Peace Talks in Southern Thailand
Thailand’s junta-appointed premier General Surayud Chulanont visited his Malaysian counterpart, Prime Minister Ahmad Abdullah Badawi, Wednesday, at a time when prospects for peace in Thailand’s blood-soaked south haven’t looked as good for years. Both Surayud and coup leader Sonthi Boonyaratkalin have called for formal talks with militant groups and Malaysia has offered to host them.
Najib Razak, a Malaysian deputy prime minister, last week called it a good "window of opportunity" for a peaceful solution to the conflict, which has killed more then 1,700 in the past 21 months. It was confirmed last week that former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad had arranged secret talks that have been going on for about a year. The new Thai regime says it's ready to talk formally to the insurgent groups, a huge step forward.
But despite the optimism, all the talk about talks may amount to nothing more than hot air. Two large questions remain: Who is talking to whom? And what are they talking about?
For the past four years, the administration of deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was seen as the as the single largest obstacle for reconciliation after the centuries-old separatist struggle in Thailand's southernmost Malay Muslim provinces reignited in January 2004. Thaksin refused to talk with insurgents he called "terrorists." He is also held responsible by many critics for fueling the violence by undermining local governance in the region when he took office in 2001.
Certainly, denials came fast and strong every time reports surfaced that government officials were indeed talking to rebel leaders. In August 2005, for instance, the outlawed Pattani United Liberation Organization (PULO) claimed it held talks with the government in a secret location in Lausanne, Switzerland, where Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej spent his childhood.
Chidchai Wannasathit, Thaksin's deputy charged with overseeing the conflict, said at the time: "I insist that there have been no such talks." Those sentiments were repeated by Thaksin's hawkish defense minister, Gen Thammarak Isarangura na Ayudhaya, in March 2006.
"It is not right to recognize outlawed organizations," he said in an interview. "If those experts know who the militants are, then just bring them to me."
Most experts have known that talks were taking place behind the scenes, however, despite the public denials. And while the role of Thaksin and his deputies in the discussions is still unclear, denials were the order of the day.
The obstabcles, even with the change in regime brought about by last month's coup, remain formidable. "The Thai government might now be saying they are open to speaking with the insurgent groups, but although it's a very big step to be publicly calling for talks, they will very soon hit a big wall," said Anthony Davis, a Thailand-based security analyst for Jane's Information Group. "It is unimaginable that the Thai political and military establishment will be able to, or prepared to, negotiate with the militants’ demands. Even the insurgent's most conciliatory demands go far beyond what Bangkok is prepared to discuss."
Centuries-old Conflict Reignites
The roots of the fighting go back centuries. The conflict zone is the old Kingdom of Patani, which is thought to have been established around 1390, even before the state of Malacca was born about eight years later.
Islam is believed to have spread to what is now southern Thailand as it arrived in the rest of the Malay Archipelago at the end of the 13th century. Most of Patani finally converted to Islam in 1457.
After converting, the rulers of the Muslim Kingdom of Patani were caught in a tug-of-war of sorts between Siam to the North and Malacca, then the center of Islam on the Malay archipelago and now a Malaysian state to the South. But although Malacca fought Siam’s claims to sovereignty over Patani, the kingdom was more often than not under Siamese control.
Revolts against Siamese rule in the 17th and 18th centuries resulted in two major wars between Siam, which later became known as Thailand, and Patani. In 1786, the Muslim kingdom finally succumbed to Siam in a gory war.
During that gruesome time, the Siamese army committed gross atrocities against Patani forces. A letter at the time from Sir Francis Light, the founder of the British colony of
Penang (now a state in northern Malaysia), to Lord Cornwallis, the governor-general of India, detailed the massacres.
Siamese soldiers captured men, elderly women and children and tossed them on the ground to be trampled by herds of elephants. They also took more than 4,000 men from Patani back to the old capital at Ayuddhaya as slaves. These men were later used as laborers to build Bangkok, the modern day capital of Thailand.
After 1786, the rulers of Patani were appointed by the Siamese. The situation remained tense.
