Malaysia, foreign stakeholders, being ‘played’ by deep South peace process: BRN
International best practices are being ignored as stakeholders in the so-called peace process for Thailand’s Muslim-majority far South seek a quick fix instead of addressing the historical root causes of a conflict that has claimed nearly 7,000 lives since January 2004.
Members of Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), which controls virtually all of the militant rebels, say the current peace initiative between Thailand and MARA Patani is a tactic designed to bypass their demands and also the underlying causes of the dispute between the Thai state and the Malays of Patani.
BRN members say they are not interested in joining MARA Patani at the negotiating table and suggest that Malaysia, or any other interested parties, review the mandate of talks or risk compromising their future role.
“These so-called peace practitioners, domestic and foreign, could be going along with this shrewd strategy of Thailand without realising that they are being played,” one BRN operative said.
They also expressed concern that pressure from Malaysia to get BRN leaders to the table – something the new facilitator, former police chief, Abdul Rahim Noor, appeared eager to do – could be counterproductive for peace efforts in the long run.
The BRN operatives remain convinced their leaders will not compromise their long-term strategy with any hasty moves towards negotiations.
Asked about BRN information officer Ustaz Abdulkarim Khalid telling foreign journalists recently that the movement’s leaders are prepared to negotiate with the Thais if certain demands are met, one operative said, “Even if the Thai government agreed to the terms stated by Khalid, surfacing and coming to the table would still be an extraordinary risk.
“In the eyes of Siamese officials, we are all still bandits and criminals,” he added.
Getting any Bangkok government to grant official recognition and legal immunity to any BRN representatives is still a pipe dream, they said.
Underling the challenges facing Malaysia as the designated facilitator, sources said, is that Rahim Noor is having difficulty even securing a meeting with senior members of the BRN’s ruling council, the Dewan Pimpinan Parti.
Moreover, the operatives remained confused about the “safe space” supposedly guaranteed to foster trust on both sides of the peace talks. Is it a vague concept or an actual place, they ask.
But if and when a formal peace process takes shape, the operatives said the talks must be mediated by members of the international community, including Malaysia, with experience in conflict resolution.
They expressed concern that Thai officials could pull out an arrest warrant at any moment should negotiations turn against them.
When asked about international norms, humanitarian principles and rules of engagement, the BRN men said they were still not sure what to make of them since the concepts were still new to them.
While they don’t reject these “foreign ideas”, instead expressing a desire to learn more about them, the operatives said their conduct was guided by sentiment of local Muslim residents and Islamic community leaders. Some of these have spoken out against certain forms of insurgent violence, including arson attacks on public schools and Buddhist temples, and the mutilation of government soldiers killed in attacks that took place during the early stage of a wave of insurgency that surfaced in January 2004.
Civil society organisations often cite International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and the Geneva Convention in attempts to curb with worst excesses of violence during conflicts.
“We have been told that these principles will enhance our legitimacy. But we are not exactly sure how this is so,” one operative said.
“Some [BRN] people think these could be part of a secret plan to tie their hands or restrict their activities through rules of engagement,” he added.
Nevertheless, the debate on these progressive ideas has garnered some attention among various cells on the ground. For example, last December when a cell attacked a bus in Yala’s Than To district, BRN combatants helped the passengers with their luggage off the bus, moving them to safety before blowing up the vehicle. This was their understanding of IHL.
But when the military responded by rounding up about 50 young men from the district and applied questionable interrogation techniques, a cell in Yala retaliated by setting off a motorbike bomb at a market in Yala that killed three and injured 18.
In May 2017, a powerful car bomb went off at the entrance of the Big C Department Store in Pattani. The debris inflicted minor injuries on scores of people. BRN combatants said they were not seeking to kill civilians, pointing out that they gave prior warnings so the area could be cleared.
There are times when insurgents have deliberately attacked “soft” targets, but only as a form of retaliation against Thai security officials deemed to have “crossed a line”.
January’s motorbike bomb at the Yala market was one such retaliatory attack. Another was the October 2016 bombing of an evening food stall in downtown Pattani that killed one person and injured more than 20. This attack came in response to the rounding up of about 1,000 Patani Malay youth in Bangkok following rumours of a car-bomb plot that police subsequently failed to back with evidence.
Rules of engagement in the form of a negotiated text do not exist between BRN combatants and Thai security forces. As such, how one interprets what constitutes a “red line” or “legitimate killing” has always been subjective.
Don Pathan is a security and development consultant based in Thailand and a member of the Patani Forum (www.pataniforum.com), a civil society organisation dedicated to critical discussion about the insurgency in Thailand’s far South.