By The Nation
As the country awaits the formation of a new government and something at least resembling democracy, peace in the conflict-plagued far South remains as far away as ever.
The incoming government is almost certain to follow its predecessors’ example by replacing the current peace negotiators with people it trusts.
On the surface, this sounds sensible, but in reality it repeats a problem that has always torpedoed Bangkok’s efforts for peace in the South – lack of continuity.
The current wave of separatist insurgency in Thailand’s Malay-speaking South surfaced in late 2001 but was only officially acknowledged in January 2004 when scores of militants raided an Army camp in Narathiwat and made off with about 350 military-grade weapons.
Bangkok responded to the escalation with a variety of different initiatives, but efforts at peace were stymied by overlapping missions and competing egos.
Outside help was sought in 2005 when a foreign NGO was invited to act as go-between in negotiations, then former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad was brought in to oversee the Langkawi Process where leaders of long-standing separatist movements met with senior Thai security officials.
A senior Government House official even joked about the proliferation of NGOs offering to mediate talks, saying, “We need a mediator for the mediators.”
Prime Minister General Surayud Chulanont, following his appointment after the 2006 coup, issued an executive order for Thai officials to explore
non-military means. Political negotiation was given the green light.
Surayud issued a formal apology for the Tak Bai massacre and other atrocities committed against the southern Malays by the Thai state, then reached out to neighbouring countries and foreign experts for help.
But those promising foundations were mainly ignored by subsequent administrations.
In September 2008, more than two years after the Langkawi Process was ditched by a politically weakened Thaksin Shinawatra, the Samak Sundaravej administration turned to the Indonesian government for help.
Retired General Kwanchart Klaharn, formerly the Army’s commander in the South, represented the Thai side at the subsequent meeting in Bogor, which was supposed to be secret. But the process immediately hit a snag when news got out, and Bangkok quickly distanced itself from the meeting for fear of a political backlash.
Former Thai Army chiefs, including Chavalit Yongchaiyud and General Chettha Thanajaro, also tried their luck, but neither had enough political capital to give their initiative any meaning. Chettha became a laughing stock when he produced a videotape of men in fake beards announcing in standard Malay – as opposed to the local Patani dialect – an end to the armed struggle.
When Abhisit Vejjajiva became prime minister in December 2008, he was more concerned with members of the international community “legitimising” the insurgent combatants, while at the same time conveniently overlooking the fact that the vast majority of the Malays in the three southernmost provinces supported the separatist militants.
But then, no Thai leader has been brave enough to admit the government has lost the battle for hearts and minds in the far South after spending billions of baht on development projects there. More pertinent perhaps are the billions spent on defence in the region as the Army searches in vain for a military solution.
When Yingluck Shinawatra became prime minister in 2011, she ditched the National Security Council-led team and replaced them with her own trusted bureaucrats, namely Pol Colonel Thawee Sodsong and Lt-General Paradon Pattanatabut.
As expected, Thawee was ousted from the line-up immediately after the 2014 coup, when talks were stalled for months until the National Council for Peace and Order could work out its strategy.
After two decades of change in policy and personnel, Bangkok’s peace efforts are in desperate need of continuity. The current negotiating team, the Dialogue Panel, must be allowed to continue with their work. The appointment of retired General Udomchai Thamsarorat to lead the panel was
welcomed by many in the international community. Whether he stays or goes, the foundation he helped lay should
be given a chance by the incoming