By Don Pathan
Special to The Nation
The first sign of trouble came in the middle of last year, when Bangkok refused to ink an agreement on a pilot Safety Zone, a high-profile initiative before it was ditched by the new chief negotiator, General Udomchai Thamsarorat.
Udomchai saw the Safety Zone project and its ceasefire as unrealistic because MARA Patani has little or no control over the insurgent combatants.
With faith in the umbrella group draining, the Thai side decided to seek direct contact with Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), the longstanding separatist movement that controls virtually all of the rebel combatants.
BRN is not currently part of the Malaysia-facilitated talks and Kuala Lumpur has had no success in convincing the movement’s leadership to endorse the peace initiative.
The latest hiccup came during a February 2 visit to Kuala Lumpur by Udomchai and his team, for a meeting with technical officials from MARA Patani. Udomchai said he went along just to meet Abdul Rahim Noor, the designated Malaysian facilitator for the talks.
But out of nowhere, Malaysia insisted the meeting constituted high-level talks, which would require Udomchai and Rahim Noor’s participation.
Udomchai refused but suggested compromise: an informal meeting with Shukri Hari, a senior MARA Patani negotiator.
The following day, Shukri appeared in a YouTube video calling on the Thai government to replace Udomchai with someone “more credible”. The group also said they would not talk to the Thais until a new government was formed in Bangkok.
Why all the drama over protocol? According to Artef Sohko, chair of The Patani, a local political action group dedicated to promoting self-determination for the people of Patani, the tension stems from a feeling among Malaysia and MARA Patani that Udomchai may be moving away from them to establish a separate back-channel with BRN.
“MARA Patani is concerned that they will become irrelevant. The drama in Kuala Lumpur and Shukri’s statement on YouTube afterward stemmed from that fear,” Artef said.
For some in the international community, Udomchai’s appointment was a breath of fresh air for the peace push. After all, he broke with tradition to seek their views – although foreign mediation is still out of the question.
For mediation, he instead turned to local political activists and civil society organisations in the hope they might help bridge the divide or perhaps even mediate the talks. However, local activists with access to BRN leaders are not rushing to take up the offer.
Udomchai may have the mandate from Bangkok but no one is convinced he can deliver on agreements made at the negotiation table. There are too many “players” in power and none of them appears to be singing from the same hymn sheet.
Continuity is another concern; each change of Thai government has brought a new negotiating team. And with a general election scheduled for March 24, no one is certain how the new administration will treat the far South.
Moreover, the junta has little to show in terms of a legacy in the far South. The Safety Zone that peace negotiators had been working on over the past three years has proved a leap of faith too far.
Delivering a new initiative at this point in time appears unrealistic given the impending general election. But Bangkok is still hoping it can open a channel of communication with the BRN, with or without MARA Patani’s participation.
The move is a U-turn on the path pursued by Udomchai’s predecessor as chief negotiator, General Aksara Kherdpol. Aksara depicted himself as having the upper hand and the moral high ground because of the mandate handed to him. He forgot that the BRN couldn’t care less about the current talks, meaning the brutality continued.
Yet Bangkok’s bid to establish communications with the BRN leadership hit trouble from the start.
Udomchai was supposed to meet BRN leaders Abdulloh Waemanor and Deng Awaeji on November 24 for talks arranged by Malaysia. But the two BRN men refused to show up and have been in hiding ever since.
Thai sources say Malaysian authorities have pinpointed the location of the pair, who unlike other Patani separatist leaders have no travel documents and thus are dependant on being granted asylum.
Malaysian facilitators decided that it was best to leave Abdulloh and Deng at their “safehouse” until Kuala Lumpur decided on its next move.
Frustrated with having virtually nothing to show for its near three-year peace effort with MARA Patani, Bangkok decided to lower its sights. It declared talks with BRN did not have to be at the leadership level as long as they had the blessing of separatist movement’s ruling council, the Dewan Pimpinan Parti.
But with BRN leaders keeping their heads down as they await Malaysia’s next move in this big “game of chicken” between them and Kuala Lumpur, meeting Udomchai is the last thing on their minds.
Don Pathan is a Thailand-based development and security consultant and a founding member of the Patani Forum (www.pataniforum.com), a civil society organisation dedicated to critical discussion of the conflict in Thailand’s far South.