Thailand, BRN Rebels are Far Apart on Key Issues in Peace Talks

Commentary by Zachary Abuza
Thailand, BRN Rebels are Far Apart on Key Issues in Peace Talks Residents of Khoksator, a village in southern Thailand’s insurgency-ridden Narathiwat province, watch police investigate the scene where an eight-year-old boy and three relatives were shot dead on their way to school, March 2, 2017.

Delegations representing the Thai government and Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) rebels met in Kuala Lumpur last week for their first in-person peace talks in about two years.

As expected, there was no breakthrough in the Malaysia-brokered negotiations to settle the decades-old separatist insurgency in Thailands Deep South, although both sides agreed to establish a joint working group for future discussions.

From looking carefully at statements and comments made by each side, its clear that Thailand and the BRN are far apart on key issues.

BRN priorities

According to BRN chief negotiator Anas Abdulrahman (also known as Hipni Mareh), the two sides agreed to discuss four areas identified as priorities by the rebels: governance, education, recognition of the Malay Pattani identity; and their traditional economic system.

In May 2021 the BRN submitted a ceasefire proposal based on the establishment of an autonomous Patani Darussalam” region that would have the authority to develop its own education system; that would be both Islamic and in the Malay language; and where the Malay language and identity were to be officially recognized and preserved.” 

The BRNs call for autonomy, however, is an absolute non-starter for the Thai government.

Thailand is an overly centralized state, all the more so since a military-backed constitution took effect in 2017.

This government will never agree to autonomy. And, frankly, a democratically elected would not support full autonomy for fear of incurring more military intervention in politics. Giving the Malay Pattani people autonomy would create a precedent seen as completely unacceptable to the Thai government.

The Thai government has said it is considering adapting Melayu as a formal second language.

Thai officials know they should do it, but refuse to follow through.

The Thais will never relinquish any of the educational system, because thats one of the key ways to indoctrinate the public – especially under this military-backed government. Its unclear whether the central government would allow the Islamic schools in the far south to be exempted from national educational requirements, including the Thai language. 

The BRN rebels have been pushing for the formal recognition of Pattani Malay culture and values. For them, the Thai state poses an existential threat; their struggle is about cultural preservation.

The government has long been frustrated with the Pattani Malay people because they are they only minority group in Thailand that has resisted assimilation. Indeed, the Pattani Malays believe that Thai culture has a corrupting influence and threatens their traditional and conservative Shafii values.

Another of the BRNs priority issues has been the protection of the regions traditional agrarian economy. The BRN has largely rejected large-scale development projects, including the construction of industrial zones.

The government believes that under-development is a cause of unrest, while the BRN believes that Thai economic development programs threaten the traditional Pattani Malay way of life, and that development programs would only benefit the Thai population.

Tempered Thais

The Thai government was more tempered in the latest round of talks.

In a statement published in the Bangkok Post, the government said The proposed framework includes violence reduction, political participation, and discussion mechanism in the [Deep South] region.”

The Thai government has always made the cessation of violence a condition for talks, both to show goodwill and a commitment to peace, but also to demonstrate the BRNs command and control over their militants.

Indeed, during last weeks talks in the Malaysian capital, no one from the BRNs military wing was represented on their seven-man panel. 

The Thai statement made no specific mention of language, Pattani identity, or the preservation of the traditional economy. 

And with violence at historically low levels, the Thai government is not under much pressure to make concessions.

The government is likely to press forward with its current political, economic, and security policies in the south. There may be some room to improve mechanisms for resolving disputes; this is clearly in Thailands interest.

A culture of impunity

Despite differences, the resumption of talks should be viewed positively. But irritants remain.

One of the core grievances of the Pattani public and the BRN, is the culture of impunity for security forces.

Under the 2005 emergency decree that still is in force in the majority of the Deep South, government security personnel enjoy almost blanket immunity for their actions. They are rarely prosecuted for misdeeds, which invariably leads to alleged excessive use of force and human rights violations.

Immunity has been waived on only a handful of occasions since the conflict reignited 18 years ago. There have been convictions of members of security forces but not a single has been upheld on appeal. 

What is more common is that when an incident happens, an investigation is conducted. But after the incident is out of the public mind, charges are dropped.

Last week, three police officers were charged with attempted murder when they opened fire on a truck carrying five Muslim teens as it passed through a checkpoint without stopping, wounding two. The police were not in uniform and the young men believed that the police were militants.

The governments quick decision to press charges was welcomed. Yet, it is unlikely that the officers will ever be prosecuted. Upon review of the case, and after a sufficient period, the charges against the three will likely be dropped.

But in a more galling incident, the Department of Special Investigation last week ended its investigation without filing charges in a July 2019 incident, when a suspected militant in military custody, Abdullah Esomuso, was rushed to a hospital unconscious.

The 34-year-old man was photographed in apparent good health during his interrogation. The CCTV in his cell was allegedly not working.

That night, he was rushed to the hospital suffering from conditions consistent with a lack of oxygen. He fell into a coma and died the following month. A government autopsy found no signs of torture.

Ending the culture of impunity in Thailand would do much to build goodwill amongst the public.

But thats another issue where the two sides remain far apart in the southern peace talks.

Zachary Abuza is a professor at the National War College in Washington and an adjunct at Georgetown University. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the U.S. Department of Defense, the National War College, Georgetown University or BenarNews.


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