Confronted with frequent rebellions, Siam used varying tactics to pacify the region over the years. At one point, a divide-and-rule strategy was employed, and the Patani kingdom was divided into seven smaller areas: Patani, Nhongchik, Raman, Ra-ngae, Saiburi, Yala and Yaring. But this simply created more problems and failed to quell the rebellions.
The region became more stable after the Siamese court began appointing local Patani people to rule the area. But that changed under the reign of King Chulalongkorn (1868-1910). He introduced a centralization program, known as Thesaphiban, which increased direct control from Bangkok.
In 1901, the seven provinces of Patani were regrouped under one single administrative unit called the "Area of Seven Provinces." placing the area under direct control of the Thai Interior Ministry. The British, who colonized Malaysia, then challenged Siam over control of these provinces, and eventually the two sides struck a deal over the territory in 1909.
The Anglo-Siamese Treaty of 1909 formally placed Patani under Siam's control. The area was then split into the modern day provinces of Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat and parts of western Songkhla – the border delineated in the treaty remains the border between Malaysia and Thailand today.
The treaty didn’t stop the violence, however. During the 1900s, successive Thai leaders quelle d frequent rebellions and undertook forced assimilation policies, leading to present day grievances.
Since the late 1960s, armed separatist groups have waged a low level-insurgency against Bangkok rule. They steadily increased the number of attacks in the late 1970s and the 1980s, when they also claimed responsibility for several bombings in Bangkok. During this time, the government successfully curbed unrest through a combination of political and economic reforms.
But the relationship between Bangkok and the s Muslim provinces didn't last. Persistent human rights abuses and a lack of access to justice for the Malay-Muslim population fueled resentment, and a number of insurgent groups sprang to life. These include BRN-C (Barisan Revolusi Nasional-Coordinate), which was first established in the early 1960s; a group of Afghan war veterans called GMIP (Gerakan Mujahidin Islam Patani or Patani Islamic Mujahidin Group), formed in 1995; and PULO, which was strongest in the 1960s and 1970s but is now thought to be one of the smallest armed groups fighting.
As he began his rule in 2001 Thaksin disbanded the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Center (SBPAC), which acted as an intermediary between local factions and the state. He also scrapped a joint civilian-military-police task force that provided intelligence and communication with influential leaders. These moves, which many saw as an attempt by Thaksin to undermine local power networks, is largely seen as a major reason behind the upsurge of violence in January 2004.
Although sporadic violence occurred during Thaksin's first three years in office, many point to January 4, 2004, as the starting point for the current insurgency. That day 30 heavily-armed militants raided the Ratchanakarin army camp in Narathiwat, shooting and slashing the throats of four Buddhist soldiers before making off with more than 400 assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades from the base's weapons arsenal. At the same time, 21 schools were targeted in a series of diversionary arson attacks thus reigniting a the separatist conflict.
Thaksin's response went from dismissing the perpetrators as common thugs to ordering tens of thousands of armed security forces to the provinces and imposing martial law in the region. During this time, widespread human rights violations at the hands of security forces, including extra-judicial killings, kidnappings and torture, fueled anti-government sentiment and boosted sympathy for the insurgency among an increasingly marginalized Malay-Muslim population.
The heavy-handed government response crystallized in in October 2004. After large crowds gathered in Tak Bai, Narathiwat to protest the arrest of six individuals accused of supplying weapons to insurgents, soldiers rounded up hundreds of young men, tied their hands behind their backs and stacked them in trucks five-deep for a three-hour drive to an army base in Pattani province. Seventy-eight suffocated to death on the journey. Thaksin booted it by saying the men died "because they were already weak from fasting during the month of Ramadan."
Thaksin's aggressive policies attracted a host of criticism, not least from the palace. In February 2005, Prem Tinsulanonda, the king's top aide who is seen by many as the brains behind last month's coup, called on Thaksin to follow the king's advice and take a more peaceful and cautious approach to the south.
