Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s visit to Malaysia on Thursday will address the possible role of Kuala Lumpur in facilitating a peace process between Bangkok and the Malay Muslim separatist movement.
The extent of the role that Bangkok will permit Malaysia to play is still being finalised in the days leading up to the visit. Thai authorities have not been able to agree on whether they want the Malaysian government to mediate the process or just facilitate it.
According to Thai sources, the Thai Foreign Ministry is dead against the idea of mediation and would rather see Kuala Lumpur’s role, if any, be minimised as much as possible.
Because of its geographical proximity to the troubled region, few Thai officials see Malaysia as an honest broker. In this respect, many Thai officials see Malaysia as a stakeholder. Thailand has never been comfortable with outside mediation or facilitation for the insurgency in the Malay-speaking South.
The violence in Thailand’s southernmost provinces greatly concerns Malaysia because of the possibility that the insurgency could attract some of its citizens into a conflict that the Thai government deems a domestic affair.
Thai diplomats, when explaining the conflict, often employ the word “unrest”, as opposed to “conflict”, to deflect unwanted inquiries from the international community.
There are many issues that Bangkok would like to refrain from talking about, such as the culture of impunity among its security officials and the practice of targeted killings by pro-government death squads.
Needless to say, the culture of impunity is something that has undermined successive Thai governments’ secret peace talks with the separatist movement.
The leading agency paving the way for these talks is the National Security Council (NSC). But the Army has also set up its own team to do the same. The lack of unity among Thai stakeholders has complicated the move towards peace. And until these stakeholders can agree on a common position, as well as a division of labour, advancing the cause of peace or the peace process would be nearly impossible.
Historically, talking to the separatists has been the work of the Army. Talks were held in Middle Eastern countries in the 1980s. But since 2006, starting with the then government of Surayud Chulanont, civilians, namely the NSC, have been brought into the picture. Coming around to the idea of civilian supremacy is not so easy for the Army.
Besides asking Malaysia to take up a more active role, the proposed political agreement, the text of which is still being negotiated, is supposed to show that the government of Yingluck Shinawatra is serious about peace in the restive region.
But what takes place in the diplomatic orbit may not necessarily resonate on the ground as militants continue to carry out attacks, especially after suffering a humiliating defeat in last week’s attempt to overrun a Royal Thai Marine camp in Narathiwat’s Bacho district. The operation ended in the deaths of 16 insurgents.
Because of the setback in Bacho, the insurgents are eager to show that they are still a force to be reckoned with. This explains, in the days that followed the failed raid, the stepping up of attacks in urban areas, as opposed to ambushing military or police patrols on the back roads of remote villages.
According to an exiled source from one of the long-standing separatist groups, at least three of the 16 insurgents killed in Bacho were affiliated with the Patani United Liberation Organisation (Pulo). Most of the 50 or so militants who took part in the botched attack were affiliated with the Barisan Revolusi Nasional-Coordinate (BRN-C).
Complicating Bangkok’s initiative to start up a peace process is the fact that there is no real security tsar to oversee the conflict in the deep South, said Professor Panitan Wattanayagon, a Chulalongkorn University security expert and a former adviser to the Abhisit Vejjajiva government.
What is lacking, he said, is a security tsar with the kind of clout needed to work as a go-between for the government and the Army.
A lack of unity is also displayed among the exiled leaders, but observers believe these various long-standing groups will fall in line with the BRN-C should the group decide to take part in a formal peace process that has real political commitment from Bangkok. Without a convincing peace process, there is no other option for the militants on the ground than to continue with their campaign of violence.
For anybody to come to the negotiating table, Bangkok must first agree to grant immunity to the participants. But in doing so, Bangkok will move towards recognising the political nature of the conflict.
Moreover, Bangkok would no longer be able to paint the insurgents as a bunch of drug-crazed youth who embrace distorted Islam and wrong history.
Many hard-liners in Thailand are not comfortable with shifting away from framing the violence in the deep South as “criminal activities”.
It remains to be seen how far the Yingluck government will stay the course towards peace as her administration sees it. If the hard-liners have their way, military means as an option to quell the separatist activities will continue to be the mode of operation for the foreseeable future. And a formal and convincing peace process will just have to wait.