Patani Malay separatists at a crossroads
Published on July 14, 2009
FIVE YEARS ago, the Patani United Liberation Organisation (Pulo) was
at a crossroads. The long-standing Malay Muslim separatist group that
emerged in the late 1960s was in disarray. Its splinter groups had
splinter groups. If anything, it was the worst time to be in disarray.
A new generation of militants had just emerged on the ground,
operating in full force. Some of the old guard, including the Pulo
rank-and-file, thought it was an opportunity to get back into the
scheme of things.
Like other long-standing groups whose members have been living in
exile since their generation of fighters went down in the early 1990s,
Pulo was willing to talk to the Thai authorities. The movement was
willing to settle for something less than full independence.
And so for the past five years, group members have been shuttling back
and forth to various pockets of Patani Malay exiles in Southeast Asia,
the Middle East and Europe to get everybody on board.
It was hoped that some sort of peace process could be jumpstarted with
the Thais. The hard part was getting the new generation of militants
to agree. In order to do that, the new generation of militants, as
well as the old guard from the previous generation, has to be
convinced that there is an endgame to the violence.
This means dropping the word "independent" in exchange for something
along the lines of "self determination", but under the context of the
Exiled leaders told The Nation that it was hard for some to swallow
this transition at first, but more and more are progressing toward the
idea of talking to the enemy.
A slight hiccup came just one year ago when Pulo's founder, Tengku
Bira Kotonila passed away in Damascus, Syria. "Tengku Bira will be
missed. He has been ill for some time. Our struggle will go on," The
Nation quoted Pulo foreign affairs chief, Kasturi Makota, as saying at
The struggle goes on. Just this past week, after several rounds of
meetings and sounding out more than 130 of the group's senior figures,
a new line up has been chosen to take the struggle to the next level.
Nur Abdul Rahman was elected as the new president, while Kasturi, who
continues to hold the foreign affairs portfolio, became his deputy.
The group is also fine-tuning its position, which includes endorsement
for a peace process, support for the use of military means for
political settlement, and upholding the principle of
But becoming a mainstream political force is easier said than done.
The group made some headway during the Surayud Chulanont
administration, but the short-lived interim government was not able to
institutionalise their relationship.
The successive governments of Samak Sundaravej and Somchai Wongsawat
were too bogged down with street protests and had no time for any
long-term initiative, much less a dialogue process with the
Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva is trying to pick up where Surayud
left off, but has been finding it difficult to convince the
conservative quarters in the government, namely the Internal Security
Operation Command (Isoc) and the military, that talking to the enemy
is the best way to go.
While the Abhisit government explores the idea of talking to the
separatists, Pulo is working hard to convince other groups of the
merit of talking to the Thai authorities. A Pulo insider said the
Barisan Revolusi Nasional-Co-ordinate (BRN-C) is the toughest group of
all to convince.
Other groups claim to have some sort of network on the ground, but it
is generally agreed the BRN-C is the most important group of all, as
its members are said to have direct contact with the militants.
Members of the communities in exile say not all of the BRN Co-ordinate
members are convinced that talking to the Thais is what they want at
this point in time. Some favour the idea of working with other
long-standing groups, while others favour the idea of taking a
But as they toyed with the idea of a peace process, a group of six
gunmen massacred 11 Malay Muslims at the Al-Furquan mosque in
Narathiwat's Joh I Rong district on June 8. The incident jolted
everybody, including the militants on the ground and the exiled Patani
Malay communities. None believed that it was the work of the
militants, as suggested by the Thai authorities.
According to sources in the exiled community, BRN-C has threatened to
stay away from whatever pre-dialogue process might be about to emerge.
Co-ordinate members told their Pulo counterparts that they want to see
how the Thais will respond to the massacre. An indifferent attitude
from Bangkok could mean an absence of cooperation from the
A serious investigation into the mosque killings could very well be
the thing that convinces the BRN hard-liners that the government is
serious about any peace process that might emerge. And of course,
justice for the victims' families will also be a prerequisite.
Even if the BRN hard-liners agree to give the peace process the
benefit of the doubt, there is also the big question as to how the
militants on the ground - often referred to as juwae - will take up
the initiative of the old guard.
Said a senior Army general overseeing security in the deep South, "The
militants see themselves as winning this war against the Thai state."
Like others, the general doesn't think the BRN-Co-ordinate's link to
the juwae constitutes a shared command. Indeed, talking is one thing,
but can the BRN-Co-ordinate tell the juwae to put down their arms?