Thailand’s negotiation with the rebel Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) has reached a critical juncture as both sides continue to struggle to identify a common ground on how to move the peace talks forward.
To complicate the matter even further, this peace process has produced two competing tracks — the official one with Malaysia as the designated Facilitator and the not-so-secretive backdoor channel that not only leaves Malaysian officials in the dark but deepened the existing mistrust between Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur.
Malaysian officials said the incoming Facilitator, Gen. Tan Sri Zulkifli Zainal Abidin, will not tolerate Thailand’s two-track approach. Malaysia’s disapproval of the two-track is not just about protocol; a narrative has been built around this back channel, painting Malaysia as the peace spoiler.
Unwillingness by the outgoing Facilitator, Tan Sri Rahim Muhammad Noor, to raise this point with the Thais had created some resentment among Malaysian officers in the Facilitator’s Secretariat. Furthermore, not all Thai government agencies agree with the use of back channel on the ground that it comes at the expense of the Thai-Malaysian bilateral relations.
Gen. Zulkifli’s role in the peace process is expected to bring some degree of professionalism and integrity to the current peace process that was kicked off in January 2020 in Kuala Lumpur. But peace initiatives have come and gone over the past 18 years when the current wave of insurgency surfaced in this historically contested region, and none has generated any meaningful traction as neither side was willing to make concession or compromise. Nearly two decades later, the two sides have yet to move beyond confidence building measures, or CBM, and onto something more concrete. There was a moment of hope in the Ramadan ceasefire in 2022. But that was short lived as BRN combatants step up their attacks in what was billed as a “payback” for the Thai Army’s refusal to reciprocate positively to the rebel’s unilateral ceasefire that came into effect in April 2020.
More than 7,300 people have died since January 2004 when the current wave of insurgency resurfaced after a decade of relatively calm.
For the time being, Thai and BRN negotiators are struggling to find a common ground for the three key issues on the table: public consultations, reduction of violence, and political solutions to bring this conflict to an end.
BRN’s request to enter the Patani region to conduct public consultation — discussions with residents — was shot down by the Thai Army who are afraid of a public relations nightmare; an outpour of support for the BRN delegates from the locals would destroy the Thai government’s long-standing narrative that says the Malays of Patani are with the Thai State.
Indeed, one only have to look at the funerals of the combatants on the ground, not to mention the various social media platforms, to understand the extent of support BRN enjoys in Thailand’s far South.
Regarding the reduction of violence, more work has to be done on the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement (COHA). The same goes for the so-called Road Map, a guideline for future talks.
But while the text of the public consultation and other items on the table is still being negotiated, BRN has begun to reach out to local Buddhists and Muslims in Thailand’s far South for a series of discussions that took place inside Malaysia.
Technicalities and negotiated texts aside, the burning issue for BRN is whether the movement is willing to settle for something less than complete independence. Since BRN negotiators have indicated that they are willing to negotiate under the Thai Constitution and in line with the principles underlining the Unitary State of Thailand, many observers, including combatants, have interpreted this willingness to be a compromise for something less than independence.
“BRN can no longer claim to be a revolutionary outfit fighting for the independence of Patani if the movement is to negotiate under the Thai Constitution,” said Asmadee Bueheng, the communication officer for The Patani, a political action group that promote self-determination for the people of this historically contested region.
BRN leadership was led to believe that if they negotiated under the Thai Constitution, their organization would be a “legitimate” movement in the eyes of the Thais and the international community.
But there are other ways to obtain legitimacy and acceptance, argued Artef Sohko, president of The Patani. BRN’s actions on the ground, as well as the agreements that the group has or is planning to make with members of the international community will bring about the recognition they desired.
“But if BRN is willing to settle for something less than a complete independence, they have to make it clear to their fighters on the ground,” said Artef. “And if they let go of their original goal of independence, then the Thai government shouldn’t be surprised if a splinter group emerges from the ground. You can be sure that negotiation will not be on their mind,” Artef added.
Dropping the clause on the Thai Constitution does not necessarily mean killing the peace process. There are many outstanding issues for BRN negotiators can raise — issues such as state-minority relations, historical narrative of Patani and greater cultural space for the Malays of this region, Asmadee said. As for the conflict itself, the two sides can talk about code of conduct, civilian protection, and rules of engagement, among other things, Asmadee added.
About their quest for legitimacy, BRN is planning to expand their strategy to include “foreign focal point”. An office in Europe is in the pipeline. It would make it easier for BRN representatives to meet and explain their case to members of the international community.
By Don Pathan, a Thailand-based security analyst and a former reporter with various media outlets and publications.