Thai Government Signals Modest Progress with Malay Muslim Rebels

Restive south resists easy solutions in ethnic conflict

By Jason Johnson

The Thai government has signaled a marginally more progressive stance on dialogue to handle ethnic conflict and violence in the country’s predominantly Malay Muslim southern region.

A Thai dialogue team led by General Wanlop Rugsanaoh met formally with Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) rebel representatives in Kuala Lumper on January 20 in talks assisted by Muslim-Majority Malaysia, which has sought to smooth the dialogue since 2013. BRN is known to exercise the most control over on-the-ground insurgents in the conflict-ridden provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat, and four districts of Songkhla province.

On January 21, BRN representatives released a press statement they had reached a “mutual understanding” with the Thai government,” but used terms such as “Patani,” “armed conflict” and “political resolution.” The Thai establishment has long balked at those terms because they signal both a move towards the internationalization of the conflict, which Thailand has long referred to as a “situation.”

In contrast, the Thai side refers to the region as “the southern border provinces” and “peaceful solutions” instead of political resolution.

Compared with the dialogue process under Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha’s first government, which took office in 2014 after a coup that drove the democratically elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra from power, however, the agreement marks some progress on two fronts.

First, sources with ties to the separatist movement claim Anas Abdulrahman, the leader of the seven-member BRN team, isn’t a senior leader although he appears to have more backing of key, clandestine leadership than the dialogue team had during the post-coup National Council for Peace and Order government that Prayuth led in 2014.

From 2015 to 2018. Mara Patani, an umbrella organization, did include some BRN members but their support on the ground from the BRN leadership or operatives was questionable. The dialogue process made little to no headway. The military rule prefers to use suppressive security measures rather than rolling out a progressive dialogue process.

Second, there appears to be more international involvement, a longtime BRN demand, with two members from an unnamed foreign peace mediation organization attending the meeting, sources said. They included one European and a Thai academic who has long researched peace processes. Although BRN noted the presence of the “international observers,” the Thai side ignored their presence publicly.

Over the past two to three years, the Prayuth government — which according to rumors in Bangkok is threatened, with the prime minister’s sway allegedly about to end in favor of the current Army chief, the highly controversial army chief Apirat Khongsompong – has intensified efforts to land senior BRN figures at the dialogue table. One day before the agreement, Thai security officials told Asia Sentinel that they believed that senior BRN figures would show up for the meeting in KL. Three members the Thai side hoped to meet with included Abdullah Waemornor, Deng Awaeji, and Adul Mani but none appeared.

One army general with decades of experience in the region said sources suggest that Adul Mani may now have more authority than Abdullah, who had been pegged by many Thai security officers as the core leader of the clandestine BRN. That same source said that Mani was likely behind an insurgent-instigated attack in October 2019 that left 15 dead in Yala province.

The dialogue meeting and subsequent press releases were unceremoniously followed by two incidents, one of which left three more dead. Some sources say it is questionable if insurgents on the ground will accept the process with the military in control in Bangkok.

One military source noted that senior BRN leadership may at times project an image that they can’t control insurgents on the ground because it allows them to deflect responsibility.

In December, the so far-unnamed international mediation organization organized a meeting with the Thai side in Berlin and brought an unknown number of key BRN figures, sources said. Sources said that even though the organization expected the Thai side to sign an agreement that granted the NGO a formal role in the dialogue process, the Thai side reneged.

Because Thailand’s King Vajiralongkorn maintains a residence in Germany, many Malay Muslims have wondered if BRN members met with the King, although no sources have confirmed that. Many Muslims have long believed the king holds sympathetic views towards them in predominantly Buddhist Thailand.

That is particularly true when compared with former Privy Council President Prem Tinsulanonda, who passed away in May of last year. Prem, a Buddhist southerner, was for decades considered the most influential bureaucratic authority in the minority region, with rigid views towards political change. However, newly-appointed Privy Council President Surayud Chulanont, who served as appointed prime minister following the coup that drove Thaksin Shinawatra from power in 2006, is known to have more progressive views than his predecessor and played a pivotal role in pushing for dialogue as prime minister.

According to some Thai security officials, the mediation organization’s role escalated over the past year in part because of a weakening of ties between Malaysia and Thailand. Several Thai security officials said that Malaysia disappointed the Thai side with a lackluster effort in pressuring BRN in Malaysia, a point that runs counter to claims of BRN interlocutors in recent years. One official said that last year the Thai side presented Malaysia with a list of some 10 to 20 BRN names that Malaysian authorities could round up and bring together at the table, but Malaysia did not deliver.

Also, some sources said that army chief General Apirat was furious when bullets were discovered in the troubled region that could be traced back to Malaysian police, reportedly leading him to believe Malaysia or rogue Malaysian authorities were assisting BRN. Malaysia has long been used as sanctuary for Malay Muslim separatists, who share an ethnic and religious bond with Malaysia’s ethnic majority.

Malaysian officials that follow the conflict have said they have little communication with the mediation organization, and several sources have noted that Malaysia has felt its role has been undermined by the European-based organization. In contrast, the organization may have stronger ties with Indonesia, as it worked on conflict resolution in Aceh and, according to several sources, spent several years communicating with Malay Muslim separatists living there in an effort to propel the beleaguered peace process.

On January 14, Apirat and Indonesian army chief General Andiak Perkasa signed an intelligence-sharing agreement in Aceh. Malay Muslim separatists have long had ties with Muslim rebels and institutions in Aceh and other regions of Indonesia. One source with access to BRN mentioned that all seven members of the dialogue team have studied in Indonesia, and some are based there now. Moreover, alleged senior leaders Abdullah Waedermor and Deng Awaeji have strong ties there and have allegedly travelled back and forth between Malaysia and Indonesia in recent years, one senior army source said.

Apirat also said he went to Aceh to learn more about how Indonesia reached a peace agreement with the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) in 2005. Scores of civil society members from southern Thailand have visited Aceh over the years to study the process that resulted in autonomy.

One Bangkok-based elite political veteran who has long pushed for autonomy in the region is the 87-year-old former army chief Chavalit Yongchaiyudt, a long-time ally of the opposition Pheu Thai party. In December, multiple sources say Chavalit met in Malaysia with Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad. Chavalit, Pheu Thai, and the new Future Forward Party, which is in opposition and endangered, are viewed dramatically more positively by both Malaysian officials and Malay Muslims in Thailand for their more progressive views on the autonomy issue.

Despite the widespread view in diplomatic circles that the Thai military holds anachronistic views towards political power-sharing arrangements with the region, for over a decade many military colonels and generals have indicated in private that some kind of significant decentralization is all but inevitable for the region. Meanwhile, scores of active soldiers believe a more progressive approach is long overdue.

Under military rule in Bangkok, however, that substantial shift is doubtful. So even though the Thai side may have signaled a marginal degree of more openness, BRN will likely only go through the motions of a dialogue process that still requires substantial shifts towards electoral authority in Bangkok.