Too many mediators are spoiling the chances of peace in the South
Published on July 10, 2009
By DON PATHAN
WHEN Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva took office, he stated that the
ongoing insurgency in the deep South would be one of his highest
priorities. He wanted to bring back civilian rule in the restive
region where more than 3,400 people have been killed since January
But Abhisit knows that in Thai politics, like everything else in life,
what you want and what you get are two different things.
Naturally, the Army resisted the proposed division of labour that
would take away a big chunk of its budget for development and give it
to civilians under the umbrella of the Southern Border Provinces
Administration Centre (SBPAC). The centre would be given a legal basis
of its own, which means entitlement to a share of the government's
Political insiders said Abhisit was toying with the idea of picking up
where the government of Surayud Chulanont had left off. During his
term, Surayud extended an olive branch to the Malays in the South,
apologised for the past atrocities, specifically the Tak Bai massacre,
and pleaded for a new beginning.
While the locals welcomed the message, the militants on the ground
didn't pay heed to it. Two months went by and the insurgents wouldn't
let up with their attacks.
Frustrated by the fact that the new generation of insurgents would not
reciprocate, the then-Army chief, General Sonthi Boonyaratglin - the
head of a military council that ousted Thaksin Shinawatra in the
September 2006 coup - gave the go-ahead for troops to shake down
remote villages and round up young men for re-education camps in the
The raids brought down the overall number of attacks but did nothing
in terms of affecting the insurgents' capacity and ability to
"If anything, insurgent attacks during that period showed a higher
degree of precision and lethality against military and civilian
targets, putting everyone in constant fear," said Sunai Phasuk, a
researcher with Human Rights Watch.
"But by resorting to abusive counter-insurgency tactics such as
torture, assassinations and arbitrary arrests, the Thai military was
responsible for the increase in tension and hostility, which made many
Muslims feel that the reconciliation proposal was irrelevant."
Looking back, it is clear that Sonthi's action, and the insurgent
violence, derailed whatever effort Surayud was trying to kick-start.
But what caught Abhisit's attention was not the stuff of the headlines
but the quiet diplomacy between Thailand and Malaysia with regard to
the South, and between the Surayud administration and members of
long-standing separatist groups such as the Patani United Liberation
Organisation, or Pulo. Surayud had met one of the group's leaders in
December 2007 during a stopover in Bahrain.
Political insiders say that Abhisit is interested in exploring the
idea of a peace process with the separatist movements. Foreign
Minister Kasit Piromya, during his visit earlier this week to Bahrain,
hinted that a dialogue process was already in the pipeline.
"This is the first time in ten years that political leaders are
taking responsibility toward establishing dialogue with the
insurgents. Before, it used to be the military doing the
negotiations," Kasit was quoted by the Gulf Times as saying.
It was clear from the start that there is opposition from various
quarters to the idea of talking to the enemy. The recently dismissed
National Security Council (NSC) chief, Lt-General Surapon Puenai-yaka,
who was appointed during the Samak Sundaravej administration, is said
to be against the idea of talking to the separatists. On the other
hand, his replacement, Thawin Piensiri, a career officer at the NSC,
is said to be open to the idea of strengthening the dialogue process
with the exiled separatist leaders.
Politically sensitive it may be, but the idea of talking to the
separatist groups is not new. The Thai Army has been sending people to
meet with various Malay separatist organisations for decades, but the
outcome of these meetings has never had any affect on policy change,
say senior Army officers who have come into contact with these
long-standing separatist groups.
"This is because they were treated as news-gathering exercises by
individual top brass, many of whom like to think they have a monopoly
on the matter," said an officer who spoke on condition of anonymity.
But in spite of three decades of on-off dialogue, Thailand today is
still nowhere near coming up with a concerted policy for negotiation
with the separatists. And in spite of the proliferation of so-called
peace processes, the government has yet to give any single outfit the
mandate to speak to the separatists on its behalf.
This, according to political insiders, is partly because Abhisit is
not sure if anybody is talking to the right people. But more to the
point, can these so-called representatives of the various separatist
groups really influence the new generation of militants operating on
Observers say it will be even harder now to bring the new generation
of militants to any dialogue process following the recent ruling on
the Tak Bai massacre, which cleared security officials of any
misconduct. This is on top of the massacre of 11 Muslims praying
inside a village mosque in Narathiwat's Joh I Rong district, which the
Thai authorities immediately blamed on the insurgents. This has put
Abhisit's promise for justice to a major test.
Besides the current administration, former premier Chavalit
Yongchaiyudh is also trying to put together a peace process by relying
on his connections with the now-defunct Wadah politicians from the
deep South. He claims to have a letter from a supposedly senior leader
of Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), who says the group wants to talk
only with the government. Chavalit says the conflict in the deep South
stems from rivalries between the government and the Army. Like others
before him, Chavalit's public stunt has been billed as a desperate
attempt to derail other peace processes.
In reality, BRN has remained relatively low-key, while Pulo has long
had a channel of communication with the Thai government. This channel
was strengthened during the Surayud administration.
One way to get around this senseless competition is to set up a
legislation-backed task force to oversee the peace process.
Many officers who favour the idea of a peace process say the task
force has to transcend governments and party politics, regardless of
changes in the administration
The problem with Abhisit is his political stability. No one is certain
if his administration will last long enough to lay the needed
foundation for a meaningful peace process to begin.