Building the case for peace dialogues
On a single day last Saturday, Thailand's southern violence ignited with five bombs causing three explosions in Yala, one blast in Pattani and another at the Lee Gardens Hotel right in the heart of the Hat Yai business district.
These attacks together are historic in terms of the organisation of violence, the centrality of the spectacle and its psychological impacts as well as the number of people affected.
The bomb blasts killed 14 people and wounded at least 549, including about 100 children. The highest number of casualties comes from the hotel explosion with 416 wounded.
Almost exactly a year ago, on March 30, 2011, the Strategic Non-Violence Commission (SNC), a think-tank under the auspices of the Thailand Research Fund presented a policy paper with a recommendation for a unified policy on peace dialogue.
The paper indicated southen violence was picking up, parallel to the trend which began in early 2004 and carried on until 2007.
The use of bombs was becoming more prevalent, with the devices more sophisticated technically.
Then, a home-made bomb hidden in a car parked near the Pattani provincial hall exploded on Feb 9, 2012. The 30kg bomb killed one person and wounded 12 others.
It damaged the public health office, the Education Zone 1 head office as well as 12 parked vehicles.
This Pattani bomb attack marked a new departure in the southern violence as the technical ability of the bomb maker was superior to anything that had occurred before.
In this context, I would argue there is a need to introduce a unified state policy on peace dialogue, precisely because of the intensity and possible escalation of the southern violence.
This policy need could be substantiated by a better understanding of peace dialogue both in terms of what it is, and how it works in the context of extreme violence.
What peace dialogue is not
While some people maintain insurgents escalated the conflict with these bombs to pressure the government to hold talks with them, army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha remarked that recent attempts at mounting an informal dialogue with only certain groups of insurgents, and not the others, could have led to the March 31 bomb attacks.
Secretary-general of the Southern Border Provinces Administration Centre (SBPAC) Pol Col Thawee Sodsong, denied his body had held any informal talks with the insurgents, despite Gen Prayuth's claims to the contrary.
These exchanges took place in the context of reports about prevalent "peace dialogues" between the government and the insurgents, as well as talk about a southern border provinces administration and development policy, prepared by the National Security Council and now waiting for its final scrutiny in the Senate.
Drawing on the work of Mark Tamthai of the SNC and Parichart Suwanbuppa of Mahidol University, we can see there are many reasons why a peace dialogue is often treated with contempt or suspicion. First, there are people who see no reason why one should engage in a dialogue with people from the other side.
Second, critics argue that when some people have to participate in a dialogue, it is only an attempt to defend one's own interests and group.
Third, critics argue that for those who want to engage in it, they do so only to protect their people from "losing" to the other side.
They also regard dialogue as an important information-gathering platform, not unlike meeting the "enemy" before a battlefield clash.
Fourth, not only does mistrust exist among people who are supposed to engage in dialogue, but some don't have trust in the dialogue process itself.
Fifth, some people maintain that certain rules governing a dialogue process (such as truth-telling) cannot be applied in any real-life situation.
Sixth, ignoring the fact that a dialogue can take time, some quickly point out that a dialogue is useless since killings can continue unabated.
In response to the above, it is important to point out the obvious _ a peace dialogue is not the same as negotiations.
The aim of negotiations is to reach an agreement, sometimes referred to as a peace agreement.
Negotiations should involve authorised people on both sides coming to the negotiating table, often with a mediator to help them reach an agreement.
An example would be the Dayton Peace Agreement which put an end to the war in Bosnia.
The negotiations were held at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio, in November 1995, between the presidents of Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia. The agreement was formally signed in Paris on Dec 14, 1995.
Another example would be the 1978 Camp David Accord which resulted in the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty signed in Washington on March 26, 1979 by the Egyptian president Anwar El Sadat and Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin, with US president Jimmy Carter as the witness.
A peace dialogue is not a conversation between two conflicting parties with the aim of sizing up the strength of the other side. That is intelligence gathering.
A peace dialogue is also different from a conversation in the framework of psychological warfare _ an important part of conducting war _ aiming at converting the other party.
Understanding peace dialogue
Though heavily shaped by the specific reality of a particular conflict, the aim of a peace dialogue is also governed by the nature of dialogue itself.
Dialogue is generally seen as a means to come to terms with conflicts through words.
It is about how people, especially those who choose to engage in this effort in the midst of deadly conflicts, see both themselves and others.
It underscores the ways in which different identities encounter one another in dialogue.
When peace dialogues take place in the midst of deadly conflicts, such as in southern Thailand or the southern part of the Philippines, the participants may not arrive at the table as friends, but as enemies, if they do show up at all.
A peace dialogue is aimed at reaching understanding and creating trust.
Understanding within the framework of dialogue means something closer to empathy: to see and feel the world as the other side does. It is crucial if one wishes to construe the other side's claim to the legitimacy of their cause.
One engages in peace dialogue not from a sense of helplessness but from confidence there are alternatives to violence and that both sides need to nurture such alternatives through the understanding of each side's cause and the world, in the hope that trust among the parties in conflict will eventually emerge.
The problem with peace dialogue and the southern violence is not that there is no dialogue between government officials at some levels and with some factions of the insurgents.
The problem is that we lack a unified state policy on peace dialogue that would allow many channels of communication to exist.
In other words, there should be a unified peace dialogue policy with many windows of opportunities for several of them to take place.
A unified policy would serve as a broad strategic direction in pursuit of political solutions to the southern violence while giving a sense of security to security officials working on peace dialogues.
The pursuit of several peace dialogue opportunities would contribute significantly to an inclusivity of the participants, especially from among the insurgents. Peace dialogues would also open up a space for moderates within the insurgent groups while potentially helping to weaken extremists. Properly understood, a peace dialogue could serve as a powerful space for other possibilities that could alleviate the tragic curse of violence in southern Thailand.
Chaiwat Satha-Anand is a professor of political science, Thammasat University, and chairman of the Strategic Non-Violence Commission, Thailand Research Fund.
Chairperson of Thailand Research Fund
Chaiwat Satha-Anand is Chairperson, Strategic Nonviolence Commission, Thailand Research Fund.