Is Chavalit fostering false hope in the deep South?
Published on September 23, 2008
By Don Pathan
IN keeping with his character, former prime minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh is being just as ambiguous as ever. But then again, he has his reason for not coming clean. Over the weekend, Chavalit was reported as saying that an end to the ongoing insurgency in the Malay-speaking South is within sight. Starting on October 13, there will be a rapid decline in insurgent attacks in the deep South, and by December 5 violence will come to a complete stop.
He insisted this is not a joke and even took a jab at former Army chief General Chetta Thanajaro, who made similar claims that were quickly dismissed as a hoax. Chetta provided video footage of three unidentified ethnic Malays announcing an end to the insurgency in the restive region. They claimed to be spokesmen for 11 unnamed "underground" separatist groups.
The three men wore fake beards and moustaches and spoke under a flag that is unfamiliar to long-standing Patani-Malay separatist groups. Patani Malay exiles, including groups such as the Patani United Liberation Organisation (Pulo), were quick to distance themselves from the video. Chetta quickly became a laughing stock. And, as expected, the violence continued unabated with no end in sight.
No one really knows what Chavalit has got up his sleeve this time, but the former premier is known for having strong political connections in the deep South, and he maintains that his effort is no joke.
His announcement came on the same weekend that Indonesian Vice President Yusuf Kalla was meeting with Patani Malay exiles, namely former members of Bersatu. Representing the Thai side was the defence adviser to the People Power Party, Kwanchart Klaharn, who is tipped to be the next defence minister.
The meeting in Indonesia was Kalla's personal initiative to come up with a solution for the southern problem. Indonesian and Malaysian sources said Kuala Lumpur has had nothing to do with Kalla's initiative. But the fact that most, if not all, of the Patani Malay participants are residents of Malaysia will definitely be a source of irritation to Kuala Lumpur.
Meetings between Thai officials and armed southern separatists have been taking place for decades. The problem is that these meetings have never had any real impact on policy change. They were mostly carried out by senior Army intelligence staff and treated as information-collecting exercises. Agreements reached between the Thai side and the separatists were secret in nature and neither side has had the capacity or willingness to see things through.
Today, these long-standing separatist groups have slipped out of the picture in the deep South and been replaced by younger, meaner militants on the ground. Local residents called them "juwae", which basically means "fighter" in the local Malay dialect. According to Patani Malay exiled leaders, only a handful of people from the long-standing separatist groups have any dialogue with the juwae.
"Perhaps the most meaningful dialogue with the juwae is carried out by members of the Barisan Revolusi Nasional- Coordinate (BRN-C), which is also an underground organisation like the juwae. I seriously doubt if any of the long-standing groups have any real influence on the juwae," one exiled leader said.
Others see the juwae and BRN-C as gradually coming together. Their secretive nature makes them natural partners. Besides, it was the grassroots activities of the BRN that helped ensure the spirit of Malay independence remained in the hearts and minds of local residents in the 1990s when violence disappeared from the region.
The Thai state, on the other hand, mistakenly thought the absence of violence meant permanent peace. What it didn't see was that a new generation of militants was being groomed under its nose.
Pulo, the only long-standing group with a limited public face, said it can help bring the BRN-C to the dialogue process but that Thais will have to be serious about the process. So far, judging from the various uncoordinated meetings between so-called Thai representatives and exiled groups, Bangkok isn't at all serious about talking to the old guard.
Chavalit, over the weekend, claimed to have the support and assurance of authorities in Malaysia, and added that their credibility was on the line. He didn't say which, if any, of the Malaysian government or non-government agencies had assisted him.
As expected, Chavalit's initiative did not get off to a good start. Pulo's foreign affairs chief Kasturi Mahkota wasted no time in criticising Chavalit's initiative. "On behalf of Pulo, I strongly deny our involvement in this dirty process," said Kasturi in a statement to The Nation.
A senior Army intelligence officer in the deep South said Chavalit has been relying on outdated information and his old connections in the region and in Malaysia to put this together. Thai officials on the ground and Patani Malay exiles think Chavalit's initiative will not amount to anything much except a public relations stunt for the political veteran who has been looking to make a comeback.
Moreover, the said government source in Kuala Lumpur said southern Thailand is off the Kuala Lumpur radar screen because of the current political crisis in Malaysia. However, it will quickly become the centre of attention, especially if Anwar Ibhrahim, the leading opposition figure, becomes the next prime minister.
Speaking at a recent press conference, Anwar outlined his top-10 priorities. Nine of the items were domestic matters, but the one and only foreign affairs matter was the conflict in southern Thailand. According to one of his close associates, Anwar would seek input and assistance from governments in the region, as well as leading figures with knowledge about the historical dispute with the Thai state.
But coming up with a deal to end the bloodshed in southern Thailand once and for all will not be easy. With or without the current domestic political mess, Bangkok has not shown any interest in meaningful dialogue or any fundamental change in its relations with the Malay-speaking region.
No one knows how long the political crisis in Bangkok will last. And even if stability returns, few think the Thai state will make any real concession to a region that contests its rule and questions its legitimacy.