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Where is the Safety Zone?

The stagnation of the peace dialogue process

The peace dialogue process to solve the extended conflict in the southernmost part of Thailand, or Patani, has been stagnant for more than a year since April 2018. Several people in significant positions related to the peace process have been replaced since then.

The stunning victory of the opposition coalition (called the Pakatan Harapan) in the 14th general election in Malaysia on 9 May 2018 put the coalition leader and former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed, aged 92, back in the premiership.[1] More than three months later, the former Malaysian facilitator, Ahmad Zamzamin Hashim, who had been appointed by the former PM Najib Razak, was replaced by Rahim Noor, who had been police chief during Mahathir’s first mandate as PM.[2]

At the end of September 2018, Pornsak Poonsawas was promoted as the Commander of the 4th Army Region, controlling the security forces in the conflict area in the southern border provinces.[3] In October 2018, the former Thai negotiation team chief, Aksara Kerdphol, was replaced by a former commander of the 4th Army Region, Udomchai  Thammasaroraj, who also served as an adviser to the current commander Pornsak.[4]

These changes in significant positions did not bring about any progress to the peace process that had been stagnant. Rahim Noor visited Bangkok at the beginning of January 2019 and met Udomchai in an initiative to resume the peace process.[5] However, in early February, Shukri Hari, the head negotiator of MARA Patani, the umbrella organisation of the insurgent groups active in the southern border provinces, issued an announcement that it would suspend meetings until after the Thai general election in March, stating disappointment that Udomchai did not want to see MARA Patani, but Shukri alone when he (Udomchai) came to Kuala Lumpur.[6] Due to their strong dissatisfaction, MARA Patani demanded that Udomchai should be replaced by someone more ‘credible’.[7]

The peace dialogue was not resumed even after the Thai general election on 24 March 2019. In a letter dated 15 May 2019 and sent to Awang Jabat, the chairman of MARA Patani, Shukri Hari announced his resignation as the head of the MARA Patani negotiation panel.[8]  The letter was an internal communication within MARA Patani, and so far his resignation has not been accepted officially by MARA Patani. A statement released by Awang Jabat on the occasion of the celebration of Aidilfitri this year (after the fasting month of Ramadan) via the MARA Patani website stated that the resignation of Shukri Hari should be dealt with carefully through internal consultation.[9] The Malaysian facilitator, Rahim Noor, visited the southern border provinces from 11 to 14 June 2019, and he stated that in two more weeks the peace dialogue should be resumed, given no serious obstacles.[10] At the time of writing (25 June 2019), there has been no follow-up report about the next peace dialogue session. Whether or not the stranded process can be restarted still remains unclear at this moment.

The peace dialogue process: its limitations and significances

Resignation of the head negotiator from the insurgents’ side is not an auspicious sign for the peace process. In the last round, following the collapse of the temporary ceasefire agreement called the ‘Ramadan peace initiative’, brokered by the Malaysian facilitator in June 2013,[11] the military force of the BRN issued a video clip on 6 August 2013, blaming the Thai government for violating the agreement.[12] Hassan Taib disappeared from public view for a few months, and finally reappeared in his last video clip released on 1 December 2013, describing himself as ‘the former head of the BRN delegation’. In the video clip, he stressed that the dialogue would be resumed only after the five preliminary demands submitted to the Thai state were accepted.[13] That was the end of the first round of the peace dialogue process.

The current round of the peace dialogue might follow the pattern of the first round. At this moment, the representative of the insurgents’ side, MARA Patani, still does not have a person in charge of the dialogue panel. Nevertheless, as was mentioned before, Shukri Hari’s intention to resign has not been accepted by MARA Patani, and MARA Patani itself still states its readiness to be engaged in the dialogue. The setting of the peace dialogue still has not collapsed yet, and it should be sustained for several reasons.

It cannot be denied that this dialogue process has a lot of limitations. First of all, the process has not yet yielded any concrete outcome to indicate that peace building in the southernmost provinces of Thailand is not impossible. It also has been questioned since the very beginning of the process if the dialogue panel of the insurgents is really able to control the military forces responsible for almost daily violent incidents in the conflict area. So far there has been no convincing evidence that they really can do so. Although MARA Patani is joined by several BRN members, it is not joined by it as an organisation, unlike other component organisations inside it.

Even though the BRN has always been critical about the peace process itself, it has never openly dismissed MARA Patani as a fake. A senior BRN member inside MARA who claimed that he was able to contact the military wing of the BRN told the author that the BRN (as an organisation) had been closely watching every single step of the peace process to evaluate the level of sincerity of the Thai state.[14] This, optimistically speaking, suggests that any positive development in the process (that, unfortunately, has not happened so far) might encourage the BRN as an organisation to take part in the process. Under these circumstances, setting up another track of dialogue does not seem the best solution.

Despite the fact that this process has been heavily criticised, it still has a significant symbolic value. It is the sign of an unwritten agreement between the Thai state and the insurgents that the conflict in the southern border provinces or Patani must be finally solved via political measures, not via military operations. Imagine what might happen if such an important symbolic frame collapsed. There would be no limits to the use of violence for both sides any longer, and the situation in the conflict area could deteriorate like the first few years when violence was inflicted regardless of humanitarian principles and the legitimacy of the targets.

