Page 1 of 2 Thaksin as peacemaker in south Thailand
By Jason Johnson
PATTANI - An uptick in killings, bombings, and arson attacks during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan has dashed hopes that a declared ceasefire between Thailand's state security forces and insurgents would temporarily end the violence that has engulfed the country's predominantly Malay-Muslim far south region for nearly a decade.
The rebel Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) group announced in a YouTube clip posted on August 6 that it had abandoned the temporary ceasefire and dialogue due to the government's failure to respond to five core demands, including state recognition of BRN as a liberation movement rather than separatist group, allowances for foreign observers at future talks, elevation of
Malaysia's brokerage role from "facilitator" to "mediator," and the release of prisoners and lifting of arrest warrants for all suspects in security-related cases in the region.
The ceasefire was originally slated to end on August 18, but the three figures in the YouTube clip, who sources claim are part of BRN's military wing, alleged that Thai "colonialists" had violated the terms of the deal. On August 8, deputy prime minister for security Pracha Promnok confirmed that the fourth round of talks, scheduled for later this month, had been "postponed." Although some media sources later reported on August 14 that the fourth round would likely take place, a source who spoke with the head of BRN's dialogue team insisted that talks will not resume until the Thai side responds to its five demands.
The abandoned ceasefire was first brokered through three rounds of talks held between government and rebel representatives in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur. In late February, Yingluck Shinawatra's Peua Thai party-led government announced the first ever formal dialogue agreement with BRN, marking a new tack from previous governments' behind-the-scenes informal talks with rebels from the ethno-religious minority region. Yingluck's elder brother, the self-exiled Thaksin Shinawatra, is widely viewed as the real power behind her government and the mastermind behind the peace initiative.
In spite of the continued violence, Srisompob Jitpiromsri, director of Deep South Watch, a local think tank that monitors the region's violence, told a local radio station that violence over this year's Ramadan period was the lowest in five years. Based on security agency data, the Isra News agency reported that this Ramadan had seen the fewest number of civilian deaths since the conflict's dramatic escalation in January 2004.
Army officials who spoke with Asia Times Online added that the dialogue process should not be regarded as a complete failure, noting that insurgents have responded positively to the Thai dialogue team's demand to curtail the targeting of civilians. From March 1 through August 9, Isra News reported that the number of civilian deaths was lower than any other year over that same five-month stretch except for 2004. When measured against the same period last year, civilian deaths had been cut nearly in half, according to the report.
Those numbers aside, the sustained violence and stoppage of the talks has given skeptics more ammunition to dismiss the Malaysian-brokered dialogue process. Pointing to a lack of preparation and experience of the government's dialogue team, led by National Security Council chief Paradon Pattananathaboot and the southern Border Provinces Administrative Center's (SBPAC) secretary-general Tawee Sodsong, many onlookers believe the Thai side is out of its depth.
Yet domestic - particularly Bangkok-based - onlookers and media have tended to overlook the tremendous obstacles facing the Thai side. Few have viewed the Thai team's actions and inaction through the lens of establishment powers that adamantly oppose any capitulation to BRN, including its recent five demands. That opposition is accentuated by the fact that the polarizing Thaksin, a former premier ousted in a 2006 military coup, is involved in an historic national divide that pits Peua Thai supporters against royalist establishment loyalists.
Domestic media and observers of the conflict in the border region, which includes the provinces of Pattani, Narathiwat, and Yala, have speculated over why Thaksin initiated the formal and highly publicized dialogue process. Most of the criticisms have focused exclusively on Thaksin's personal interests. Some, including opposition Democrat Party loyalists in the far south, have asserted that the former premier is more interested in boosting his personal image as a peacemaker to this decade-long phase of the entrenched conflict, which dates back to the current royal lineage's colonization of the region in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. They argue the former premier is trying to impose a quick fix solution to a historically complex situation, while strategically trying to win the region's Malay Muslim population's future electoral support.
Some local and foreign media have also taken a cynical view of the Thaksin-led initiative because the violence and abuses dramatically escalated when he served as premier from 2001 to 2006. Analysts and Malay Muslims in Thailand apportioned blame to the former policeman-cum-politician for his heavy-handed tactics, including the Kru Se mosque massacre and the lethal suppression of Malay Muslim protestors at Tak Bai in 2004 - regarded by international rights groups as some of the more egregious state abuses in Thailand's modern history.
Many have also pointed to Thaksin's brazen moves to undermine regional royalist-establishment figures and institutions that successfully helped to regulate the conflict in the 1980s and 1990s. But while Thaksin's willingness to challenge establishment power in the far south was a key factor in triggering the renewed violence nearly a decade ago, it is precisely that same readiness to undermine traditional power centers by pushing forward a formal dialogue process and offering substantial political concessions that will be necessary to bring an eventual end to the debilitating military stalemate.
The Thaksin-hatched peace initiative broke a long-time unwavering stance in Bangkok. Establishment power centers, including the army's top brass and the opposition Democrat Party, have long been averse to formal negotiations and the idea of granting the region special autonomy. But Thaksin, who some critics claim aspires to turn Thailand from a constitutional monarchy into a federalized state, allegedly claimed that his sister's government would offer autonomy when he met with some 16 Malay Muslim separatists early last year in Malaysia.
