A Muslim man wearing a face mask as a preventive measure against the spread of the Covid-19 novel coronavirus takes part in prayers at a mosque in Pattani, March 27, 2020. Photo: AFP/Tuwaedaniya Meringing

BANGKOK – What an unrelenting military crackdown has failed to deliver in 17 years of fighting, the insidious advance of the Covid-19 virus across Thailand’s restive southern border provinces may have achieved in just two weeks: a rare opportunity for peace in what had seemed like an endless conflict.

On April 3, the Patani Malay National Revolutionary Front, or BRN, the insurgent organization that has spearheaded the separatist revolt in the mainly Malay Muslim border region, announced it was willing, at least temporarily, to put down its arms on humanitarian grounds and facilitate the response to a threat it described as the “principal enemy of the human race.”

The watershed one-page statement, dated April 3 and bearing the stamp of the group’s Central Secretariat, represents the first time the rebel group has publicly committed to what amounts to a de facto ceasefire.

Against the backdrop of direct peace talks between BRN and the Thai government which opened in Malaysia in January, the sudden onset of Covid-19 in south Thailand may just sound an echo of the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004.  

Within less than a year, that natural catastrophe had ended the long-running separatist conflict in the Indonesian province of Aceh with a peace deal that has held to present.

But a slow-spreading virus is not a wall of water; Patani is not Aceh; and crucially the response of the Thai state and security forces still remains to be seen.

It was notable that the BRN statement was couched in clearly guarded terms that hardly amounted to an enthusiastic endorsement of peace.

Nor did BRN, with a typically provincial perspective, make any reference to the March 23 appeal from United Nations chief Antonio Gutierres to “put armed conflict on lockdown” globally amid the pandemic.

Thai students wear face masks donated by a school official as a preventive measure against the Covid-19 coronavirus during a ceremony at Attarkiah Islamic School in Thailand’s southern province of Narathiwat, March 17, 2020. Photo: AFP/Madaree Tohlala

Pointedly avoiding the term “ceasefire” or “cessation of hostilities”, the group undertook rather to  “cease all activities.”

That stand-down, it said, would come into effect from April 3 and remain in force only for as long as the BRN was not attacked by government forces.   

The statement also appeared to take days to formulate, finally appearing well over a week after the mid-March onset of the pandemic in the southern border provinces of Pattani, Narathiwat, Yala and Songkhla where BRN operates.

Reportedly imported by Thai Muslim pilgrims returning from the now infamous mass congregation of the Tablighi Jamaat sect early in the month in Selangor, Malaysia, the virus threatens to hit the border region especially hard. 

By April 5, there were 156 confirmed cases and four Covid-19 related deaths in the four provinces, with Yala hardest hit with 52 cases followed by Pattani with 45. Several hundred others remain untested but under observation.

Both the language of the statements and the delay served to point up two central aspects of the conflict, neither of which bodes well for long-lasting Covid-19 inspired peace.

The first is the deep distrust of the Thai state in the ranks of BRN and the wider Muslim community after 15 years of insurgency and decades of top-down policies from Bangkok aimed at assimilating the region into the Thai Buddhist national mainstream.

The January opening of direct talks, a milestone of sorts, has only begun to scratch at the surface of long-ingrained suspicions.

Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha (R) greets Muslim religious officials during a visit in Thailand’s southern province of Narathiwat on January 20, 2020 to hold a symbolic Cabinet meeting. Photo: AFP/Madaree Tohlala

Events in the field in recent months have not improved matters as Thai security forces have maintained a steady drumbeat of targeted raids on insurgent safe houses leading to clashes, bombings and arrests.

Most of these state operations appear to have been based on increasingly good operational intelligence.

Larger sweeps through mountains and jungles where BRN fighters hide out have also taken a toll. In February, a running battle in the mountains of Narathiwat saw six fighters surrounded and killed in the largest single loss to BRNs military wing since 2013.

A further clash in early March saw a group of insurgents surprised on the banks of a river in Raman district of Yala province with two later found dead.

One of largest operations in the conflict to date unfolded in mid-March when security forces closed in on a group of rebel fighters camped in marshland close to a dam not far from Yala city.

Clashes escalated as several hundred heavily armed troops backed by Blackhawk helicopters and drones were deployed in an effort to capture or kill a group of some 10 or more insurgents.

After dragging on for nine days, the operation left four rebels dead along with one Thai soldier killed and six others wounded.

Its conclusion was undoubtedly accelerated by explosive rebel retaliation: a massive car-bomb attack on March 17 on the headquarters of the Southern Border Provinces Administration Center (SBPAC) in Yala city, a mere 10 kilometers away from the marshes where the battle was underway.

