In the wake of an upsurge of attacks across Thailand’s three volatile southernmost border provinces, the region’s foremost Malay-Muslim separatist faction, the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), has issued a rare communiqué that brushes aside peace talks currently underway and calls for a revamped negotiation process overseen by an impartial mediator and international witnesses.
In a brief but highly unusual three-point statement released on April 10 by BRN’s ‘Information Department’, the region’s main insurgent group insisted that preconditions for any viable peace process should include both a willingness on the part of belligerents to find a solution along with the participation of “third parties (from) the international community” as witnesses and observers.
Released from a “European capital”, according to an insurgent representative who communicated with Asia Times, the communiqué also insists that the process for ending the conflict that since 2004 has convulsed the Thai provinces of Pattani, Narathiwat, Yala and parts of Songkhla, would also require the assistance of a “credible” and “impartial” mediator agreeable to both parties and who has no “conflict of interest.”
A third and final point noted that the peace process should be “designed clearly by the negotiating parties and agreed upon before the start of negotiation”, if necessary with the help of the mediator.
Coming soon after an April 7 wave of well-coordinated attacks on the electricity grid across all four insurgency-affected provinces, the statement appeared to underscore a demand put forward in BRN’s first press release and a formal interview with a foreign media correspondent in October 2015.
In a meeting in a Southeast Asian capital at that time, four BRN information department spokesmen noted the willingness of BRN to talk peace, provided that international oversight of the process was guaranteed according to “international standards and norms.”
That proposition has been consistently rejected by Bangkok, where successive governments have insisted the southern conflict is a purely domestic issue which Thailand is entirely capable of solving without foreign assistance or mediation.
Since the coup in May 2014, Bangkok’s military government has doubled down on a strategy of accelerated economic development worth billions of baht and improvements to the justice system with a view to reducing the Malay-Muslim disaffection that underpins support for an insurgency that has dragged on for 13 years at a cost of some 7,000 lives.
A senior Thai official who spoke to Asia Times in a private capacity said that the government’s basic policy has not changed. He also noted the communique’s language, which he characterized as “very positive”, appeared to reflect a “more sophisticated and diplomatic approach” that would be required generally if negotiations were ever to take place.
But the latest communique from a group that has long prided itself on a virtual cult of secrecy appeared also to reflect rising anger over the current controversial and glacially slow-moving peace process.
The talks have brought together a Thai government negotiating team and a group of five off-shore separatist factions known as MARA Patani – purportedly including representatives of BRN but not clearly in control of on-the-ground insurgents. Mara Patani was established in 2014 specifically to hold dialogue with Prayuth’s junta government.
In a thinly-veiled jab at the role of Malaysia, which shares a border with the restive southern Thai region, the communiqué says that a new peace process should specifically “not be designed by any particular party other than the negotiating parties.” That wording suggests insurgent irritation over Malaysia’s current “facilitator” role, which BRN appears to view as having exceeded its brief.
In written answers to questions from Asia Times, Information Department spokesman Abdulkarim Khalid stressed that the BRN was playing no part in the Mara Patani umbrella group, and that individuals in the group describing themselves as BRN representatives were acting on their own initiative.
“BRN has never given a mandate to anyone or any agency in terms of sending a delegation to join the ongoing process between Mara Patani and the Thai government.” he noted in an e-mail.
In February, Mara Patani and the government team agreed to move ahead with the creation of long-discussed “safety zones” in specially designated but not yet named districts.
However, it has never been clear how the small political factions which make up Mara Patani, based in Malaysia with no known armed elements in Thailand, could guarantee the cessation of insurgent violence without the cooperation of fighters on the ground who are overwhelmingly affiliated with BRN.
In his written comments, Khalid suggested that the current process was in fact being used by both parties for political rather than substantive reasons. He noted that “BRN believes that a peace process should not be used as a bargaining tool by any party”, and added that such an approach “barters human lives, blood and the suffering of the people.”
It is difficult to see BRN’s communique as having a major or immediate impact on a peace process which is underpinned by diplomatic support from both Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur, and that has gained a certain degree of bureaucratic momentum.
Nevertheless, the statement from a group slowly emerging from a cocoon of secrecy and the wave of bombings that preceded it appears to promise one thing: attempts by Mara Patani and the Thai government to push ahead with the establishment of “safety zones” will almost certainly cause more rather than less violence and suffering in Thailand’s embattled border region.