Thailand's military government is setting up a policy-level steering committee headed by a cabinet minister to help quell the ongoing insurgency in the Muslim-majority southernmost provinces, where nearly 7,000 people have been killed since January 2004. Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha said the "front command cabinet" will be headed by a deputy minister whose team will consist of no more than ten experienced government and military officials. The team will report directly to him. The team will compliment the work of a team of negotiators mandated by the government to engage in informal talks with leaders from Majlis Syura Patani (MARA Patani), an umbrella organization of southern separatist movements. It has become clear that the government's security apparatus and its counter insurgency strategy cannot handle the challenges posed by the Malay Muslim separatists determined to carve out an independent homeland in the southernmost border area. Armed insurgency in this historically contested region surfaced in the mid-1960s, some 50 years after the area came under direct Bangkok rule following the demarcation of the southernmost border with British Malaya. Local Malays felt their cultural identity and history were threatened by Thailand's policy of assimilation.
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Successive governments in Bangkok have never taken a step back to reassess their policy and continue instead with piecemeal initiatives that combine development initiatives with military operations. The first wave of armed insurgency that surfaced in the mid-1960s petered out in the late 1980s and early 1990s. But separatist violence in the region slowly resurfaced again in mid-2001. It wasn't officially recognized until January 2004 following an arms heist by militants who made off with about 350 pieces of military weaponry from an army battalion in Narathiwat, one of the three southernmost provinces hit with this ongoing wave of violence. The idea of setting up a lean and agile task force for the far South has come and gone but none have achieved their goal of influencing the course of violence in the region, much less make the atmosphere conducive for peace. None have come up with a meaningful policy to improve relations between Patani and the Thai state. In 2009, former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, in an attempt to strengthen the civilian administrative presence in a region that has long been dominated by the security sector, also came up with a mini cabinet made up of several ministers from various ministries and agencies. But instead of staying the course, Abhisit undermined his own initiative by dispatching 4,000 paramilitary rangers to the region. They were supposed to serve as a link between the regular army and local residents in remote villages, where insurgents roam more or less with impunity. In the end, it was obvious that the rangers were no match for the insurgents in their attempt to win local hearts and minds. The locals may not agree with the insurgents' brutal methods but they nevertheless share the same historical mistrust of the Thai state. In July 2012, in what was billed as a knee-jerk reaction to the vicious killing of four soldiers by insurgents the then Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra pushed through a similar task force staffed by officials from 17 relevant ministries and dubbed them Pentagon II. But in hindsight, it appeared that Yingluck needed her administration to get a better grip of the situation for a peace initiative that was secretly started by her fugitive brother, Thaksin, who had met with 16 Patani Malay leaders from various long standing separatist groups in Kuala Lumpur in mid-March 2012. The Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), a group that controls the vast majority of combatants on the ground, responded to Thaksin's half-baked gesture of goodwill with a triple car bomb in the heart of Yala, killing 13 and injuring over 130 people on March 31, 2012. In spite of the writing being on the wall, Yingluck's peace initiative was launched in Kuala Lumpur a year later on Feb. 28, 2013. It failed to generate any traction and the BRN, five months later, withdrew from the process. Even with MARA Patani at the negotiating table, BRN continue to stay away. A return to negotiations would have to be in line with international norms and standards and the group's negotiators and members of BRN's political wing would have to be trained by foreign states, preferably by Western governments, to strengthen their capacity and legitimacy in the eyes of the world, a source from the movement said. But Bangkok still hasn't let go of its zero-sum mentality and refuses to give any foreign government the green light to work with BRN in capacity building and negotiation training. Like previous administrations, the current government in Bangkok continues to bank on a military plus development approach to the conflict and isn't willing to discuss the historical root causes that have provided a narrative and justification for armed struggle to two consecutive generations of separatist militants so far. 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.