Establishment groups fear that autonomy would pave the way towards a declaration of independence and disintegration of the unitary state. For the past decade, Thaksin has been squarely blamed by the Democrats, Thailand's oldest political party, for the onset of the insurgency in 2004. Now, he and Peua Thai face new criticism from Democrat politicians for the publicized and formal nature of the process and Thaksin's apparent failure to deal with BRN figures who have direct power and control over rebel fighters.
To a large degree, those latter critiques have been motivated by the Thai side's inability to get top BRN figures, namely Sapae-ing Basor and Masae Useng, to the dialogue table. But after nearly a decade of punishing the state with nearly daily killings and bombings, BRN's shadowy leadership had little incentive to cave to any state fantasies of reaching some kind of peaceful settlement through mere "dialogue."
As civil war expert Barbara Walter has argued, rebel groups who are able to sustain their violent campaigns against state forces are often better off pursuing their ultimate objectives rather than agreeing to a negotiated settlement. Soon after such deals are signed, Walter observes, rebels usually must demobilize their soldiers and hand security control over to the state, leaving them extremely vulnerable should government forces renege on the agreement. Significantly, Walter examined rebel groups' dilemmas under negotiated settlements. For the BRN, dialogue has not yet reached the stage of formal negotiations.
Whether Thaksin would yield to BRN's five core demands, first articulated in a YouTube clip posted on April 28, and shift towards formal peace negotiations is still unclear. One member of the Thai side's delegation, General Nipat Thonglek, a deputy permanent secretary at the Ministry of Defense, said on local radio on August 8 that the Thai government knows its stance on all of the demands except the issue of whether to regard BRN as liberation movement and not as a separatist group.
Nipat did not say precisely where the government stood on the issues, but recognizing the BRN as a liberation movement would effectively amount to state admission that the former Patani Sultanate, whose territory roughly corresponds with the current violence-torn region, was colonized by Thailand, then known as Siam, over 200 years ago.
In spite of anticipated government indecision on that specific issue, revisionist thinking on Thailand's historical relationship with the region has begun in Thaksin's media propaganda machine. For instance, Voice TV, owned by Thaksin's son, Panthongtae Shinawatra, broadcast last month a 45-minute special program on the issue of the Phaya Thani cannon, a symbolic artifact of Patani history that has long sat in front of the Ministry of Defense in Bangkok.
In 2003, Malay Muslims signed a petition asking for the government to return the cannon. With approval from the palace, then SBPAC head Panu Uthairat initiated a process to make a replica, which was delivered to the region in May this year. By early June, insurgents bombed the replica. In spite of Peua Thai's unwillingness to reverse the process, Voice TV hosts clearly showed a preference to send the original cannon back to the region, emphasizing that Thais lack understanding of the country's historical relationship with the minority region.
While Peua Thai no doubt would prefer to side-step addressing what some academics have referred to as Siam's "internal colonization" of Patani, establishment opposition to the other four BRN demands has been clear. Democrat politicians have voiced opposition to the initiative from the start, with some suggesting without elaborating that the involvement of international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) would serve to escalate the violence and even possibly provide impetus for a declaration of independence.
Thaksin's dialogue team, which is known to be strongly loyal to the Dubai-based former premier, was so concerned about establishment opposition to formal dialogue that they failed to inform several key ministries about their plans until moments before the announcement was made in Kuala Lumpur. The army's top brass, avowedly loyal to the Thai monarchy, has opposed the move towards a formal, more open dialogue - let alone proper negotiations - and insisted on limiting Malaysia's role to "facilitator" rather than "mediator."
The final signed dialogue agreement was thus forced onto various influential but reluctant parties. While Thaksin has bid to impose his political will upon establishment forces (as well as the minority Buddhist population in the Malay Muslim region that overwhelmingly opposes the process), he and his leading point-man on the region, Tawee Sodsong, secretary general of the SBPAC, worked with Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak, Malaysian Special Branch police, and Malaysian intelligence to coerce a recalcitrant BRN into the dialogue process.
Hassan Taib, a Malaysian-based BRN figure who is believed to be on the rebel group's senior Dewan Penilian Party (DPP) council, was nudged into representing the BRN at the dialogue table. In spite of rightful concerns over Hassan's control and influence over on-the-ground fighters and the recent breakdown of the dialogue process, neither former premier and current opposition leader Abhisit Vejjajiva, nor any Democrat politicians, have acknowledged the substantial progress Yingluck's government has accomplished.
During Abhisit's premiership from late 2008 through mid-2011, both Malay Muslim nationalist activists and army officers based in the Malay-Muslim lower south privately ridiculed the secretive process led by the National Security Council (NSC). The head of the rebel opposition in that process was Kasturi Mahkota, a leading figure in a faction of the separatist Patani United Liberation Organization (PULO) which was influential in the 1970s-80s but has had a negligible role in the guerilla warfare campaign over the past decade.
Compared with Kasturi, Hassan has considerable more respect among BRN figures, according to army and NGO sources active in the region. The Malaysian-based Taib was close to the now-deceased Amin Tohmeena, former head of BRN, and Romli Utarasint, a leader in the BRN-Coordinate (BRN-C) splinter group who died in Malaysia in 2010. BRN-C has been considered by analysts and authorities as the primary group behind insurgent-instigated violence. Since Romli's death, however, BRN-C has become aligned with other BRN factions and is now considered part of a reconstituted BRN, according to some sources.