By Don Pathan
Special to The Nation
Talk of another Bt0.5-million grant to bridge the trust gap between local civil society organisations (CSOs) in the far South and state agencies, namely the Army, has been in the air for some time.
But if it’s anything like the first grant delivered earlier this year, the money will not be worth the hassle. The fund created bitter division among the local CSOs, some of whom now see the grant aid as a Trojan horse, pitting friends against friends in arguments over the very idea of receiving money from the military, especially when strings are attached.
The Army said driving a wedge among CSOs was not its intention and suggested more money was on its way. They insisted it was meant to help boost the capacity of local CSOs and instil progressive ideas among groups like the Federation of Patani Students and Youth (PerMAS) and the Civil Society Assembly for Peace (Kor Por Sor).
As expected, these organisations rejected the offer.
Promoting rules of engagement
There is also talk of asking international non-government organisations to do more work with local CSOs and, if possible, with the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), the separatist group that controls virtually all of the combatants in the decades-old insurgency.
The idea is to promote concepts such as International Humanitarian Law, and the Geneva Convention. Privately, Thai officials hope these ideas will cause a split between the more progressive faction and the hardliners in the BRN.
Yet it’s not entirely clear where the Army is going with the idea of strengthening the capacity of civil society. General Udomchai Thamsarorat, the new chief negotiator for the peace initiative, said he would like to see southern CSOs come together to mediate relations between the government and the BRN.
That could be a forlorn hope, given that local CSOs are split over issues like peace talks.
BRN sources said getting the CSOs to play a mediation role is a pipe dream and, worse, a cynical strategy aimed at pitting civil society against the BRN movement. BRN operatives argue that, in many ways, they are closer to the people than the CSOs can ever be. They claim to have cells in just about every tambon, with eyes and ears constantly testing the mood of their constituency.
Combatants say they always listen to the concerns of villagers, especially over how the war is fought. The arson attacks on Buddhist temples and schools, and the mutilating of Thai soldiers’ bodies that were frequent in 2006 have since given way to “legitimate” attacks on security apparatus, while restraint is being shown when “soft” targets are occasionally chosen.
The brutality in 2006 came to a halt after local residents, including religious leaders, protested it violated Islamic principles. The conflict with the Thais is still very much ethno-nationalist in nature, but the voices of local Muslims at the grass roots had to be respected, BRN operatives conceded.
By contrast, locals remain somewhat indifferent on the subject of negotiations with the state, said BRN operatives.
For what it’s worth, chief Thai negotiator Udomchai has been saying all the right things, telling the Malaysian government and the CSOs that he does not believe in forcing BRN leaders to come to the table.
While Thailand’s negotiators would like nothing more than to talk with the BRN ruling council, the Dewan Pimpinan Parti (DPP), they are reluctant to support harsher measures promoted by Malaysia that might force BRN leaders further underground. If they did go to ground, BRN chiefs would disappear from everybody’s radar, making it more difficult to construct a channel of communication with the insurgency’s controllers.
Udomchai also ditched plans for a Safety Zone and the ceasefire that came with it, suggesting the scheme was dead.
BRN sources meanwhile said negotiations with the Thais were not on their priority list. The fact that MARA Patani is already at the table doesn’t help. MARA Patani is an umbrella group of long-standing separatist movements that no long control militants in the insurgency zone.
BRN sources said they would like to reach a better understanding of international norms and strengthen their capacity before they even begin to consider negotiating with Bangkok.
The movement sees the various peace initiatives over the years as part of a shrewd strategy to trick their leaders into surfacing and then forcing an agreement without addressing the historical grievances of their people.
Raising the bar to peace even higher is that more and more BRN operatives now see full independence for the far South as a moral obligation.
Nevertheless, Thai officials are trying hard to establish a channel of communication with the DPP, either through Malaysia or friends and relatives of the leaders.
“Already, Thai authorities have been leaning on friends and family of known DPP figures, trying to use them as intermediaries,” said Artef Sohko, a political activist from The Patani, a local CSO aimed at promoting rights to self-determination for the people in this region.
Patani Malay activists are now being approached by Bangkok to act as go-betweens. But these individuals said they are concerned they may become targets for violence by “spoilers” in the peace process or those with different agendas.
They point to the shooting death of Pattani Islamic cleric Ustaz Waesumae Suden, in September 2014, and the murder of Yala Imam Abdullateh Todir, in November 2012, as examples of what can happen to civilians who get too involved in the peace initiative.
Sadly, just about every senior Thai figure assigned to the far South, either as a commander or negotiator, has believed they had a trick up their sleeve that would magically break the deadlock.
Needless to say, none of their plans has worked, each falling victim to their over-eagerness to get things done on their watch. They refuse to see the conflict in generational terms, and each and every one has gone home empty-handed by the end of their mission.
Don Pathan is a Thailand-based freelance security consultant and a founding member of Patani Forum (www.pataniforum.com), a civil society organisation dedicated to critical discussion of the conflict in Thailand’s far South.