Thai security forces patrol the troubled southern province of Yala. Successive governments' attempts to hold peace dialogue with separatist insurgents have failed to stop violence which has claimed over 7,000 lives since 2004. Photo: Reuters / Surapan Boonthanom

On February 28, Thailand’s military government announced that Mara Patani, an umbrella group for Malay Muslim separatist groups active in the country’s southernmost region, agreed to create “safety zones” in five districts of the conflict-plagued area.

The talks were held in neighboring Malaysia, which has served as facilitator for dialogue ever since the elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra initiated a formal dialogue process in February 2013 with figures from the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), the regions largest and most powerful separatist group.

Soldiers involved in the current dialogue process expressed optimism to news reporters covering the meeting after the ostensible breakthrough. Talks have stalled over the nearly three years of military rule by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha’s coup-installed government, who as army chief ousted Yingluck in a May 2014 coup.

Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha speaks to the media after a cabinet meeting in Bangkok on October 18, 2016. Photo: AFP/ DailyNews

An uptick in violence, however, reflects still-strong separatist opposition to the current military-steered dialogue process, according to sources familiar with the situation.

On the day of the announcement, a stolen pick-up truck with an 80-kilogram bomb was discovered near a border patrol police base in Songkhla province’s Thepa district. The bodies of the Buddhist couple that owned the truck were found shot dead soon thereafter.

On March 2, insurgents ambushed a car in Narathiwat’s Rueso district, shooting dead a Buddhist deputy village headman, his 8-year-old son, wife and sister-in-law. Later that day, three non-commissioned soldiers were shot dead at a market in Pattani’s Mayo district. Several other shootings have also occurred since the “safety zone” announcement, according to a Thai security official.

Military personnel carry a dead body from the site of an attack at Rueso district in the troubled southern province of Narathiwat, Thailand March 2, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Surapan Boonthanom

The brutal Rueso incident provoked outrage from religious leaders and civil society groups from both Muslim and Buddhist communities, who joined together in a march that included children to condemn the attacks. Mara Patani also issued a statement condemning the incident and expressing condolences to the victims and their families.

Sources in the region say there is still opposition among a majority of BRN members and ethnic Malay nationalist activists to dialogue with Prayuth’s staunchly conservative junta. Some non-security sources speculate that there could be several reasons for the brutality of the Rueso attack, including insurgent revenge for state killings and abuses of Malay Muslims that often go unreported by the local media.

Several security officials cited evidence to indicate that insurgents carried out the attacks on the Thai Buddhist family. One high ranking official acknowledged that insurgents were likely behind the ambush but claimed that it was over a local personal conflict. Still, personal feuds often intersect with the conflict’s wider narrative of separatists battling the Thai state.

Some sources suggest that the recent uptick in violence may also stem in part from the end of the rainy season and 4th Army Region chief Lieutenant General Piyawat Nakwanich’s recent comments to the media that most incidents in the region are carried out by “guns for hire.”

Thai security forces inspect the site of a motorcycle bomb attack in the southern province of Narathiwat on September 18, 2015. Narathiwat is one of three Muslim- dominated provinces where shadowy insurgents are waging a low-level rebellion against the Thai state. Photo: Reuters /Surapan Boonthanom

While analysts acknowledge that some insurgents carry out bombings and shootings for vested interest groups, authorities are inclined to play up the conflict’s criminal element and deemphasize political motivations for the violence.

Since early 2004, unprecedented levels of violence have engulfed the predominantly Malay-Muslim region, resulting in some 7,000 deaths. Enhanced security measures and an apparent strategic decision by separatists to curtail violence during Prayuth’s hawkish government have contributed to a significant drop in violence since late 2014, including fewer attacks on noncombatants.

But the recent Rueso ambush has evoked a common gripe among officials and others that separatists continue to kill innocent civilians, including children. It has also raised persistent questions about how much control Mara Patani, established in 2014 specifically to hold dialogue with Prayuth’s government, has over on-the-ground insurgents.

The umbrella group has been criticized by both government officials and Malay Muslim nationalist activists for not representing or having the full support of BRN’s shadowy senior leadership. Over the course of the last decade, many Thai security officers have in private lambasted successive Thai governments for talking with rebels in exile who lack command and control over armed combatants. 

That disconnect may partly explain a recent history of failed ceasefires. In an effort to discredit the government’s first attempt last year at establishing a “peace zone”, insurgents stormed a local hospital in Narathiwat’s Joi Airong district and used it as a base to attack a nearby Thai security post, injuring seven security personnel.

Former Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra (L) receives a bouquet of red roses from a member of a women’s group during a visit to Pattani province in southernmost Thailand in December 2013. Photo: Reuters / Surapan Boonthanom

In 2013, Yingluck’s government aimed to implement a region-wide ceasefire over the Ramadan fasting period but it ended when BRN military figures announced on Youtube that Thai “colonialists” had violated the terms of the deal.

The alleged BRN militants also said they had abandoned the dialogue process because Yingluck’s government failed to respond to five core demands, including allowances for foreign observers at the talks, elevation of Malaysia from a “facilitator” to “mediator” of future dialogue, state recognition of a Patani Malay nation and BRN as a liberation movement, and the release of prisoners and lifting of arrest warrants in security-related cases. 

Insiders to the 2013 dialogue suggest that Yingluck’s elected government was open to discussing some of the insurgent demands but were hamstrung by resistance from the powerful military. One security source said that the BRN’s senior leadership council, known as the Dewan Pimpinan Parti (DPP), will likely never endorse any dialogue until Thai government negotiators show some sincerity and willingness to consider the five demands.

Insiders to the 2013 dialogue suggest that Yingluck’s elected government was open to discussing some of the insurgent demands but were hamstrung by resistance from the powerful military.

Some Malay Muslim activists with ties to BRN suggest that Prayuth’s government could win a measure of support from senior BRN members if it allowed foreign observers to help monitor the implementation of the safety zones. The request raises concerns in the junta about the possible internationalization of the conflict and has thus been rejected out of hand.

Prior to the current phase of separatist violence beginning in 2004, Thai governments were never compelled to bend to insurgent demands because Thai security forces maintained a significant military advantage in the field. Now 13 years into the conflict, BRN has demonstrated the ability to sustain and periodically ramp up its campaign of violence, even under the gun of a large military presence in the region.

Non-violent nationalist activists note that other sub-national conflicts in Southeast Asia have recently been resolved by formal negotiations overseen by foreign observers and want a similar process for Thailand’s south.

But while many ethnic Malay activists recognize that independence from Bangkok is a pipe-dream, they seem willing to wait for a change in government rather than support the current dialogue process on offer under Prayuth’s military regime.

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