A dangerous waiting game: Thailand's aspirations for peace

Bangkok demands insurgent groups in the south cease militant operations before any agreement is made
A dangerous waiting game: Thailand's aspirations for peace

Relatives and mourners perform burial rites during a funeral for a father and his four-year-old daughter killed by a bomb blast in front of a school in the Takbai district of Thailand's restive southern province of Narathiwat on Sept. 6. An anonymous source from the separatist militant group Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) has admitted responsibility for the deadly bombing. (Photo by AFP)

The peace dialogue between the Thai government and separatist groups under the umbrella of Majlis Syura Patani (MARA Patani) has reached a critical juncture. The main hurdle is that ongoing violence on the ground has placed the government in a very awkward position.

Currently, Bangkok is not letting up with their demands that violence be subsided before they ink any agreement with MARA Patani. The problem is that Thai security officials believe that the group has little or no control over the militants behind a spate of attacks in the country, the most recent being a bombing outside a school in the restive south on Sept. 6. A father and his young daughter were killed in the attack allegedly carried out by insurgents.

A source from the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), the one group that controls the vast majority of combatants on the ground, admitted that its militants were behind the attack but expressed grave remorse at the death of the father and his child.

The target was the police, which BRN said were "legitimate," and that the bomb exploded half an hour after the school had already started, said the operative who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not permitted to speak to the media.

There were also a recent car bomb attack at a major hotel and a powerful blast targeting a train. Both of these incidents were in the province of Pattani, the capital of the Malays' historical homeland.

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About two million people reside in this historically contested region where about 85 percent are ethnically Malays who have a long standing mistrust of the Thai state and its policy of assimilation that they feel come at the expense of their cultural and religious identity. These two attacks were likewise carried out by the BRN.

It was BRN's way of letting both the Thai government and MARA Patani know of their disapproval of the ongoing peace initiative that was first launched by the government of Yingluck Shinwatra in February 2013 and continued by the current military government that ousted her in May 2014.

Even with Yingluck's initiative, which was kicked off by her fugitive brother former premier Thaksin one year before the official launch, BRN wasted no time to let Bangkok know that there is no short cut to peace. Two weeks after Thaksin met with 16 exiled leaders to convince them to come on board of a planned peace talk, BRN in late March 2012 set off a simultaneous triple car bomb in the heart of Yala, killing 14 people and injuring a further 130.

 

'Safety zone'

This year, the BRN demonstrated their displeasure of the peace initiative in March when scores of its combatants took over a hospital in Narathiwat province's Cho Ai Rong, one of the districts that Thailand wanted to be placed within a "safety zone." The hospital was used to stage a massive attack on a Paramilitary Ranger camp next door.

The safety zone initiative was Bangkok's way of determining whether MARA Patani could actually carry out unilateral ceasefire to demonstrate that it actually has command-and-control over the insurgents on the ground.

BRN wasted little time to demonstrate that MARA Patani doesn't have such control.

But the subject of the safety zones didn't go away and came up again in a Sept. 2 meeting between Thai negotiators and MARA Patani leaders. The heads of the umbrella organization had already suffered a great deal of humiliation last April when Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha refused to give into their demands by signing a negotiated terms of reference that would make their dialogue official and a binding process.

Prayut said he was not able to do so because MARA Patani were associated with "criminals," a term he used in reference to the combatants on the ground. But in actuality, he, like other Thai officials, is waiting to see if MARA Patani could actually influence the course of violence on the ground.

Prayut further described the talk with MARA Patani as a burden that was created by the Yingluck government that was unfairly imposed on him.

And so when the topic of safety zone in the context of the public security came up at the Sept. 2 talks, BRN combatants chose the State Railway of Thailand as their target to discredit the peace initiative.

"You can't really get any more public than hitting a passenger train," said Suhaimee Dulasa, a youth activist from Patani Institute, a local civil society organization critical of the conduct of the state security apparatus.

Like previous attacks, BRN has shown some restraints and went for the carrier that wasn't carrying local passengers. One railway worker died from the blast and two other personnel were wounded.

A Thai military intelligence officer said BRN also employed the same practices when they set off a massive car bomb at a Pattani hotel on Aug. 23. The bomb, about 90 kilograms in weight, was meant to destroy the facility but not to rake up the body count.

Investigators pointed to a much smaller one that was set off 45 minutes earlier, about 100 meters away, which was supposed to be a warning to the people to leave the immediate area.

But while BRN said they do not endorse the ongoing talks between MARA Patani and the Thai government, it doesn't mean that they don't want to negotiate with Thailand.

BRN wants Bangkok to deal with them directly but they will come to the negotiating table only if they are properly prepared. This means the members of their political wing need to be more familiar with capacity building and understanding of international norms. These are basic requirements for them be recognized and accepted by Thailand and the international community.

The train blast occurred three weeks after a series of bombing incidents that killed four and wounded dozens in the seven provinces in the upper south, a region popular among foreign visitors and local tourists.

Unlike previous attacks outside of the conflict-affected region in the far south, BRN has been tight lipped about the attacks in the seven provinces and refrained to relay their message through the normal channel of communication to the policy makers in Bangkok.

BRN sources said the organization tends to react to something they don't like rather than issuing specific demands. Their mode of operation, for the time being, is to make the contested region ungovernable, as much as possible, until they are prepared to come to the negotiating table. This means Bangkok would have to permit the international community to recognize and work with BRN in the area of capacity building. Until then, Thailand can expect to see ongoing violence.

 

Don Pathan is an associate with Asia Conflict and Security Consulting, Ltd. and is based in Yala, one of Thailand's three southernmost provinces hit by the current wave of insurgency.

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