A Thai soldier with an assault rifle takes position outside the Rattanaupap temple in Narathiwat province on January 19, 2019 following an attack by black-clad gunmen that killed two Buddhist monks. Photo: AFP/Madaree Tohlala

YALA – After 17 years of fighting that has claimed over 7,000 lives, laying down arms was never going to be easy for Thailand’s Barisan Revolusi National (BRN), the long-standing separatist movement that controls virtually all of the southern conflict’s on-the-ground combatants. 

De-escalation efforts have been hounded by the Thai Army’s relentless assaults, with rotating top brass soldiers consistently bent on “teaching them a lesson,” according to a Thai military source who spoke on condition of anonymity. 

But after years of hiding in the shadows as one of the world’s few nameless, faceless insurgencies, BRN is starting to come above ground, reaching out to the international community and raising its public profile through initiatives that are winning it sympathy and in spots even praise.

Whether those moves represent a path to peace is in question. Thailand’s top brass was reportedly not amused following BRN’s signing in January of a “Deed of Commitment” with Geneva Call, an international nongovernmental organization (NGO) that promotes rules of war with non-state actors worldwide. 

BRN vowed via the commitment to step up its protection of children in conflict, in line with humanitarian principles and international norms. Rights groups have previously criticized certain of the insurgent group’s attacks that have killed and injured civilians. 

In a bigger step onto the international stage, BRN heeded United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ call for a pause in armed conflicts worldwide in a global humanitarian effort to curb the spread of Covid-19. The announcement represented the first de facto unilateral ceasefire since the conflict erupted in January 2004. 

These initiatives have won BRN certain international kudos and jolted many in Thailand’s top brass, with some hardliners reportedly blaming the Peace Dialogue Panel, comprised of representatives from various agencies and ministries that make up the government’s negotiation team, for not doing enough to contain the BRN.

The secretive talks have born certain fruit, though they are now at risk of collapse after recent violent incidents on both sides. According to government sources, certain generals plan to lobby the government, led by former coup-maker army commander Prayut Chan-ocha, to stack the government’s panel with even more stonewalling soldiers. 

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 cabinet meeting. Photo: AFP/Madaree Tohlala

The current army chief, General Apirat Kongsompong, has reportedly never liked the idea of talking to the BRN as he feels it gives the group unwarranted legitimacy. 

The military has long categorized the violence in Thailand’s Malay-speaking southern region, encompassing the provinces of Yala, Narathiwat, Pattani and parts of Songkhla, as “disturbances” rather than “insurgency.” 

By framing the conflict as an issue of law and order, with rebels often referred to as law-breaking “bandits”, Thailand’s top brass have persistently rebuffed any “internationalization” of the conflict, including calls for outside group mediation that has helped to resolve other global armed conflicts. 

While the top brass may reject the BRN’s latest move to engage the international community, soldiers at the operation level hold different views. Many Thai security forces would like to see the BRN extend their ceasefire beyond the pandemic, which is currently winding down as the country returns to normalcy after a lockdown. 

The end of the pandemic and emergency rule could see the return of anti-military and anti-government protests which were gaining momentum but then lost steam due to the viral outbreak. A BRN ceasefire would give the military more space and troops to contend with any significant new street actions in the capital, Bangkok.

To be sure, BRN’s decision to sign the Geneva Call agreement and declare a unilateral ceasefire was not just for public consumption. Rather, it was an effort by BRN’s political wing to show the group’s elders and their own rank and file that their negotiators can boost the movement’s international standing. 

BRN’s powerful military wing was against the idea of entering into direct talks with state officials until certain conditions were met. Those demands included the release of all insurgent detainees now held in Thai prisons and a formal endorsement from Parliament that the talks are on the government’s national agenda. 

Thai soldiers paint over separatist messages left on a bridge by suspected militants the night before in the Yingo district in Thailand's restive southern province of Narathiwat on November 3, 2016.Three people were shot dead in a night of co-ordinated violence across Thailand's rebellious 'Deep South', in attacks apparently timed with a visit by the new minister for the restive Muslim-majority region. The attacks began late on November 2 and rippled out over a wide area in the following hours with shootings, arson and bombings as well as the unfurling of banners decrying the Thai state, which colonised the region more than a century ago. / AFP PHOTO / MADAREE TOHLALA
Thai soldiers paint over separatist messages left on a bridge by suspected militants in the Yingo district in Thailand’s restive southern province of Narathiwat on November 3, 2016. Photo: AFP/Madaree Tohlala

The insurgent group’s negotiators are still years away from becoming a solid and serious political wing, critics say. But in the end, BRN’s military wing and its secretive ruling council decided to allow negotiators to meet with Thai government counterparts in a series of secret talks, though they are known to be on very short leashes. 

