Civil society role vital in southern peace process

Without the support of civil society groups and strong political will to succeed, lasting peace in troubled regions such as the far South of Thailand, is unlikely, says an activist from Sumatra's formerly volatile province of Aceh.

The relatively smooth transition in Aceh from a conflict zone to a developing area governed by an elected local government could be attributed to a number of factors, said Juanda Djamal, secretary-general of the New Aceh Consortium.

But the main success factor, he said, had been the political will of the government and the unwavering push from local civil society for a peaceful resolution.

"It's not just because of the tsunami that we have a peace deal," said Mr Djamal, 35. "Local civil society had been working toward negotiations between Jakarta and the Gerakin Aceh Merdeka (GAM) for some years before the Indian Ocean earthquake hit Aceh in December 2004."

Panel members discuss the challenges facing the South at the Islamic Centre of Thailand in Bangkok's Klong Ton district on Friday. (Photo by Romdon Panjor)

GAM, known as the Free Aceh Movement launched an armed uprising in 1976. It ended in August 2005 when leaders signed a provincial election deal with Jakarta, dissolving their militant wing and ending 29 years of fighting for independence.
 
Mr Djamal was speaking on the sidelines of a discussion held on Friday at the Islamic Centre of Thailand on the peace talks planned for southern Thailand.

The Bangkok talks precede a similar discussion on Saturday in Pattani province where local people are compiling recommendations for the Thai and Malaysian governments ahead of talks with leaders of insurgents active under the BRN umbrella in southernmost Thailand.

The National Security Council and the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) are scheduled to hold their first formal talks on March 28 at a location in Malaysia.

Mr Djamal said the situation in southern Thailand was similar to that in Aceh a decade before the peace agreement was signed and implemented.

"One thing that has yet to emerge is the fully fledged engagement of civil society organisations on the ground, and a show of political will that the negotiating parties will allow space and dialogue involving local insiders to emerge and be sustained," said the former grassroots activist now working with a think-tank organisation.

The Pattani peace process remains a political process that has yet to cultivate channels and a framework for other stakeholders to participate, he said.

In Aceh, former Indonesian president B.J. Habibie visited Aceh and met GAM military commanders before official talks began in May 2000 in Geneva. There were several subsequent meetings before an agreement on cessation of hostilities emerged in 2003.

The new Indonesian government under president Megawati, who was close to the army, turned down the agreement and imposed martial law from May 2003 until a general election put Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his vice-president Jusuf Kalla in power.

"Kalla, who was then in charge of the parliamentary budget consideration, had suggested that it was too costly to wage war in Aceh," said Mr Djamal.

Even before the 2004 tsunami struck Aceh there were many factors conducive to an agreement already in place, he said.

"Hence, there were fewer obstacles for the former Finnish leader Martti Ahtisaari to impose conditions for both GAM and the Indonesian government to lay down arms, which led to a real deal."

Two elections had been held in Aceh since the peace pact and the region was striving to bolster democratisation and a market economy, he said.

Mr Djamal said a similar peace deal was signed last year in Mindanao, in the southern Philippines, though the deal might be better for the local people as they had greater room in managing the "special autonomy".

He said the agenda in Thailand's deep South should serve the whole nation, not only local people.

"The insurgents can't fight forever, of course, but you have to ask what you want to see. In less than two years, Asean will become a single community. Thailand should have clearer idea about what road is to be taken," he said.

Artef Sohko, of the Pattani Academy for Peace and Development, said the non-mutual pace of the talks and the unwillingness of "other BRN leaders" to engage in the talks might derail, if not stall, the whole process.

Mr Sohko predicted that the movement might later propose some difficult-to-implement deals to Thailand - to halt the process until all sides in the movement felt comfortable about joining.

"During the stall period, I would keep my fingers crossed about whether the violence will be even more severe," said the Thai activist.

Related search: southern violence, insurgency, unrest, pattani, thailand, aceh, malaysia, patani, juanda djamal

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Writer: Achara Ashayagachat
Position: Senior Reporter