There was nothing new in the statement delivered by the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) on Monday, but that doesn’t mean the message was without merit or impact.
The significance of the statement, said sources in the BRN movement, was the timing. Similar demands were raised back in early 2013 shortly after the Yingluck Shinawatra government kicked off a peace process. But the intention then was to derail the initiative, which BRN members felt had been forced on them.
The BRN said it knew the Yingluck administration and the Thai Army would make no concessions at talks launched in Kuala Lumpur on February 28, 2013. Thus the main separatist organisation refused to join the process.
Today, the BRN is suggesting it is ready to talk with Bangkok but adds that it is not under any pressure to do so.
The April 10 statement highlighted the BRN’s terms for talks, which include the participation of foreign governments, and agreement on the terms of reference for negotiations by the two opposing parties – Thailand and the BRN. At present Bangkok prefers negotiating with MARA Patani, an umbrella organisation of separatist movements that has been talking to the Thai government for the past two years.
The statement was meant to remind Thailand that the BRN is the organisation that calls the shots on the ground, not MARA Patani.
Tension between the two separatist organisations is high but not beyond repair, said BRN sources, who added that MARA Patani is welcome to join BRN-led talks with the Thais “but only as an individual movement, not an umbrella organisation”.
MARA Patani a ‘Thai creation’
BRN members said they see MARA Patani as a “Thai creation”, pointing to the so-called “Track 1.5” forum that started in 2011. Overseen by the late Jeeraporn Bunnang from the King Prajadhipok’s Institute, the forum brought together exiled leaders from the separatist community to explore peaceful resolutions to this conflict. This quiet initiative would evolve over time and resurfaced in August 2015, when it adopted the name of MARA Patani.
One problem with this forum was that the self-proclaimed BRN members in MARA Patani did not have the endorsement or a mandate from the movement’s ruling council, also known as the Dewan Pimpinan Parti.
Publicly, Thai officials insist they are on the right track and talking to the right people. But lately, some in the Bangkok policy circle are quietly admitting that the so-called “right people”, MARA Patani, do not have command and control over the insurgent combatants.
“It’s a vicious cycle. Whatever we agree with MARA Patani in talks, BRN militants move quickly to discredit it,” said a Thai government source who spoke on condition of anonymity.
But while BRN fighters waste no time discrediting the current peace initiative, the group said it has shut the door to individual MARA Patani members joining it in future talks.
A senior Thai Army officer who has had dealings with Malay separatist leaders since the 1980s said the BRN is reminding Thailand, Malaysia and MARA Patani that it is the one with control over the insurgent militias.
“The BRN wants to show the separatist community that it is fair and open to other possibilities and suggestions from other separatist movements as long as its people are at the head of the table,” said the officer, who also spoke on condition of anonymity.
BRN leaders out of their depth?
But if the Thai government does give in to BRN demands for international mediation of talks, BRN leaders, who have strong religious credentials, “will be in over their heads” because of their lack of understanding of international norms and legal principles, the officer added.
“These babors [elders] know Islam’s holy book. But if and when negotiations between them and Thai officials take off, much of the agenda will be very technical, as it will be based on tangible issues and on secular, humanitarian and legal principles,” said the officer.
“I’m not so sure if these ulema [scholarly Muslims] are ready for it. I’m not even sure if Bangkok is prepared to go that route.”
There is also the question of Malaysia’s role as facilitator if foreign governments are permitted to oversee the talks.
Old methods won’t work
Talking to the separatists is nothing new for the Thai Army. Many like to boast of how their “negotiating skills” brought down the communist insurgency and armed Patani Malay separatist movements. Some think they can repeat that success using the same tactics – tangible incentives in exchange for laying down arms.
But such tactics do nothing to address the historical and cultural narrative that provides the legitimacy for the Malays’ armed struggle. BRN sources said Thailand’s claims of success are exaggerated.
They said the armed struggle waged by various separatist movements went under in the late 1980s because their main backers in the Middle East and North Africa were repositioning themselves for a post-Cold War era.
Today, the BRN’s training and financing is self-sufficient and conducted from within the region.
Combatants are no longer camping out on mountaintops or travelling to Libya for training as happened in the 1980s. Instead they are scattered throughout the region, where villagers provide them with logistical support.
Thailand wrongly assumed that the absence of violence during the 1990s meant peace; in reality the period was merely a lull before another storm. As long as the Thai state rides roughshod over the Patani Malay narrative of cultural and historical difference, a new crop of separatist insurgents will always resurface to take up where the previous generation left off.
Don Pathan is a Thailand-based consultant and security analyst. He is also the founding member of Patani Forum (www.pataniforum.com), a civil society organisation dedicated to critical discussion on the conflict and insurgency in Thailand’s far South.