South wasn't ready for megaphone peace talks

South wasn't ready for megaphone peace talks

There is not much to lament about the demise of the peace talks between the government and the southern separatists. After all, this was a forced marriage between the Buddhist Thai state and the Malay Muslim separatist movement. The match-makers were former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and the Malaysian government.

Neither side was ready for what ended up as a brief publicity stunt. The Thai side was plagued by internal disunity. The military and civilian security agencies did not see eye-to-eye, while politicians have constantly sent conflicting signals. Thai negotiators are also new to the bargaining game, thus keeping Thailand on the defensive.

The Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) is a clandestine movement that went underground 28 years ago with a clear goal to form an independent state in the South. Going public to strike a political compromise was never its goal.

The life of megaphone diplomacy is always short. Yet it has created a concrete and irreversible impact. It has effectively raised public awareness about what constitutes the southern insurgency problem, as well as legitimised future discussions on different forms of autonomy.

The peace dialogue led by National Security Council (NSC) chief Lt Gen Paradorn Pattanatabut and BRN representative Hassan Taib will from now on have to be adjusted into a more appropriate and pragmatic mode of communication.

There is no need for face-saving excuses for the format change. People can now tell what is real and what is lip-service when hearing both sides talk. Actually, when the BRN made their political demands, it was meant to win support from their own constituency than from the government.

The four previous meetings, however, should not be viewed as a failure. Rather, they should be considered ground-breaking and confidence-building steps to prepare for eventual future negotiations. Admittedly, we have not reached that crucial step yet. Public expectations of a quick peace settlement are simply unrealistic.

Many might feel confused with BRN chief negotiator Hassan's latest statement saying the peace talks would continue if the government side addressed the BRN's demands. That statement followed a YouTube video clip showing armed, hooded figures who claimed to also represent the BRN declaring the talks were over because they did not represent the aspirations of the people on the ground.

The fact that militant groups have chosen to show their presence and to communicate directly to a larger audience should be viewed as a positive development. A democratic course of negotiations should include as many stakeholders as possible. And it is even more important to include those who speak louder with arms.

The YouTube clip also shows that the BRN is not a united movement. Its youth wing in Thailand considered it a big mistake for Mr Hassan to accept the Thai constitutional framework for peace negotiations. This is because the constitution's principle on indivisible sovereignty would make the separatists' demand for an independent state unacceptable.

Trying to appease internal conflicts, the BRN delegation has gradually expanded to include three members from the BRN-Congress and one from the Patani United Liberation Organisation (Pulo). But the adjustment was too little and too late. The result is that other warring factions within Pulo have spoken out, with some violence in Bangkok and Pattani already.

Security officials know very well about the internal conflicts, which make truce negotiations an uphill task.

A military source said the Diwan Pimpinan Parti executive council of the BRN, known locally as the Suroh, wants to give peace negotiations a try. But the Diwan Pimpinan Kas, those who link up with the juwae (warriors) in the area, vehemently oppose the move.

While the BRN leadership tries to retain its influence by reaching out to militant groups, the Thai side is also branching out to the military and civil society.

The Southern Border Provinces Administrative Centre, the key component in the peace talks delegation, has embraced old hands from previous secret talks with the separatists, held under the Abhisit Vejjajiva administration, to help reach out to other influential groups, especially the Pulo members they are familiar with.

Malaysia, meanwhile, won credit as the peace talks facilitator when it chose to forge ahead with the Ramadan ceasefire agreement when the BRN and the NSC could not agree to terms.

Kuala Lumpur sent the truce declaration to the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, thus indirectly forcing the BRN operatives to be less active.

When the Malaysian consulate-general in Songkhla received a joint appeal from four religious teachers and former security prisoner networks blaming the Thai side for not honouring the truce agreement, which resulted in 12 Muslims being killed, Prime Minister Najib Razak cancelled an Aug 3 porsor (an evening meal to break the Ramadan fast) with his Thai counterparts in Narathiwat.

Malaysia has been trying hard to facilitate the peace dialogue. After all, it needs to have something to show when Kuala Lumpur chairs the Asean summits in 2015. The chances of success will be greater if Malaysia can come up with more creative strategies to bridge the gap between the two negotiating sides.

Meanwhile, Thai security agencies are planning to bring in experts in different fields _ history, maps, culture, and religion _ to beef up their negotiating team.

"We deal with the Preah Vihear problem with a high-profile back-up team. Why not do the same with the deep South problem," the military source said.

Meanwhile, the Thai public should be patient. It should closely monitor the negotiations, but be aware that the peace process will take a long time and that more blood will be spilled along the way.

Take the Philippines peace process. The Mindanao talks between the Muslim rebels and the Catholic state continued on and off for a long time. When fighting erupted and the negotiations were disrupted, the two sides did not give up and pursued back-channel talks.

It is possible for both sides to demonstrate sincerity even when war is ongoing. For example, after the deaths of 17 soldiers in Basilan in 2011, Manila resisted pressure from many quarters for an all-out war, insisting instead on pursuing justice.

Even after the Philippines peace talks were settled, the insurgency did not necessarily end, as one insurgent group, the Moro National Liberation Front, still insists on fighting for independence.

Any peace process is a fragile endeavour. But it is certainly a less violent and more inclusive path to engage people and encourage them to craft their own future.

Achara Ashayagachat is Senior News Reporter, Bangkok Post.

Achara Ashayagachat

Senior reporter on socio-political issues

Bangkok Post's senior reporter on socio-political issues.

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