By DON PATHANSPECIAL TO THE NATION
Bangkok wants to keep the talks in confidence-building mode, while MARA Patani wants to shift gear, institutionalise the process and ink whatever achievements and agreements the two sides have made.
Peace talks came to a halt as Thailand prepared for the general election. Now, with General Prayut Chan-o-cha re-appointed as prime minister, the conflict in the deep South is expected to be among the government’s top priorities.
The current debate among security circles is whether General Udomchai Thamsarorat, Thailand’s chief negotiator, will continue to head the Peace Dialogue Panel now that he has become a senator. Some believe it should not matter as chief negotiator is an unpaid position and the panel is ad hoc in nature with representatives from various agencies and ministries.
Udomchai was appointed to the peace panel in October last year, replacing General Aksara Kherdpol. He immediately reached out to members of the international community and local civil-society organisations (CSOs).
He expressed hope that they could act as an interlocutor between the Thai government and Patani-Malay separatist movements, namely the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), the one long-standing separatist group that controls virtually all the militants but has refused to take part in peace talks.
These efforts by Udomchai to explore avenues outside the formal Track 1 process had irked MARA Patani whose chief negotiator, Shukri Hari, in February issued a statement calling on the Thai government to replace him. Just a month ago, Shukri resigned from his position citing health reasons.
Malaysia’s facilitator Abdul Rahim Noor, during a recent visit to the far South, told Thai reporters that the talks would be back on track in about two weeks.
But it is not clear what kind of agenda they will pursue. Udomchai had already removed from the table the pilot project for a Safety Zone plus ceasefire component, in favour of direct engagement with the BRN.
The BRN has issued several demands over the years, including the release of all those locked up on insurgency-related charges, the participation of international mediators and observers for the talks, as well as gaining Parliament’s stamp to make the talks a national agenda.
Observers note there are difficulties – political as well as legal – for the Thai government to meet any of these demands. But discussions on how to move the peace initiative forward have always been daunting for the government.
Furthermore, getting the BRN to negotiate is made difficult by the movement’s unbending commitment to southern independence. In other words, the BRN can’t be seen as making any concessions or compromises. But that doesn’t mean negotiations or dialogue between the two sides is a lost cause.
It does mean, though, that Malaysia has to be more creative in facilitating contact, coming up with ideas that can move the peace initiative forward. Bangkok meanwhile may have to come up with unilateral initiatives that will have a positive impact on the mindset and attitude of BRN leaders.
The need to think outside the box was perhaps the reason behind the recent visit to the conflict-ridden area by Malaysia’s facilitator, Rahim Noor, who met with military and religious leaders, as well as academics, to exchange views and thoughts on the conflict.
Furthermore, there have been talks among Thai security planners about incentives for combatants to surrender in exchange for some form of amnesty. How this will play out in real terms remains to be seen.
Don Pathan is a former Regional Desk editor at The Nation and currently the senior programme officer at the Asia Foundation working on regional security cooperation.