Over the last nine months the insurgency in the Deep South of Thailand has escalated dramatically. In the last week alone, two bombs went off in Narathiwat province, another bomb exploded within the Pattani commercial center, 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 recently, there is little tangible evidence of military progress against 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, no doubt influenced by a series of campaigning missteps, and there is also an embarrassing military stand-off in Sabah with a group loyal to the Sulu Sultan. So far, Philippine President Aquino is the one taking initiative to put an end to the conflict.
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, which is Malayan Independence day. In addition, troops and other security forces are all tied down in the south trying to protect major towns like Hat Yai and Chana from attacks, and Premier Yingluck Shinawatra seems to have her brother's legacy of poor handling of the Southern insurgency 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 sometime in the near future.
Perhaps this is what motivated the “surprise” agreement between the Thai government and one of the major insurgent groups, the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), during Premier Yinluck Shinawatra's visit to Kuala Lumpur. But in actuality, it should not come as much of a surprise at all. After all, 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.
Under the heading of "General Consensus on Peace Dialogue Process," the document’s simple text reads as follows:
"The Government of Thailand has appointed the Secretary General of the National Security Council (Lieutenant-General Panradom Pattanathabur) to head the group supporting favorable 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 it has been reported on widely in both the mainstream Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur Press, although it's interesting that Malaysia's online press has hardly mentioned it.
The BRN was formed in 1963 and is one of up to 20 different insurgent groups in Thailand’s Deep South. Although the BRN may be one of the largest groups, it is yet to be seen if other groups opt to get onboard with these negotiations, or take a hostile view owing to the fact that they have been left out of the initial appeal for talks. With jealousies abound between most of these groups, this stands as a minor risk on the part of the Thai government.
As it has not actually 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. Throughout this insurgency though, there have been very few concrete demands or aspirations that have actually been aired, although it is true that the various groups harbor ideals and aspirations along 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 Indonesia-Malaysia-Thailand Growth Triangle (IMT-GT). The Malaysian military and police are generally cooperative with the Thai authorities over border security issues and have thus 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 are integrated within the "pondok communities" within Kelantan.
Perhaps Malaysia's prime role will be just acting as a chairman to these meetings, 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. Furthermore, Malaysia may find it difficult to gain the trust and confidence of the insurgents. Negotiators from the Petani Malay Liberation Movement were once betrayed by Malaysian authorities during negotiations in the late 1990s. The insurgents were arrested and deported back to Thailand, where they still remain in prison to this day.
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 of the conflict, and that through this process, there can be a 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? After all, the BRN consists of several 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.
In addition, many of these "insurgency" groups are not really formal organizations. Leadership is "ad hoc,” objectives and aspirations are wide and varied, and any action taken is often on a very spasmodic basis. These groups form and disband periodically and take action completely independently. Many operate so discretely that other groups don't even know who their members really are. This makes it very difficult for anybody to speak on behalf of the majority of groups involved in this conflict.
One must remember this is not the first time peace talks have been attempted. There have been several former 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. Both incidents came to nothing.
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 that they can carry out their trade. Some violent events are deliberately set as a "false flag," which makes understanding of the Deep South even more complicated. In addition there is a murky Indonesian link to some groups that is far from understood. 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.
The violence will not stop immediately, but the immediate level of violence may indicate how seriously various groups view the negotiation process. The Yingluck governmenthas 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, as there has been no let up in the violence since the signing last Thursday.
Murray Hunter is a contributor to Geopoliticalmonitor.com