One middleman enough in conflict

One middleman enough in conflict

Troops deploy along the Kolok River in Narathiwat's Sungai Kolok district. The river is a natural borderline between Thailand and Malaysia. Patipat Janthong
Troops deploy along the Kolok River in Narathiwat's Sungai Kolok district. The river is a natural borderline between Thailand and Malaysia. Patipat Janthong

Yahree Dueloh left his village in the southernmost border district of Narathiwat a decade ago, crossed the Kolok River and settled in Rantau Panjang on the Malaysian side of the border, not far from the river that serves as the official border between the two countries.

Those who knew him said he was tired of the relentless harassment from Thai security forces who suspected him of being an active member of the Barisan Revolusi National (BRN), a Patani Malay separatist movement that today controls virtually all the combatants on the ground. In a recent statement issued on Oct 18, BRN confirmed that Yahree was their operative.

At one time, Yahree was kept incommunicado for 35 days under the controversial Emergency Law that permits detention without legal representation.

For about a decade, Yahree's wife, Nuraining Deromae, and their two children would cross the river to visit him every now and then. In fact, thousands of people cross back and forth along the porous Thai-Malaysian border every day, ignoring the official immigration checkpoints.

On Sept 27, Yahree went missing from his home in Rantau Panjang. Two days later his bloated body was found on the banks of the Kolok River on the Thai side of the border. He was found in clothing that nobody recognised. The bruises around his neck and the wounds on his face suggested that he might have been choked or strangled, his wife said. At first, she had her doubts, but the scars found on Yahree' calves cleared any doubt she had.

According to Ms Nuraining, her husband was last seen in Kok Pauh village returning to his home after work on his motorbike.

She filed a report with Thai and Malaysian police. An autopsy carried out by Sungai Kolok Hospital in Narathiwat dated on Oct 10 said Yahree died from drowning. The report surprisingly made no reference to the glaring bruises around neck and the scars on his body.

Unfortunately, such vague wording from Thai medical personnel authorities is too common.

"I'm hoping the truth will come out," Ms Nuraining said. "Since this involves both Thailand and Malaysia, I wonder if there is an international mechanism that could be invoked to look into this case."

Arfan Wattana, a leading member of The Patani, a political action group that supports the right to self-determination for the people in this predominantly Malay-speaking region of Thailand, said Malaysia's reputation is on the line because the government is the designated facilitator for the peace talks between BRN and the Thai government.

"Malaysia can't afford to brush this aside," Mr Arfan said.

The incident even drew the wrath of the BRN who, in a statement dated Oct 18, said, "BRN condemns all abductions, murders, arrest and detentions that violate the law and human rights, as well as the forceful collection of DNA samples from children and youth in the Patani community."

"All forms of extreme persecution experienced by BRN members, both in Patani, Thailand and Malaysia are an affront to the current peace process," the BRN statement said.

Political activists in the region said cross border abductions are nothing new. They recalled five cases in the past decade in which suspected BRN combatants laying low on the Malaysian side of the border were abducted. Two managed to escape capture as they were being escorted back to Thailand, two are currently in prison and one has been released after serving jail time.

"Yahree's case has to be thoroughly investigated, no matter how indifferent the Thai society may be towards the Patani Malays' struggle, or how uncomfortable officials on both sides of the border may feel," said Mr Arfan.

"We are not talking about human rights abuses; this case could very well involve officials from both sides of the border conducting cross border abduction," Arfan added.

A senior Malaysian intelligence official said it is likely that shady security officials on both sides of the border cooperated to abduct suspected BRN members, but he insisted that officially, both countries do not have a policy of kidnapping its own citizens abroad.

Thailand's southernmost-border region has long been a contested region. Separatist movements have come and gone, but the narrative -- one that says Patani Malay combatants have a moral obligation to liberate their historical homeland from the Thai state -- continues to capture the hearts and minds of the militants.

More than 7,300 have been killed since January 2004 and the end is still nowhere in sight. Peace initiatives and processes have been launched yet none has transpired into meaningful action, as Bangkok won't entertain the idea of outsiders assisting BRN with capacity building. Any engagement with the rebels must be approved by the Thai government.

Thai negotiators and BRN representatives have come face-to-face in a series of negotiations since January 2020. Still, the two sides have yet to move beyond confidence building measures (CBM). At the moment, the main items on the table include reduction of violence, public consultations, and finding a political solution to the conflict.

BRN would only agree to a ceasefire only if the Thai chief negotiator is willing to sign the General Principles of the Peace Dialogue Process, a blueprint setting the terms for future talks.

As for public consultation, BRN has asked that their officials be permitted to cross into the Thai side of the border to engage local civil society organisations. But officials refused this request for fear that BRN presence would create too much excitement for the movement's supporters on the ground. As for the "political solution", nobody seems to know what that means in real term. And so, the fight continues unabated.

Yahree's case could further complicate the Thai-Malaysian cooperation on the Patani conflict. Already, the two countries are at odds over the back channel of communications between Thailand and BRN negotiators organised by Switzerland-based Center for Humanitarian Dialogue (HD).

Theoretically, a back channel is supposed to support the main track, which is currently being facilitated by the Malaysian government. But in Patani's case, the HD-facilitated back channel is not only undermining the main track, but also working to discredit Malaysia, painting the government as a peace "spoiler" instead of one of the stakeholders.

Malaysian officials working on southern Thai conflict said they are prepared to urge their government to leave the process entirely if a sound solution cannot be reached. In other words, there is just not enough room for both Malaysia and HD on this peace process. Thailand, it seems, might have to choose.

Asmadee Bueheng is the communication officer at The Patani, a political action group that advocates right to self-determination for the people of this Malay-speaking region.

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