South peace talks at crucial turn
Zero-violence pact over Ramadan, and new talks line-up inject new optimism
Peace could finally be given a chance in the strife-torn Deep South as the security authorities voiced confidence their latest round of negotiations may have reached a crucial turning point. It involved a "real deal" with the ranks of southern insurgents, according to Lt Gen Thira Daewa, secretary of the peace talks team.
Authorities have spent the last two years trying to strike a peace deal with the Barisan Revolusi Nasional Melayu Patani (BRN) through four major rounds of talks facilitated by Malaysia.
There had been other peace talks that preceded them however, they involved the Mara Patani insurgent network of which the BRN is a member. The Mara Patani later ceased the talks leaving the BRN to engage alone in the peace process.
The first talks over the past two years with the BRN started on March 20, 2020, at the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic which forced subsequent discussions between Thai authorities and the BRN to be held remotely.
Face-to-face negotiations did not resume until Jan 11-12 this year and were held again from March 2-3.
Gen Wallop Raksanoh, former National Security Council (NSC) secretary-general, led the Thai negotiating team which engaged in the talks with Anas Abdulrahmah, the BRN representative, with Abdul Rahim bin Mohamad Noor acting as facilitator on the Malaysian government's behalf.
The Thai authorities have never felt more enthused about the prospect of permanently ending the violent unrest in the far South than during the fourth round of talks from March 31-April 1.
This time something was different. For the first time, Deng Awaeji, a core member of the fighting wing of the BRN, came to the talks.
The two sides set themselves an ambitious goal: to reduce all violent confrontations and attacks during the Muslim holy period of Ramadan from April 3 to May 14.
That would create a meaningful starting point toward achieving a lasting peace in the southernmost region plagued by almost 20 years of insurgent unrest.
Lt Gen Thira, also commander of the Fourth Region Army Corps, told the Bangkok Post the talks have reached a crucial juncture.
Mr Deng's participation has given the peace process its much-needed boost. He rose through the ranks of a BRN fighting unit in Narathiwat.
For years, the Thai authorities have tried in vain to invite a member of the unit to join the talks.
In the past, there had been futile attempts to arrange talks, with the help of Malaysia, with Mr Deng and Abdulloh Waemanor, the BRN's spiritual leader.
This time, Mr Deng sat down and had his photo taken with the Thai authorities. "It's indeed a positive sign, "Lt Gen Thira said.
Thira: Heart-to-heart talks
"Previously, only representatives (of the BRN's) political wing came to the meeting," the commander said.
"We believe the fighting unit had been watching the talks for some time. When they realised progress had been made, they came out to join."
During talks in the past, Mr Deng did not attend but had someone else speak for him. "Now, we can have a heart-to-heart conversation, from one soldier to another," Lt Gen Thira said.
Real deal in talks
The authorities have no doubt that Mr Deng has the power to make a difference to the peace negotiations.
At the latest talks, the Thai side proposed the no-violence spell during Ramadan and the BRN agreed, the commander said.
Thai authorities said they would ensure the BRN members who fled the far South to escape legal action could make a safe return home to take part in the Ramadan activities.
Lt Gen Thira added the authorities were ready to assist the BRN members in defending themselves in legal cases. "(Coming home) is better than going into hiding," he said.
Lt Gen Thira added many insurgent suspects will surrender to the authorities, including one of two key people in BRN's political wing. The first to turn themselves in are those facing no arrest warrants.
During the month of Ramadan, marking the peace trial period, roadside billboards showing warrants for the arrest of insurgent suspects have been removed. The security checkpoints on the roads were also dismantled. "The atmosphere of tension has been eased," he said.
He added the military has suspended house searches for insurgent suspects.
However, concerns have mounted about a third hand or rebel elements resisting the peace negotiations, possibly continuing to stage attacks in the far South.
Joint group on zero violence
The BRN and Thai negotiators have agreed to form a joint group to work on zero violence during the Ramadan period. Maj Gen Weeradet Detraksa, commander of the 5th Infantry Division, heads the Thai side while Tan Sri Abdul Rahim Mohd Noor, facilitator of the peace negotiations, will be a coordinator for the BRN in the working group.
Former inspector-general of police (IGP) Tan Sri Abdul Rahim Mohd Noor yesterday confirmed his appointment as the new facilitator for the southern Thailand peace talks.
Lt Gen Thira admits a third hand could mar the progress in the peace talks. At the start of the Ramadan period, shootings were reported in Mai Kaen district of Pattani.
An investigation confirmed it was not an insurgent attack but an incident spurred by conflict among drug traders.
"We'll assess the security situation every seven days. In the past, we enforced the security law with the intent to arrest them. Now, the law is being applied to take care of them," the commander said, adding that after years of violent conflict, seeking forgiveness is now the name of the game.
The peace process was started under the previous Yingluck Shinawatra administration. Held on Feb 28, 2013, in Kuala Lumpur. Paradon Patthanathabut, then NSC secretary-general, signed a peace deal with the BRN that functions under the umbrella of a group called Mara Patani.
At the time, Ustaz Hasan Toryib represented the BRN in the peace talks. The May 22, 2014, military coup that toppled the Pheu Thai Party-led government prompted the suspension of the talks until the head coup-maker and Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha appointed Gen Aksara Kerdpol as chief negotiator.
Gen Aksara was replaced as head of the peace delegation by Gen Udomchai Thammasarorat, former Fourth Region Army commander, in October 2018.
Afterwards, Gen Udomchai stepped down as head negotiator as he could not accept the terms put forth by Mara Patani which threatened to boycott the talks unless the Thai side replaced Gen Udomchai as leader of the talks team.
Gen Prayut then named Gen Wallop to be Gen Udomchai's successor.