In the South, it takes three to tango

In the South, it takes three to tango

In this 2016 file photo, students hold signs condemning violence the day after a bomb blast in front of a school by suspected separatist militants in Narathiwat. AFP
In this 2016 file photo, students hold signs condemning violence the day after a bomb blast in front of a school by suspected separatist militants in Narathiwat. AFP

After a pause brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic and unexpected circumstances, some positive signals are coming from the Peace Dialogue Panel, the Thai negotiating team, that the stalled peace process in the country's deep South is moving forward once again. This time, all concerned parties are hoping that dialogue will bridge the divide and forge a common roadmap that will bring an immediate end to the violence and lay firm foundations for peaceful coexistence, greater autonomy and mutual respect for religious beliefs, identities and cultural heritage.

Achieving this noble objective of building a multicultural community requires extraordinary political will and trust between the Thai government and the armed separatist groups, the Malays of Pattani in the deep South as well as Malaysia, which is serving as a facilitator.

In more ways than one, the pandemic has been a blessing in disguise, as it has given all sides the time to reflect on the previous two direct rounds of talks between the Thai government and Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), held in January and March. Now, with the coronavirus under control, at least on the Thai side, the peace talks in the deep South can move ahead once again.

The third round of talks could be convened sooner rather than later if the mandatory quarantine requirements for foreigners is lifted. This time around, there is light at the end of the tunnel as all conflicting parties have shown signs of "violence fatigue" and seem ready to agree on common ground. However, there are still a few hurdles that must be addressed.

During the lull, all parties have been working, some virtually, to address the issues of contention which came up during past meetings. One of the three issues that emerged was the BRN's request that the Peace Dialogue Panel be referred to as the "Royal Thai Government", to ensure that whatever was discussed or agreed on during the peace dialogues will be backed up by Bangkok. Both sides agreed to settle on the name at a working-level technical meeting.

The second issue relates to the immunity of BRN members if they stop fighting and lay down arms. The government is committed to guaranteeing their safety and granting them immunity from prosecution. This issue will top the agenda at the upcoming meeting. Between 200 and 400 active fighters belong to the BRN. After carrying out attacks on Thai soil, they would often head south and cross the border to take sanctuary in Malaysia.

Finally, the biggest challenge in the peace dialogue is determining the role of Malaysia. For the time being, Kuala Lumpur, which perceives itself as an honest broker in the conflict, has yet to live up to its pledges. It is ironic that a country that shares a 647-kilometre common border with Thailand should turn a blind eye to such covert activities.

Malaysia's modus operandi has long been that without a proper peace agreement, Kuala Lumpur is powerless. Tan Sri Abdul Rahim Noor and his team, so the argument goes, would not be able to do anything without a peace agreement, even with all the leverage the country has. As a result, Thailand's decades-long wish to have Malaysia fully implement its longstanding pledges to help with the peace process in the South has remained unfulfilled.

One senior Thai security official, who has been working on the issue for decades, commented that in the South "it takes three to tango", meaning that the Thai government, the BRN and Malaysia have to work in tandem to make progress.

At the March meeting, Rahim Noor, the Malaysian chief facilitator, put forward three ideas to end the southern quagmire. He reiterated the BRN must immediately stop all violence to prove its ability to respect its own calls for a ceasefire. In addition, he urged both the Thai government and the BRN to jointly draft a roadmap and timeline for the rest of 2020 in the hope that a peace agreement could be signed in December.

Most importantly, Mr Rahim also urged the government and insurgents to put in place a mechanism that could quickly identify troublemakers in the area, whether they are local security officials, armed separatist groups, criminal gangs, or delinquents.

With the current volatility in the Malaysian political scene, it is uncertain what Mr Rahim's future role will be. There is a possibility that Anwar Ibrahim, the leader of Pakatan Harapan, the opposition coalition, could become the new prime minister replacing Muhyiddin Yassin if the former gets enough support from members of parliament belonging to the United Malays National Organisation. If that is the case, Mr Rahim would be replaced, as he was the person who abused Mr Anwar during his first incarceration in 1998.

Taking into account these circumstances, on the Thai side the Peace Dialogue Panel has been working closely and in consultation with local Muslim stakeholders, in particular, the leaders of Provincial Islamic Committee from five southern provinces (Yala, Narathiwat, Pattani, Satun and Songkhla) over the past months to come up with fresh ideas which would secure a durable peace. Recently, the Muslim provincial leaders submitted to the government a proposal covering four key issues relating to governance, religion, economy and social identity and/or culture.

The proposal calls for more autonomy in running the daily lives of Muslim communities in the southern provinces. In the area of governance, given the large Muslim population in the South, future appointments of the chief and deputies of the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Centre, as well as their governors, would have to be made in consultation with and agreed upon by provincial Muslim committees.

Regarding religious affairs, four key ideas have been put forward: allowing provincial Muslim committees to administer and promote the Hajj pilgrimage; setting a house-registration system for Muslim communities; working together to identify capable justice administrators and establishing a family and inheritance court.

The most extensive recommendations are linked to social and cultural areas. Three are related to social order, which includes joint planning on social order and designating "Red Zones" in the region, creating community police for religious affairs and designating Friday as an official holiday. Three more are connected to the status of Malay as one of the region's official languages, the use of Malay in all public signs in villages and government offices and the listing of nationality on identity cards.

On closer scrutiny, all recommendations are reasonable and doable. Indeed, some of them have been in force informally without proper official endorsement. It is high time that the Thai government endorsed these plans with some adjustments following consultations with Muslim stakeholders. These confidence-building measures must be quickly implemented to create a conducive atmosphere for future peace talks and cessation of the violence and armed conflicts which have already killed over 7,000 people.

There are some attacks on state authorities but Thailand today is a far cry from 2004, when the conflict down South peaked. The Covid-19 pandemic has also encouraged Thais and local Muslim communities to work together to prevent the spread of the virus. The southern provinces have excellent records in containing the virus. This community spirit must be nurtured and strengthened further.

Therefore, all sides must be open-minded. The endorsement of recommendations submitted by five Provincial Islamic Committees is the most tangible first step towards bringing peace and prosperity to the deep South.

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs.

Kavi Chongkittavorn

A veteran journalist on regional affairs

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs

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