Police investigators inspect the wreckage of a car bomb after an explosion outside of the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Center in Thailand’s restive southern province of Yala, March 17, 2020. Photo AFP/Tuwaedaniya Meringing

The bombing, which unfolded as senior officials gathered to discuss the deteriorating Covid-19 situation in the province, involved a tactic classically aimed at inflicting maximum casualties: the use of a smaller device to draw bystanders and responders into the killing range of the main bomb. In this instance a pickup truck was loaded with twin improvised explosive devices (IEDs) weighing an estimated 80 kilograms. 

A total of 25 were wounded in the massive blast but remarkably there were no fatalities. Most immediately, the attack appeared intended to draw troops away from the battle in the marshes and enable some fighters to slip the net. But it also sent two other powerful messages.

First was that whatever reverses it had suffered, BRN retains a lethally effective capacity to organize at relatively short notice a major attack against a high-profile target in a major regional city. Second was that angry militants in the field saw the flurry of Thai military operations as at stark variance with Bangkok’s stated goal of advancing peace and yet another example of “Siamese” perfidy.

Against this unpromising backdrop, BRN’s commitment to a Covid-19 humanitarian pause, which Thai authorities have yet to dignify with an official response, remains pointedly conditional and hedged with suspicion and distrust. 

“We’ve announced the cessation of all activities from 3 April in order to give way to the efforts of health personnel and agencies responsible for preventing and controlling the spread of the disease.” Pak Nahar,  head of BRN’s Central Secretariat, wrote to Asia Times in an email.

“But we will carefully monitor the actions of the Thai government to ascertain whether it is really focused on responding to Covid-19 or…whether they want to exploit the vulnerability of the Patani people to besiege, assault, arrest and oppress the people.”

Tensions within BRN, a notoriously secretive organization with little experience of public outreach and weak internal communications, also likely underlay the ambivalent tone of the statements and the time it took the announcement to appear.  

At one level, almost inevitable strains have surfaced between the party’s military wing, which dominates the movement inside Thailand and is on the receiving end of Thai military operations, and those in the political wing entrusted with the task of negotiating peace with the Thais from the comfort of Malaysia.

Thai security personnel stand guard after a roadside bomb attack by suspected militants in the Yi-ngo district in Thailand’s restive southern province of Narathiwat, February 3, 2020. Photo: AFP/Madaree Tohlala

Not uncommon between the political and military wings of many insurgent groups, these tensions have been exacerbated in BRN’s context by another element: the acute vulnerability of the BRN peace delegation led by the political wing’s Anas Abdulrahman to strongarm tactics brought to bear by the Malaysian authorities now “facilitating” the talks.

The Malaysian team is headed by Abdul Rahim Mohammad Noor, an irascible septuagenarian former police chief with a colorful reputation for table-thumping impatience. Since taking up his new job, Noor’s interpretation of his mandate has extended “facilitation” well beyond arranging comfortable accommodation and negotiating venues for the two delegations.

According to sources on the ground, verbal arm-twisting of the Patani negotiation team has escalated to direct threats and, in some cases, BRN operatives being picked up inside Malaysia by Police Special Branch officers and handed over to Thai authorities.

The proclivity of Malaysian security services to monitor, manipulate and coerce Thai separatists who for decades have sought sanctuary and residence south of the border is a source of deep resentment in rebel ranks.

Today, however, it runs the risk of sowing real discord between BRN’s skeptical military wing and a delegation headed by Anas under mounting pressure from Malaysia to accede to a more or less immediate cessation of hostilities. 

Fractures between BRN’s political and military wings have only been compounded by the stark shortcomings of the movement’s senior leadership.

Commanding both respect and authority by virtue of age and, in many cases, religious standing, BRN’s leadership council of around ten men is geographically challenged by scattered locations that under the best of circumstances are hardly helpful to swift decision-making.

At the same time, it also often appears to operate in an ideological and conceptual bubble disconnected from shifting ground realities in Thailand and beyond. As critics argue, the result is sclerosis and dysfunction that has unquestionably been one factor behind the length of an insurgency that often appears to be running on auto-pilot devoid of any clear political strategy.

Unsurprisingly, the chronic indecision hard-wired into BRN’s organizational structure appears only to have encouraged assertiveness on the part of frustrated authorities in Kuala Lumpur impatient to impose a peace across the border that will best secure Malaysian interests.

In the short term, the sustainability of the precarious Covid-19 pause in violence will hinge largely on the Thai military. It remains unclear whether the security forces will maintain their current proactive posture or, alternatively, refrain from moving on hard-won intelligence and seeking to arrest wanted insurgents – raids that often trigger shoot-outs and deaths.

Beyond that, the BRN statement, which ends by extending to the Patani people wishes for “happy fasting” a full three weeks before the fasting month of Ramadan begins on April 23, suggests that the group may be hoping that the current pause can be extended through Ramadan into late May.

That would represent the best opening for real peace that southern Thailand has seen in two decades. Whether the political and military lobbies on both sides of the conflict can rise to the Covid-19 presented opportunity is a very different question.