Shortly afterward, Thaksin set up the National Reconciliation Commission (NRC), a body designed to propose solutions to bring peace to the region. It was headed by Anand Panyarachun, a respected diplomat who was twice-appointed prime minister by Bhumibol in the early 1990s.
Anand visited Malaysia and spoke to Mahathir about initiating talks with the rebel groups. That prompted Mahathir to visit Thailand in October 2005, where he received backing from Bhumibol to initiate the discussions.
"I sought an audience with the king in October [last year] following Anand's advice," Mahathir told the Star, a Malaysian newspaper, last week. "The king agreed with Anand's suggestion that I be involved in the peace initiative for southern Thailand."
The Thai monarch has ruled the country for 60 years and is treated like a god. Even many southern Muslims suspicious of the central government hold tremendous respect for Bhumibol, so his endorsement of the talks would have given Mahathir more clout in bringing militant groups to the table.
The talks began soon afterwards in Langkawi, a northwestern Malaysian island, and Putrajava, the administrative capital. Present at the meetings, according to news reports, were officials from Perdana Global Peace Organisation (Perdana), Mahathir's NGO, and some 50 members of various militant groups.
Mukhriz Mahathir, Mahathir's son, told Reuters last week that "presidents and vice presidents" of Bersatu, an umbrella grouping, as well as PULO, BRN-C and GMIP were present at the talks. Although no breakthroughs occurred, he said progress had been made.
“This was a series of interviews to try to understand what really are their grievances and grouses and what they want from the Thai government,” Mukhriz Mahathir told Reuters. “We discovered that it was not secession they wanted, but really more attention by the Thai government for the south, in particular economic development and education.”
That seems a bit pat, however. Sure, Bangkok has sought to reduce the strength of local religious schools, which it saw as possible breeding grounds for separatist ideologies. And Thai authorities did raid a number of Islamic schools they thought to be insurgent training camps, arresting, detaining and even shooting students and religious teachers under powerful emergency laws passed by Thaksin's government.
But that was all after the insurgency came to life. A campaign of shadowy, random violence strikes most people as a lousy way to attract the brightest teachers and lure potential investors.
"There is no reason why the groups behind the violence would negotiate with such basic offers such as education and economic reforms," said Davis from Jane's Information Group. "They don't need to. They have Bangkok pushed into a corner and they have no reason or need to negotiate on such a limited proposal."
Many think that if the insurgent demands simply consist of economic and scholastic developments, then Perdana has probably only been talking to exiled leaders of the rebel groups who have no direct influence on the commanders orchestrating the attacks. Indeed, no group has ever claimed responsibility for any of the attacks since 2004, and it's still unclear which groups are spearheading the killings.
Other news reports say the Langkawi talks produced a list of recommendations called the Joint Peace and Development Plan for South Thailand. This proposal, which has reportedly been endorsed by separatist leaders, calls for militants to drop their demands for independence in exchange for amnesty, economic development, more government funds and the use of the Malay language – the first language for about 90 percent of the population in the region – in schools. The demands were reportedly handed to Thai authorities in August this year, but no official response has been given.
The apparent demands are simpler even than the recommendations given by Anand's NRC, which called for using the Malay language for official documents, installing an unarmed force to contain the violence, replacing corrupt local officials, setting up a new administrative body to replace the SBPAC that Thaksin disbanded, allowing the partial use of shariah law and overhauling the judicial system, which is seen as corrupt and inefficient.
The NRC report, issued in June, was largely ignored by the Thaksin administration, despite promises that they would implement all "appropriate" measures. A month after the final report came out, Chidchai, who was still overseeing the government's counterinsurgency strategy at the time, publicly admitted that he hadn't read it.
The new government appears to be taking it more seriously. Some of the NRC's proposals have already been put on the agenda, with junta leader Sonthi this week announcing that the disbanded SBPAC would be re-established.
Even so, word of an imminent deal strikes most observers as unlikely or even impossible. Even if the exiled leaders of militant groups are able to reach an agreement with some government officials, it's doubtful this will have much impact on the ground.
