Mara Patani -- an umbrella organisation representing southern militants at the peace dialogue -- officially revealed itself to the public for the first time last week. This significant development has been overshadowed by the tragic bombing in Bangkok and the intensifying anti-government protests in Kuala Lumpur.
The press conference held by Mara Patani on Thursday in the Malaysian capital came two days after representatives of the Thai government (Party A) and Malay Muslim militants (Party B) met for a third round of informal talks. This formalised peace dialogue was the brainchild of the Yingluck Shinawatra government. The military decided to resume the process but both sides have started again from scratch by drafting new terms of reference. It is important to note that the decision to continue a project initiated by its political opponent suggests the junta's acceptance that it could not defeat the militants by force.
The resumption of this process was marked by the official meeting of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and his Malaysian counterpart Najib Razak in December last year. A few days earlier, Gen Prayut signed the Order of the Prime Minister Office No.230/2557 endorsing the formation of "the Steering Committee for Peace Dialogue" led by himself, tasked to oversee peace dialogue policies. The peace dialogue panel was formed to lead the Party A delegation, headed by Gen Aksara Kerdpol.
Members of the Student and Youth Federation of Pattani called on all sides in the restive South to quell violence through peaceful means at the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre yesterday. Thiti Wannamontha
While Bangkok pledged its intentions to return to the table, the militants also had intense debates on the pros and cons of engaging in the military-led dialogue.
In March, Majlis Syura Patani (Patani Consultative Council, or Mara Patani) was set up. "Mara Patani" was first used to refer to Majlis Amanah Rakyat Patani, or the "BRN Action Group", which was formed on Oct 25 last year (the 10th anniversary of the Tak Bai incident). At the time it was comprised of pro-dialogue members of the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (National Revolutionary Front, or BRN).
The new Mara Patani includes representatives of five additional separatist groups. They are: Barisan Islam Pembebasan Patani (Patani Islamic Liberation Front, or BIPP), Gerakan Mujahidin Islam Patani (Patani Islamic Mujahideen Movement, or GMIP) and three factions of the Patani United Liberation Organisation (Pulo-P4, Pulo-DSPP and Pulo-MKP). Pulo-P4, led by Shamsuddin Khan, withdrew in June due to internal disagreement.
While the merit of the peace dialogue is generally acknowledged, one of the most commonly asked questions is whether Bangkok is talking to the right groups. The leadership of the BRN, the group known to have the highest military strength, has neither fully endorsed nor engaged in the talks. A Mara Patani insider said that the BRN leadership is still waiting for Bangkok to accept their five demands proposed in 2013, including the recognition of the "sovereign rights of Patani Malays on their land".
It is important to note that three BRN representatives -- Sukree Hari, Ahmad Chuwo and Awang Jabat -- have joined the Mara Patani, despite the leadership's preference to take a backseat. If and when both parties could agree to hold a ceasefire, it would be time to test Party B's ability to command and control the fighters. An impartial ceasefire-monitoring mechanism will be crucial in monitoring and reporting any violation of the truce.
Following the first informal meeting in April and the second in June, this third meeting was disclosed to the public, with Party A and B holding separate press conferences. Both sides made their demands known.
Party A proposed the establishment of safety zones, local development, and access to justice for all, while Party B called for Bangkok to place the peace talks on its national agenda, recognise Mara Patani as a legitimate dialogue party, and guarantee immunity from criminal prosecution for its representatives. This includes Mr Sukree, son of the current chairman of the Yala Islamic Council, who fled the country after being granted bail in 2007. He was then prosecuted on treason charges along with seven other Islamic teachers. There is also an arrest warrant out for Mr Ahmad.
Bangkok has apparently responded favourably to the Mara Patani's preconditions. If both sides can agree on these issues, a formal dialogue can commence.
In the press conference, Mr Awang stated that the Malay Muslim militants were struggling for independence, but they were willing to consider other options. He also reaffirmed the BRN's active military operations by revealing that the group had some 9,000 fighters on the ground.
Although the will of both parties to push forward the peace talks is indeed a promising development, there are several challenges facing this burgeoning process.
First, the heart of Mara Patani's demands are about the self-determination of the Patani people, which, by its definition, includes both Muslims and non-Muslims. Apart from secession, other alternatives involve the devolution of power to varying degrees, from Bangkok to the provincial region.
Since the 2014 coup, the military government has attempted to strengthen the power of the unelected traditional elite and weaken elected political representatives, including local authorities. Therefore the big question is whether the military government is serious about making genuine concessions.
Secondly, the current dialogue seems to be taking place in an unfavourable political context, both in Thailand and Malaysia. The embattled Mr Najib is currently facing massive demonstrations calling for his resignation following the alleged embezzlement of $700 million (25 billion baht) from the 1MDB state investment fund. Ahmad Zamzamin Hashim, the Malaysian facilitator of the peace talks, was appointed by Mr Najib. With his leadership being seriously challenged, the process could be negatively affected.
In Thailand, turbulent colour-coded national conflicts and military coups have repeatedly disrupted peace initiatives in the South. While anti-establishment forces have been temporarily silent, polarisation remains deep underneath the superficial calm. The military government is facing growing criticism over incompetence, and some doubt if it can make a safe landing.
Thirdly, making this peace dialogue an inclusive process and ensuring that all stakeholders' voices are heard is a major challenge. Mara Patani said the final say lies in "the people's will" but this begs the question of what mechanisms can fairly represent their views. Some Malay Muslims are already questioning the Mara Patani's legitimacy in representing them.
There is a great deal that can be learnt from peace processes elsewhere. For example, peace polls were used to solicit people's views while the British government negotiated with various parties in the Northern Ireland conflict.
Several countries facing secessionist conflicts experienced twists and turns before peace was achieved. Conflicting parties sometimes resumed their fights as talks collapsed. Long and tedious as it may seem, the success rate of peace talks in ending violent conflicts has proved to be significantly higher than that of military suppression. There is perhaps no other alternative.
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.