The last meeting in these talks was held in Berlin, Germany, in November 2019, during which a term of reference (ToR) was produced as a blueprint for future talks. The unsigned document identified Thailand and BRN as the only two parties that can decide who will be the facilitator and mediator for the talks. 

The document did not refer to Malaysia, which was apparently kept in the dark about the talks until news of the Berlin meeting was leaked to the media. Malaysia, which shares a border with the conflict area and in the past has allowed insurgents to take cross-border refuge, has served as host to previous talks.  

To avoid piquing Malaysia, which holds a key to any resolution of the conflict, the two sides cobbled together a January gathering in Kuala Lumpur between BRN negotiators and Thai representatives. It was followed by a press conference that praised Malaysia’s facilitation.

At the same time, the Thai military has demonstrated that BRN’s new quest for international recognition and legitimacy will come at a price. In February, security forces launched long-range reconnaissance patrols to uproot and smash BRN cells in the foothills of a Narathiwat province mountain that killed five militants. 

The search-and-destroy operation then shifted to the wetlands of Ta Se district in Yala province in early March, resulting in the killings of four militants and one government soldier. 

Insurgents responded to relentless pounding in Ta Se, delivered by armed helicopters, fan boats, and full-force foot patrols, with a reciprocal car bomb detonated in front of the multi-agency Southern Border Provinces Administrative Center (SBPAC) on March 18. At least 25 were injured in the timed explosion. 

Two weeks after the SBPAC car bomb, reportedly after lengthy consultations with on-the-ground local activists, BRN declared a unilateral ceasefire on April 3 and called on local residents to work with public health officials to curb the spread of Covid-19. 

A map of Thailand’s southernmost border provinces. Image: Wikimedia

The move came after a cluster of infections was discovered among Malay Muslims who had returned from a religious pilgrimage in Malaysia, which has been harder hit by the pandemic than neighboring Thailand. 

But Thai military hardliners breached the cessation of hostilities on April 29 when a small team of BRN operatives tried to slip past a security unit in Nong Chik district in Pattani province. 

A well-placed source in the movement said the cell retreated in line with the instruction to avoid gunfights. Another attempt was made the next evening, but the rebels found themselves trapped in a fierce gunfight with security forces that culminated in the death of three combatants. 

BRN later released a statement that “strongly condemns the actions of the RTG (Royal Thai Government) that failed to respect the hardships faced by the people of Patani during the Covid-19 outbreak. It shows that the RTG does not care about the humanitarian needs of the people of Patani.”

Observers on both sides of the political divide said the BRN statement was also directed at their supporters, urging them to stay the conciliatory course charted by the unilateral ceasefire. The Thai Army was indifferent to the BRN’s statement, casting the violence as usual to a breakdown in law and order.

Three days later, on May 3, gunmen on a motorbike drove up to two Paramilitary Rangers in Pattani’s Sai Buri district and started firing at close range, killing both on the spot. BRN leaders were silent on the lethal assault and it’s still not clear they signed off on what appeared to be a retaliatory operation.

Local media and the government officials were quick to point out that the two Rangers were returning to their base from a Covid-19 activity held at a village in the district. Rangers are often called upon to provide security to public health and provincial officials. 

An armed civil defense volunteer guard Muslim students with a banner saying “we don’t want violence” during an anti-violence rally attended by Muslim and Buddhist residents in Thailand’s southern Narathiwat province on January 22, 2019. Photo: AFP/Madaree Tohlala

If the BRN admitted to giving the lethal order, then one could assume that its pledge to end hostilities during the pandemic has come to a fatal close. 

Local community leaders who often act as go-betweens for BRN rebels and Thai security agencies acknowledge that BRN’s attempt to seize the conflict’s moral high ground through more international engagement will be hard to maintain with perceived as persistent Thai military provocations. 

Some are now suggesting that BRN’s return to the underground until the negotiating environment is more conducive to a settlement. In the past, BRN took cold, if not isolated, comfort in never being obliged to confirm or deny its role in violent incidents. But with its recent outreach and engagement, it will be hard to return fully to the shadows. 

Don Pathan is a Thailand-based security analyst. The views expressed here are his own.