south conflict tops agenda as Mahathir visits Thailand”, The Strait Times, 24 October 2018. 
[2] “Mahathir makes time for his old friend Prem”, by Marisa Chimprabha, The Nation, 25 October 2018.  
[3] “ประยุทธ์’ถก‘นาจิบ’ยันเดินหน้าพูดคุยสันติสุข”, Kom Chad Leuk, 1 December 2014 (in Thai).  http://www.komchadluek.net/news/politic/196957
[4] “Thaksin, Thailand and the Secret Talks with Patani-Malay Separatist Movements”, by Don Pathan, 17 April 2012, Patani Forum.
[5] “Malaysia's former police chief, who beat Anwar in jail, raises hackles with new appointment”, The Strait Times, 2 September 2018.
[6] A MARA Patani member, interviewed on September 2018 in Kelantan, Malaysia.
[7] “Mahathir says may stay as PM for 1-2 years”, The New Strait Times, 15 May 2018.
[8] “Malaysia’s PM Mahathir may stay on beyond 2 years, harbours ambition for new national car project” by Melissa Goh, Channel News Asia, 11 June 2018. 
[9] “Thailand Installs Controversial Figure in Deep South Peace Talks”, by Don Pathan, Benar News, 17 October 2018.
[10] For the summarised account of the strategic plan, see “What is Thailand’s 20-Year National Strategy?”, iLaw, 19 July 2018. The full version of the strategy (in Thai) is available from http://www.ldd.go.th/www/files/90058.pdf
[11] A local Malay activist, interviewed in Pattani, May 2018.
[12] “Jihadism in Southern Thailand: A Phantom Menace”, the International Crisis Group, 8 November 2017.
[13] “Understanding Anti-Islam Sentiment in Thailand”, by Don Pathan et. al., Patani Forum, 2018.