Lessons from the southern insurgency not learned
Published on March 20, 2008 - Last May in Yala, then Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont told a press conference that he had received "positive feedback" from separatist groups over the idea of establishing some sort of "dialogue".
But he warned that more work had to be done before permanent peace in the Malay-speaking deep South could be achieved.
Kasturi Mahkota, foreign-affairs chief of the Patani United Liberation Organisation (Pulo), immediately welcomed Surayud's statement. He called it a "positive gesture".
But on Tuesday in Bangkok, Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej, ruled out the idea of negotiating with the separatists. Local media gave Samak's statement a great deal of coverage but failed to provide a proper context to this sticky issue.
For as long as anybody can remember, Thai security officials have been going to the Middle East, Europe and neighbouring countries to talk to the leaders of long-standing separatist groups, including the Patani United Liberation Organisation (Pulo), Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) and Barisan Islam Pembebasan (BIPP).
However, the outcomes of these off-and-on chats have failed to have any affect on policy because they are carried out in an ad-hoc manner. They just want to sound out the separatists rather then work towards achieving something more constructive.
"Of course, they all say they are representatives of the Thai government," said one exiled leader who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Samak said most government agencies disagree with direct negotiations. However, he was tight-lipped about the secret meetings between the two sides while insisting that the government was not going to sit down with the separatists on an equal basis.
Jolted by the weekend car bombs in Pattani and Yala, Samak had to sound uncompromising in public. The veteran politician knows he is dealing with an issue that cannot be easily translated into a quick political victory. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why the premier and his interior chief, Chalerm Yoobamrung, have been side-stepping the issue.
The problem with the Thai security top brass is that, after years of talking to the separatists, their attitude has not changed. They see themselves as "negotiating with bandits" rather than being in a "dialogue with fellow citizens" - people who embrace a different political ideology, as the communist insurgents did two decades ago.
The only thing that successive Thai administrations have agreed upon is that the issue should not be internationalised. In other words, no foreign governments or international organisations should be involved in mediating the talks or be allowed to snoop around the deep South, where allegations of gross human rights violations and questionable security practices are rife. Thailand looks at East Timor and Aceh and tells itself that this is not what it wants.
The problem with the Thai generals is that they think like Thai politicians. They all want the violence to end under their watch. Never mind that the problem is deeply rooted in history and shaped by mistrust and the resistance of southern Muslims to Thailand's policy of assimilation.
Another problem is that the old guard - older members of the separatist groups - don't and, in most cases, can't control the new generation of militants on the ground. Locally known as juwae, the new generation of insurgents do not necessarily identify with the old guard, and they engage in the kind of brutality unheard of by the previous generation. They are organised in cell clusters but have the capacity to coordinate attacks - 100 targets at a time - throughout the region.
Even after years of being on the receiving end of this battle, the government is still unable to fine-tune a number of important initiatives. At a recent Thai Journalists' Association seminar in Pattani, the provincial Task Force commander, Major General Thawatchai Samutsakorn, said the "government can't tell me what they [insurgents] will get if they surrender".
Often, a suspect who surrenders is paraded in front of the media, unable to speak freely, while top officials tell the public how the suspect has come to his senses after being misled by some false religious teaching and distorted history.
And afterwards, when released, the "reformed" militant becomes a target of his former comrades.
Nearly 3,000 people have been killed in the insurgency since it began in January 2004.