"These were the old guys, not the new guys," said a Malay-Muslim journalist based in Southern Thailand, speaking on condition of anonymity. "But they do have contact with the current generation of leaders, and may be able to convince them to join some kind of talks or negotiations."
That still seems like a tall order, according to Francesca Lawe-Davies, who monitors the conflict as a Southeast Asia Analyst with the International Crisis Group.
"The people who are really in control have never really expressed any willingness to negotiate with anyone," she said. "Even though the prospect has slightly improved with General Sonthi at the helm, the chances of negotiations are still fairly remote."
Did Someone say “Autonomy?”
Hopes of remedying the decades of neglect and abuse of a minority Muslim population in this overwhelmingly Buddhist nation remain distant. The region's troubles are deeply entrenched, and the lack of trust between the ethnic Malay population and their Thai leaders poses a huge obstacle towards a lasting peace.
Most observers agree that the real aim of the militants is independence for the region, or at least some form of basic autonomy. And though the new junta-installed government appears to understand the complexities of the South more than Thaksin, it is still a long way from entertaining autonomy for Thailand's Muslim majority provinces.
It's even doubtful that the new government would allow Malay to be used as an official language for the region. Sonthi may want talks, but his patrons may have already drawn a line on using the Malay language.
Thaksin and Prem didn't agree on much, but they both were adamant in saying that the Malay language should never be used officially in Thailand. "We have to be proud to be Thai and have the Thai language as the sole national language," Prem told locals at a gathering in Pattani four months ago.
By closing the door on this basic demand before talks even start, it's unclear how successful they can be. So far, the new interim government has not articulated a vision for southern Thailand.
Most of their efforts have been geared towards urging the new generation of separatists to come out of the shadows. Surayud's government has called for the militants to cease operations for a month to show their willingness to enter peace talks. But this may be a strategy to see if the people who come forward really have the power to control the violence.
In any case, hopes that Thaksin's ouster would stop the violence were quickly dashed after the September 19 coup. Drive-by shootings and assassinations have continued, with nine people killed across the region on Monday of this week. Just last week, the the 25th beheading since January 2004 was recorded when a Burmese immigrant worker was decapitated in front of his daughter. Six more people were killed on Tuesday.
With the second anniversary of the Tak Bai tragedy coming up on October 25, more carnage is likely in the upcoming weeks.
Malaysia Ready to Oversee Talks
Ahead of Gen Sarayud's visit to Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday, Malaysian officials again said they are ready to broker talks or negotiations between Thai officials and the separatist groups. But not wishing to anger Bangkok, they played down their role.
"If they think we can play a bigger role, of course Malaysia will be willing to do that,'' Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar said Monday. "You must remember that Thailand is an independent and sovereign state. Before one can even talk about playing a role, we must see what the attitude of that country is.''
The conflict has somewhat strained Thai-Malaysian relations, with Kuala Lumpur repeatedly expressing concern that violence continues to flourish along its northern border. In August 2005, a diplomatic spat was sparked when 131 Thai-Muslims fled across the border seeking refuge in Malaysia. Kuala Lumpur angered Bangkok by refusing to return the refugees until Thailand could guarantee their safety. Eventually one of the group was returned on an arrest warrant, but the remaining 130 are still in Malaysia.
Nonetheless, the fact that Bhumibol had endorsed Mahathir as peacemaker opens the door for the new government to seek Malaysia's help.
"Malaysia understands that it must play the role of a negotiator because if the conflict in the south of Thailand continues it will damage Malaysian security gravely," Rohan Gunaratna, who heads the Singapore-based International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, told the Sentinel. "I cannot think of any better actor to mediate."
Formal talks will be the first step in determining if the right parties are at the table. And although the discussions will likely take years to bear fruit, they should eventually make it clear what the militant groups want – and what Bangkok must do to stop the killing.
"The political negotiation process is Bangkok's only hope for solving the conflict," Rohan said. "I believe that the Thai elite will eventually realize the need to compromise on certain positions that they haven't in the past. The alternative will be to sustain the violence."