Jihadists do exist, and talks are the only option

There have been many high-profile incidents involving the southern insurgency in the past few weeks. Former prime minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh was reportedly approached to help find a solution to the violence. The military was successful in quashing a separatist attack with 16 militants killed, but this was quickly followed by retaliation with bomb blast scares in Pattani. The Malaysian king's Bangkok visit, previously scheduled for this week, was also postponed due to his poor health.

That's not all. Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yubamrung announced his plan to ask former Malaysian leader Mahathir Mohamad to act as a peace dialogue broker while the Wadah faction was recently appointed as Mr Chalerm's advisers. Last but not least, an "agreement" is to be reached in Kuala Lumpur later this month to get Malaysia (the Najib government) to act as a mediator in the peace negotiations.

I've interviewed people across the spectrum _ military on the ground, senators, insurgent sympathisers, domestic and foreign analysts _ to gauge their readings of the situation. Despite their different backgrounds, surprisingly they see the same scenario ahead.

The violence, they say, will not subside as terror will certainly intensify. The peace talks will not come about so easily or so quickly. But we will also see a greater push to allow the locals more political space to discuss how they would like to see their future. To put it more bluntly, how they would like to "manage" their self-administration.

Last Wednesday's killing of 16 jihadist militants has led to two significant developments. Firstly, it is a formal confirmation _ after Bangkok's long denial _ that ideological separatists really exist and that they are operating in the three southernmost provinces and four districts of Songkhla.

Secondly, such acceptance subsequently prompts discussions that perhaps it is time for Bangkok to accept the ideological factor in the insurgency and give administrative decentralisation a chance.

Now that the existence of Malay Muslim separatists is officially recognised, this should serve as a big push for peace talks which so far have been uncertain and handled quietly by the National Security Council and some senior military officials between 2011 and 2012.

There have been some calculations among the ruling party leaders that if _ and that's a big if, however _ they can douse the southern fire, then somebody in exile could perhaps return home not as a convict but a hero.

Don't bother whether it is the Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak or former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra who made the move to get Kuala Lumpur's helping hand to end the protracted armed conflict in the country's deep South. Whoever made the initiative, it is a positive move.

It is not important either whether it is actually former premier Chavalit who is behind the efforts to get Thailand and Malaysia to work together on the old conflict of Malay Muslims' quest for autonomy in the region.

No matter who started it, the process serves both countries' mutual benefit. After all, Thailand benefited greatly from the end of the armed conflict between the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) and the Malaysian government. Thailand helped broker the agreement which was signed 23 years ago in Hat Yai.

Likewise, Malaysia will benefit if it can help Thailand douse the southern fire which is now a decade old and has seen about the same number of casualties (now 5,377 deaths and 95,131 injuries) as the CPM conflict.

Doubts over Malaysia's suitability _ and sincerity _ as a mediator, however, remain large. Many still believe that "mediation from within" by involving the locals would be far more effective.

Moreover, this positive trend _ although it is still unclear what Thailand and Malaysia will do, when, and how _ risks hitting the brick wall of ultra-nationalism. Some army officers still deny the existence of jihadists, for example.

Political office holders are also sending conflicting signals all the time. Meanwhile, Mr Chalerm's moves (approaching Dr Mahathir as mediator, appointing the Wadah faction as advisers, proposing a curfew in the deep South, etc) are seen as his efforts to show that he is doing something in order to avoid being replaced in the next cabinet reshuffle.

But Mr Chalerm has lost ground with the authorities in the deep South as well as the local Buddhists because he _ and the prime minister herself _ have not yet offered any consolation to the locals who were terrified by the insurgents' retaliatory attacks after the Feb 13 Bacho operation.

In contrast, the army top brass who oppose the "talks" were quick to go down South to pat their men on the backs and to offer consolation and restore confidence among the locals.

Imagine the terror in Pattani had the 50kg bomb exploded near a petrol station. The locals need to be reassured that this terrifying scenario won't happen.

Although "political dialogue" is the key to solving the southern insurgency, uncertainties still loom large. Aside from the authorities' constraints, the obstacles also come from the rigid stance of the Barisan Revolusi Nasional Melayu Pattani, or BRN-C, which actually "commands" 95% of the insurgency movements.

Before this, the BRN-C had failed to make its presence felt because its men who worked on the ground were killed or made to disappear. The movement later adapted its approach and tactics by recruiting new members with a secular education from a local open university and from Malaysia to replace those trained in the Middle East and Indonesia with religious bents.

At present, the armed wing of the BRN-C is more powerful. They are not buying the "peace talks" platform because they believe that the government and the military still do not have the final say on the autonomy issue in the deep South. Meanwhile, Malaysia needs a written agreement to clearly stipulate what it can do. For Mr Najib, the deal with Thailand on the deep South will work positively for his election prospects this year. After all, Dr Mahathir enjoyed the fruits of planting the seed of success for the peace agreement between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

Whatever the written agreement, it will still face hurdles _ not only from the ultra-nationalists, but also from Section 190 of the constitution which requires parliamentary debate of any deals with foreign entities that could affect national sovereignty.

The lessons about ethnic strife elsewhere, however, have shown that state authorities will have to eventually give in to the political aspirations of the local people. Look at Aceh. Look at Mindanao.

In the meantime, if the voices of civil society in the far South are strong enough, they should help strengthen the "doves" in the BRN-C. If that is the case, there will be more chance for political solutions to win against the terror and violence that the armed wing is now applying against their Muslim ummahs.

Both sides cannot take the growing number of casualties as an indicator of their success. If the end of the "war" is still not in sight, we should at least limit its scope by giving peace talks a chance.

Achara Ashayagachat is senior news reporter, Bangkok Post

About the author

Writer: Achara Ashayagachat
Position: Senior Reporter