Over the last nine months the insurgency in the Deep South of Thailand has escalated dramatically. Just within the last week two bombs went off in Narathiwat province, another bomb exploded within the Pattani commercial centre, and five people were injured in a drive by shooting also in Pattani. Even with the Thai military killing 16 insurgents during an attack on a marine base just recently, there is little evidence of military progress in the insurgency.
At the same time Malaysia is heading into what could be called a “watershed” election. Premier Najib’s personal popularity rating has fallen, there have been a number of campaigning mishaps for him of late, and there is an embarrassing military stand-off in Sabah with a group loyal to the Sulu Sultan, where the Philippine President Aquino is the one taking initiatives.
In this environment, both governments are in desperate need of a breakthrough with the insurgency. Of late, the insurgents have undertaken many embarrassing ploys like displaying Malaysian flags in the South last August 31st on Malayan Independence day. In addition, troops and other security forces are all tied in the south trying to protect major towns like Hat Yai and Chana from attacks, and Premier Yingluck Shinawatra has her brother’s legacy of poor handling of the Southern insurgency problem hanging over her. Premier Najib badly needs some form of diplomatic coup to bolster his credentials, particularly with the rural Malays in Kelantan who are not unsympathetic to the insurgents cause, and the general population of Malaysia with the oncoming election due anytime in the near future.
Perhaps this is why the surprise of an agreement signed between the Thai Government during Premier Yinluck Shinawatra’s visit to Kuala Lumpur with one of the major insurgent groups the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), should actually not be a surprise.
A memorandum was signed in Putra Jaya by Lieutenant-General Panradom Pattanathabur, Secretary general of Thailand’s National Security Council, and Utaz Hassan Taib who was identified as the chief of the BRN liaison office in Malaysia. The document was witnessed by Mohamed Thajudeen Bin Abdul Wahab who is the Secretary General of the National Security Council within The Prime Minister’s Department.
The simple text of the document reads as follows under the heading “General Consensus on Peace Dialogue Process“:
“The Government of Thailand has appointed the Secretary General of the National Security Council (Lieutenant-General Panradom Pattanathabur) to head the group supporting favourable environment creation to peace promotion in the Southern Border Provinces of Thailand.
We are willing to engage in peace dialogue with people who have different opinions and ideologies from the state (note not directly referring to the BRN only), as one of the stakeholders in solving the Southern Border problem under the framework of the Thai Constitution while Malaysia would act as facilitator. Safety measures shall be provided to all members of the Joint Working Group throughout the entire process.”
– dated and signed 28th February 2013
This document was heralded by all as an historical agreement and has been reported widely in both the mainstream Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur Press, although it’s interesting Malaysia’s online press hardly mentioned it.
The BRN was formed in 1963 and is one of up to 20 different insurgency groups in the Deep South of Thailand. Although the BRN may one of the largest groups, it is yet to be seen if any other groups may come onboard with these negotiations, or even take a hostile view of these negotiations believing that they have been left out and should be the group that the government be negotiating with. With jealousies between some of these groups, this is a minor risk that the Thai Government has taken.
As it has actually not been spelt out by the various insurgency groups what demands and aspirations they have, this process will at least put these points on the table for examination. In this sense the memorandum is a potential breakthrough because it may establish the gambit of positions both sides will talk from. Ironically through this insurgency, very few concrete demands or aspirations have actually been aired, although the various groups harbor ideals and aspirations alone a wide continuum.
The role of Malaysia will be interesting. The Federal Government wants peace along the border and there are actually great trade advantages to a peaceful south through the IMT-GT. The Malaysian military and police are generally cooperative with the Thai authorities over border security issues and established good relationships. However some insurgents within the Deep South are also Malaysian citizens, or at least have very close Malaysian relatives, and to some degree integrated within the “pondok communities” within Kelantan. Perhaps Malaysia’s prime role will be just acting as a chairman to these meetings to maintain negotiations, rather than acting more proactively in suggesting solutions. The true value of the Malaysian role will therefore be just to hold the process together, which may not be an easy task, given the emotional issues involved.
Any success will depend upon there not being any hidden agendas between the 2+1 parties during these talks. With the complexities of Thai politics, the military, the various insurgency groups and their splinters, and Malaysian politics, particularly related to the constituency of Kelantan, this could be a tall order. However there is also the hope that all sides are tired and through this process, there can be reaching out to other insurgency groups. Much of this will personally depend upon the skills and attitude taken by Panradom Pattanathabur and the reception he gets from members of the BRN delegation. The other question here is who does Hassan Taib actually represent within the BRN which has a number of splinter groups? Even if Hassan is speaking for a wide series of groups, every point of negotiations would have to be discussed in community Syura in every province to obtain any consensus, which could be daunting.
One must remember this is not the first time peace talks have been attempted with many different moderators including former Malaysian Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamed in the Langkawi talks a few years ago, and later with former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra where both went nowhere.
One aspect that has not been tackled by both governments in this agreement is the role drug traffickers, bandits, gangsters, and other criminal elements are playing in this insurgency problem. It is in their interest to have turmoil in the Deep South so they can carry out their trade. These groups are part of the problem and they need to be dealt with in any process for it to be a success.
The first meeting is scheduled to be held in Malaysia within the next two weeks, and every fortnight afterwards. It would be surprising if much information about these talks actually leaks out. However the meeting itself is something positive and who actually turns up to these meetings from the insurgents side will be very telling of eventual success of this process.
What is sure, the violence will not stop immediately, but the immediate level of violence may indicate how seriously various groups look at this upcoming process of negotiation. The Yingluck Government has given some authority to the military to negotiate, who may take a more hardline than the government would. However from the Thai point of view some process is going on which is better than no process. The agreement to the Malaysian Government as the moderator is a redeeming event in foreign policy for the Najib Government. The BN will be hoping that this may provide some positive mileage among the rural Malays of Kelantan, who they need to win over if any positive electoral.
Meanwhile the people of the Deep South will continue to go about their daily lives with extreme caution.