The change in the political atmosphere in relation to the conflict after the commencement of the peace dialogue process is also significant. Before the peace process, talking about the insurgents was a kind of taboo, but the inauguration of the peace process opened up a public space to talk about the conflict, including its main actors. This has resulted in a much better understanding about the conflict as well as the insurgents.

For these reasons mentioned above, the frame of the peace process must be preserved at any cost (which is far cheaper than sustaining military forces), and the dialogue should be resumed as soon as possible, whenever the circumstances are conducive.

The safety zone

Under the current condition, it is still unclear when the process can be rebooted. Whenever it might happen, the fact remains that the process will have the participation of a lot of new faces: the new facilitator, the new head of the Thai government dialogue panel, and possibly the counterpart in MARA Patani too (if Shukri’s resignation is accepted by MARA). Here there is one question: what happened to the plan for setting up a safety zone in the conflict area?

The spokesperson of MARA Patani, Abu Hafez Al-Hakim, explained that serious discussions about the plan to set up a safety zone started on September 20 2016, after both sides (the Thai government and MARA Patani) had finally agreed on the terms of reference (TOR) of the dialogue process.[15] According to the plan, one district from the conflict area would be chosen as the pilot safety zone, and a safe house was already set up inside the vicinity of the Pattani Provincial Islamic Council as the coordinating centre for the plan.[16]  

There were three main agenda items to be enforced in the pilot safety zone. First, if a violent incident happened, it would be investigated by a fact-finding committee joined by both Thai government officials and members of MARA Patani. Violent incidents might happen inside the safety zone, but there was a mechanism to investigate them, in addition to the usual investigation conducted mainly by the security forces in the conflict area. Second, freedom of speech will be guaranteed. This item was included in order to open up public space and enhance a conducive atmosphere for peace building. Third, the local population in the safety zone shall take part in the development plan, unlike the top-down developments delivered by the authorities so far.[17]

For implementation, there will be a preparation period of three months, followed by implementation for three months, and finally evaluation. After the evaluation, both conflicting parties can decide whether to keep the status quo (to continue the safety zone in one district) or to extend to other districts, or even abolish the plan altogether.[18]

As a whole, although this plan is still very far from being a final solution to the conflict, in my opinion it is worth trying because the outcome could be more effective than the counter insurgency measures taken by the security forces so far. The reason is that the safety zone includes significant issues including safety, political rights and decentralisation (in the form of local people’s participation in development).

According to sources from the Thai dialogue panel and MARA Patani, both sides had already agreed on the plan of setting up a safety zone itself, but there was severe disagreement about signing the related documents for implementation. This issue rose in the Joint Technical Team meeting on 25 April 2018. MARA Patani wanted all these documents to be signed by both Party A (the Thai government) and Party B (those who have different opinions from the state, i.e. the insurgent organisations), while the Thai government was reluctant to sign anything. This issue of signing was to be discussed on the next meeting of the Joint Working Group (the negotiation panels of both side), but due to the changes mentioned above, the meeting on 25 April 2018 was destined to be the last meeting of the peace dialogue process to this day.[19]

Several mutual trust-building measures had been taken between the conflicting parties related to this plan, and the setting up of the safe house was one of them. However, on 8 June 2018, the deputy chairman of the Pattani Islamic Committee, who was in charge of the safe house, was shot by gunmen and passed away two days later.[20]

Before actually implementing the safety zone plan, both the Thai government and MARA Patani may face more serious obstacles. Nevertheless, it is just counterproductive to discard this plan, because a long period of time was spent coming to an agreement about it. In addition, if this plan really could be implemented, it might contribute in mutual trust-building between the conflicting parties.

Before restarting the peace dialogue process, all the new actors (the facilitator, the Thai dialogue panel, and probably the new head of MARA Patani) must study carefully the pros and cons of the safety zone. At the same time, regardless of whether they continue talking about the plan or not, they also have to explain the current status of the plan to the public, especially to the local people in the conflict area.

At least this plan has been discussed for a long period of time, and if the peace dialogue should be resumed, exchanging ideas about the plan could be a good starting point for the resumed talks. Before implementing this plan, all the parties involved in the peace dialogue have to communicate closely with the local people, and implementation must be based on the agreement and cooperation of the local people in the district chosen as the safety zone. If the plan is successful, it will be a strong trust-building measure among the conflicting parties, and it might encourage the largest insurgent group which has been keeping its distance from the peace dialogue, the BRN, to join the process.  

Reference

[1] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-malaysia-election/malaysias-mahathir-92-to-be-sworn-in-as-prime-minister-after-historic-poll-win-idUSKBN1IB03S

[14] Personal conversation, a senior BRN member in MARA Patani. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, January 2019.

[17] Ibid. Personal interview with Abu Hafez Al-Hakim, May 2019, Kelantan, Malaysia.

[18] A power point slide to explain the safety zone plan, prepared by Abu Hafez al-Hakim. Obtained in June 2018.

[19] Personal interview with Abu Hafez Al-Hakim, May 2019, Kelantan, Malaysia