Old separatists still dream of a free patani
Published on Feb 13, 2007
- Doubts over the ability of 'old-guard' militants to curtail young 'juwae' and a lack of faith in both KL and Bangkok cloud the road to peace
Sitting in the living room of a small compact row house in the back of a mosque, three elderly men sip tea and reminisce about the time when they were at the top of their game.
They were part of an armed separatist movement that emerged in the late 1960s to try to carve out a separate homeland for Malays in the three Muslim-majority southernmost provinces of Thailand.
But the movement took a nosedive in the 1980s when a general amnesty persuaded most insurgents to give up armed struggle. With their military wings clipped, separatist leaders went into exile. Many resettled in Western Europe, while others have opted for Malaysia and elsewhere in Southeast Asia where they have taken up citizenship in their respective host countries.
But turning a new leaf hasn't been easy. Solace is taken at get-togethers. Some of the exiles said they are still clinging to some hope, however small it may be, that someday the Malay region would be freed from Thai rule and the political, cultural and social baggage that comes with it. Morally bankrupt usually comes to mind whenever these leaders talk about modernity bought about by the Thais, but others are saying it's time to come to terms with the past and move on.
But while they complain bitterly about the fear of losing their cultural identity, these old guard from the Patani United Liberation Organisation (Pulo), Gerekan Mujahidin Islam Patani (GMIP), Barisan Islam Pembangunan Patani (BIPP) and Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) say they would be willing to sit down with the Thai government again to talk about peace in the South.
In late 2005, a number of these exiled leaders went to Langkawi for several rounds of meetings with senior Thai security officials. A set of recommendations was handed to the Thai side in February of last year. In it they professed their loyalty to the Thai state, demanded amnesty for those in exile and called for the reinstatement of the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Centre (SBPAC). They also asked for the Malay language to be used as a medium of instruction in private and public schools in the deep South.
The Malaysian government described the talks as a "private initiative" because it was organised by former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad. The Thaksin administration didn't make much of the proposals. But with a new government in place the idea of having a similar dialogue with the separatist leaders of long-standing groups and militants on the ground has been picking up steam.
In recent interviews with The Nation, members of the old guard made no specific demands but talked at length about the poverty and the lack of social mobility and representation for Thai-Malays.
They did not say how the violence in the deep South could be stopped or explain the extent of their influence, if they have any, over the militants referred to locally as juwae, or fighters.
The most they would say is that they still have their network of supporters and sympathisers in place within the deep South.
They said that while the Langkawi talks were more of a mental exercise, future talks should be transparent and with international observers present to ensure that Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur do not mislead them. They also demanded that the Thais formally recognise their groups. Attending any talks with the Thais as individuals, they said, would be tantamount to committing treason.
While the extent of the old guards' network or influence on the militants in the deep South is still unclear, it is just as unclear how seriously Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok are taking them.
Mahathir, in a recent interview with Nation TV, said a breakthrough with the old guard could pave the way for the new generation of fighters on the ground to follow suit.
Hard-liners in Thailand think it's a long shot, while doves in the government think Thailand has nothing to lose. If anything, dialogue with the old guard should be part of the country's reconciliation efforts with Thai-Malays in the South.
Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont, meanwhile, appeared to be directing his gestures of goodwill to the local Malays in the South in the hope that they would side with the government in the fight against the militants on the ground. A bit of wishful thinking perhaps, given the long history of mistrust between the Thai state and the Malay community, not to mention the fact that today's enemies are no longer armed men camped in remote hills, but rather residents of the villages from which they launch their daily attacks.
And while Surayud moved to reinstate the SBPAC and permitted Malay to be used as a "working language" along with the "official" Thai, none of the credit went to the participants in the Langkawi talks.
Besides reaching out to the people in the South, the government has quietly sought help from Kuala Lumpur in bringing the people behind the bloodshed to the table.
No particular organisation was singled out but officials in both capitals said the members of the old guard who attended the Langkawi talks would be included.
Some of those in exile don't trust either the Thai or Malaysian government to look after the interests of the Malays in the South, while others see the dialogue as a possible trap. The handing over of three Pulo commanders - Isma-ae and Da-oh Thanam and Abdul Rahman Bazo in January 1998 - was a grave reminder that no one is expendable.
But if a breakthrough can be made between the two prime ministers who had a meeting in Bangkok yesterday, those in exile living in Malaysia could be forced to accept a deal that they may not like.
But that could also mean trouble in the long term, according to observers from both capitals, because any agreement reached would not be sustainable. Nevertheless, it would mean a new beginning in the Thai-Malaysian relations with regard to the restive south.
In the past, Thai security officials have often complained about their Malaysian counterparts not handing suspects over when requested to do so. Sources in Malaysia said the fear of political fallout is just too great if the wrong person were to be sent to the gallows.
Besides, few trust Thai law enforcers to give anyone suspected of committing treason a fair trial.
For the time being, the exiles are permitted to live in Malaysia as long as they don't take up arms. In other words, they can dream about a free Patani (former independent Muslim sultanate in the deep South) but they can't organise an army to liberate it.
It's not clear, however, if this new-found friendship between Thailand and Malaysia will kill their dreams of a freer Patani.
PM accepts M'sian offer to broker peace talks
Published on February 17, 2007 - Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont said yesterday the government had agreed to accept Malaysia's offer to mediate negotiations with insurgents in the deep South, reversing an earlier denial by the foreign minister.
"We have agreed to the talks, if Malaysia will help us figure out the right group [to talk to] so that we can produce a practical outcome," the premier said.
Kasturi Mahkota, the foreign affairs chief of the Patani United Liberation Organisation (Pulo), a long-standing separatist movement, issued a statement from abroad saying it welcomed reports about possible dialogue - but preferred the talks to take place in a "neutral and uninvolved third country".
Pulo has also suggested that an international mediator be part of the discussions to ensure transparency and credibility.
Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi offered to help mediate between the insurgents and the Thai government during his visit to the Kingdom this past week.
Foreign Minister Nitya Pibulsonggram, however, issued a statement on Wednesday saying there was no plan for any mediation that would necessitate such a request.
Surayud yesterday declined to say whether the negotiations would take place soon, and which specific group would attend. "It's a general idea with no details. We don't want to talk about rice with mango growers," he said.
The violence continued yesterday, with an explosion in Yala injuring six border police on patrol.