A press conference last week to introduce key figures of MARA Patani to the world produced few surprises – members of the separatist umbrella group had been talking to the media for some time.
The newly established forum (more like old wine in a new bottle) has for some time been promoting the idea it is a force to be reckoned with.
Speaking to the media, the Majlis Syura (MARA) Patani members chose their words carefully, probably to avoid the misunderstandings that burdened the previous peace initiative, launched in Kuala Lumpur on February 28, 2013, with unrealistic expectations.
The launch two years ago generated a great deal of hope, as it was the first time in the history of the armed conflict between the Thai state and the Malay Muslims of the far South that a Bangkok government had publicly committed to a political settlement through negotiation. Sitting opposite Bangkok negotiators back then was the Barisan Revolusi Nasional-Coordinate (BRN-C), the longstanding separatist movement that controls the vast majority of combatant insurgents.
Exiled separatists and BRN members said the talks were originally initiated by fugitive former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who, with Malaysia as facilitator, met with 16 separatist leaders in Kuala Lumpur in March 2012. He asked these leaders to put historic grievances behind them and let bygones be bygones.
The request was wishful thinking on Thaksin’s part. The BRN responded with a massive triple car bomb in the heart of Yala, which killed 14 people and injured about 120.
Then-prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s sister, ignored the BRN’s “warning message” and relaunched the peace initiative a year later on February 28, 2013.
Hasan Taib, an Islamic religious teacher who has been with the BRN for decades but never made it into the ruling council, was prodded to take up the post as the “liaison”. His job was to bring the BRN ruling council and other movements to the negotiating table.
The problem was that BRN operatives didn’t think much of Hasan, even though Thai security and intelligence agencies thought he represented the group’s ruling council. It didn’t take them long to realise that they were wrong about Hasan’s influence over the movement.
Yet although Hasan wasn’t able to influence insurgent combatants or the BRN inner circle, the group’s leaders nevertheless managed to make use of his presence.
BRN used him to antagonise the Thai side and test Bangkok’s will by issuing a much-talked-about five-point demand. This comprised of the release of all imprisoned combatants, official recognition for the BRN and an invitation to the peace talks for a representative of the people of Patani, permitting international observers, and official acknowledgement of the southernmost provinces as the Malay majority’s historical homeland.
The BRN also used Hasan to inform the Thai side in July 2013 that the theatre of violence would broaden to include Songkhla’s district of Sadao. The separatists lived up to their vow with simultaneous attacks – one car bomb and two motorbike bombs – in December 2013.
Another point that antagonised the Thai side was the separatist propaganda exercise conducted through YouTube. Now, in a bid to avoid a recurrence of online political grandstanding by MARA Patani members, the Thai negotiating team led by General Aksara Kherdphol is not objecting to them being interviewed by Thai and international media.
During the Yingluck initiative, civil society organisations were invited to participate in the public (“Track 1”) process. But under the current arrangement, civil society will remain on the sidelines of talks while continuing to be engaged by the government team on the southern conflict.
MARA Patani began life in the so-called Track 1.5 – a side-show to the Yingluck initiative. Trusted retired government officials were asked to carry out this unofficial process through a series of negotiations in neighbouring countries.
Credit should also go to the then secretary-general of the Southern Border Province Administrative Centre, Pol Colonel Thawee Sodsong, who cultivated a working relationship with key exiled figures such as Sukree Hari, a BRN representative from Yala who fled in 2007 after receiving bail.
Transition from Track 1.5 to the official Track 1 wasn’t exactly a walk in the park. Efforts to mobilise the support of insurgents and the grass-roots community came to a complete standstill after community leader and MARA Patani representative Ustaz Waesumae Sudden, a cleric from Pattani’s Sai Buri district, was shot dead on September 28 last year. Nobody took responsibility for his murder, not even discreetly.
Today, participants of this side-show are sitting at the official Track I talks looking straight at the Thai government negotiators.
But BRN cadres who have command-and-control over the insurgents on the ground are still not interested in joining the peace initiative, prompting serious doubts over their chance of success.
BRN sources say their leaders are still not convinced that now is a good time to endorse any initiative, and doubt whether the ruling junta in Bangkok is serious about peace in the deep South.
Even the name “MARA Patani” must conjure unease for Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, with its connotations of institutionalisation and an internationalised process. To please the junta chief, the term “Party B” is being used to describe MARA Patani while “Party A” refers to the official side.
The terms of reference for the talks are due to be set by the end of this month. But already, both sides are vocalising their demands in public.
MARA Patani is demanding that the conflict be designated by Parliament as a national agenda so as to ensure peace efforts aren’t dropped when this government ends. It also wants its 15 members to be granted immunity and the umbrella organisation officially recognised. Moreover, the group has suggested it would be willing to settle for something less than complete independence for the three southernmost provinces – possibly the right to “self-determination”.
The Thai side, on the other hand, is asking MARA Patani to work towards creating a safe zone, which probably encompasses a ceasefire; improve livelihoods of the local people; and ensure that all sides have access to justice.
There is also a longstanding question over legitimacy. Thailand doesn’t have to deal with this question once the junta hands the mandate back to the people. But the same can’t be said for MARA Patani and its members.
There has been talk of setting up a national assembly for the region to serve as a rubberstamp for MARA Patani. But according to security official in the South, Bangkok is likely to object to any move to set up a shadow Parliament for the conflict-affected region.
And given the fact that Premier Prayut can’t even stand the name “MARA Patani”, the idea of him offering official recognition and legitimacy to this umbrella organisation may be just a pipe dream.
Don Pathan is an independent security analyst and a freelance consultant based in Yala, Thailand. He is also the founding member of the Patani Forum (www.pataniforum.com).