Don’t neglect peace dialogue in the deep South
The cold-blooded murder of three Malay-Muslim children in Parukapaeroh village in Narathiwat’s Bacho district on Feb 3 shocked many benumbed minds.
It is a sad reminder that the decade-long southern conflict remains critically serious.
The peace dialogue is now in limbo, while the southern violence has almost been forgotten in light of the prolonged political turmoil in Bangkok.
Unidentified assailants opened fire at Jehmu Mahman, his pregnant wife and three sons — aged 6, 9 and 11 years-old — as they were about to enter their house after returning from evening prayers.
The three boys were brutally shot dead, while their parents survived.
The Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) separatist group, believed to have led the current armed resistance against the Thai state, has denied any involvement.
It admitted that Mr Jehmu, who has been prosecuted in connection with the killing of government officials, is a supporter.
The BRN suggests the assailants could be linked to the Thai government, while the Thai military blames it on the insurgents.
Although it remains unclear who the perpetrators are, this appears to be a tit-for-tat killing — a tragic consequence of the protracted armed conflict. Sadly, the three children were not spared.
Several organisations have criticised the attack, including Unicef, the Human Rights Commission of Thailand, and the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Centre.
Whoever was behind this, it is a clear violation of the International Humanitarian Law, also known as the "law of war". The IHL’s Common Article 3, which applies to non-international armed conflict such as that in southern Thailand, states that violence towards the life and body of anyone not taking part in hostilities is prohibited.
Since 2004, the southern violence has claimed nearly 6,000 lives and left 10,700 people injured. For many years, the Thai government refused to hold formal peace talks with the militants, although a study shows the peace process is a more effective mechanism to resolve armed conflicts than military means.
The 2013 Yearbook on Peace Process, published by the Barcelona-based Escola de Cultura de Pau (School for the Culture of Peace), shows that 41 of 50 conflicts have ended in the last 30 years as a consequence of a peace agreement, whereas only nine ended with the military victory of one side.
Although the government of Yingluck Shinawatra, now in a caretaker capacity, has been criticised for some policy flaws, it embarked on one initiative that deserves praise — the launching of a formal peace dialogue with the BRN on Feb 28 last year.
There is no denial that there are still several shortcomings in this dialogue, as it has been carried out in an ad hoc manner without adequate preparation, and the military still gives half-hearted support to the process.
It should, however, be acknowledged that the formalised peace dialogue has prompted the BRN to emerge from underground for the first time and agreed to sit at the same table with representatives of what it calls “Siamese colonialists”.
Representatives of the Thai government and the BRN formally held three one-day meetings in Kuala Lumpur last year.
The militant movement has made five demands. First, allow the Malaysian government to play a mediator and not just facilitator role; second, ensure the dialogue be held between the Patani people led by the BRN and the "Siamese colonialists"; third, allow the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Organisation of Islamic Conference and NGOs to witness the peace process; fourth, release all prisoners in security-related cases without conditions and revoke all arrest warrants; and fifth, recognise the BRN is a "liberation" and not a "separatist" movement.
To prevent the demands going back and forth, the movement demanded parliamentary endorsement of the demands, which obviously put Bangkok in an uneasy position.
In September, the BRN submitted a "confidential" document to the Thai government through the Malaysian facilitator, laying out a step-by-step plan to achieve a peace accord.
The BRN said it initially demands acceptance "in principle", while details of its demands can be discussed further.
The BRN also appears to have made a major concession; it is stated in the document that the BRN does not seek separation from Thailand but calls for an autonomous region in the predominantly Malay-Muslim South.
The Thai government submitted a written response in late October, saying it "agreed to discuss" these demands. After much delay due to the controversial five-point request, the fourth meeting was eventually scheduled in early December. Unfortunately, it was postponed indefinitely due to the anti-government protest led by the People’s Democratic Reform Committee.
The dissolution of parliament has stalled any further moves. Although the National Security Council insists the peace dialogue is a state policy and it will continue, the future of the peace dialogue now hangs by a thread.
Nobody knows how long it will take for polarised Thailand to reach a consensus as to how and when a legitimate government can be formed. On Friday, the militants put up 77 banners across the three southernmost provinces containing the same Malay-language message ridiculing Bangkok, which read "Siam can’t even govern its own people. How can they govern Patani Malays?"
The banner incident shows the BRN can still maintain a strong chain of command in the deep South — a decade after the military launched a full-scale counter-insurgency operation.
Without a serious and sustained commitment to the peace process, there seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel.
Rungrawee Chalermsripinyorat is a political analyst. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Rungrawee Chalerm sripinyorat
Rungrawee Chalermsripinyorat is a PhD candidate at the Australian National University's Coral Bell School of Asia-Pacific Affairs. She formerly worked as an analyst for the International Crisis Group.