11 July 2024

Newly appointed facilitator for the Patani peace talks, Gen. Zulkifli Zainal Abidin, will arrived in Thailand on February 1stfor a two-day visit to introduce himself to Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan and Gen. Wanlop Rugsanaoh, Thailand’s chief negotiator.

Zulkifli, a retired Army chief, is said to be a counter terrorism expert. He is expected to bring some degree of professionalism and integrity to the peace process between Thailand and Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), the long standing independent movement which, today, controlsvirtually all of the combatants on the ground.

While the BRN combatants see liberating their historical homeland as a moral obligation, the banner of struggle is very much one of nationalism, not Islam.

Zulkifli will be replacing Rahim Noor, the previous facilitator, who had disappointed many of his own people by not objecting to Thailand’s back-channels which painted Malaysia as the peace spoiler.

There have been three pending issues on the table for some time: public consultation, the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement (COHA) and a political solution to end the conflict.

The so-called Road Map, a blueprint for future talks, which is being discussed in Europe via this back channel, is facing the same predicament.

Naturally, these two competing tracks paint the other side as a “peace spoiler”. It remains to be seen how Zulkifli will address this issue.

On the issue of public consultation, Thailand will not permit BRN to cross the border to the Thai side to meet residents and community leaders. Thai officials are afraid that any display of support for the BRN representatives will humiliate them and destroy the narrative that they have built.

If the Thai officials had been honest with the public from the beginning, they wouldn’t have to keep painting a distorted picture of the conflict for the people.

As it stands, it is likely that community leaders in the far South will have to cross over to the Malaysian side to give BRN a piece of their mind. Buddhist leaders in the region said they are looking forward to the meeting and to reminding the BRN that civilian protection is the responsibility of all sides.

The COHA has been described by a senior BRN member as a form of surrender. “It completely contradicts the stance of our fighters. One shouldn’t give any value to it,” said an officer from the BRN’s political wing, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Don Pathan, a security analyst who worked on Patani and other conflicts in Southeast Asia, said the two sides should consider dropping COHA for now and take up a Code of Conduct (CoC), which is less strenuous on the peace process. He said BRN’s military and political wings are in some serious discussions about the future of their organisation.

“At the heart of the issue is whether future talks with the Thais should come under the Thai Constitution,” Pathan said. “If so, will this mean BRN is willing to settle for something less than complete independence?” The first article of the constitution says the country is inseparable.

For years, the Thai side have been trying to exploit Ramadan for quick and easy political gain, without investing much time to acquire a better understanding of the conflict. Authorities like to present ceasefires as a “win-win” arrangement, but reality is much more complex.

Notice how nobody talks about cross-border abductions, clashes, hot pursuits along the common border, rules of engagement – or the lack of it which too often overlook civilian safety, and the standoffs between BRN combatants and Thai security forces that continue to drive a bigger wedge between the Malays of Patani and Thai State.

It is hoped that Gen. Zulkifli will urge Thailand to spell out, in real terms, its commitment to peace — the kind of concessions the Thai government is willing to make for the sake of peace and reconciliation with its Malay minority.

It’s amazing how a society, which cares so much about losing face, has no qualms about being so pathetic and arrogant in with its policy for the Patani region. For too long, Thailand has sounded like a broken record. Its stated commitment to peace rings hallows as there is no legislative backing to any of it.

Thai officials have been walking in and out of peace initiatives for the past 18 years and yet, it still can’t find the courage to move beyond the confidence building measure (CBM) phase to take up something more substantive.

It has no qualms about generating lies after lies just to control the narrative and the situation. It tells the country’s citizens that the Malay minorities who take up arms are drug-crazed youth who embrace a distorted history and wrong Islam. The depiction of the Malays may help Thai officials get through the day, but reality has a way of catching up to one.

There has been a lot of hoopla ever since Anwar Ibrahim became Malaysian prime minister. People were moved by his struggle over the past 24 years, including enduring years of imprisonment. Anwar is, however, heading a coalition of strange bedfellows, with a thin majority that could easily be broken by the weight of keeping these MPs together. Who knows how long he will last.

While it is easy to get swept away by Anwar’s sweet poetry and rhetoric about justice, equality and rights, essentially, Patani is Thailand’s problem.

By Asmadee Bueheng & Artef Sohko

Artef Sohko is the president of The Patani, a political action group that promotes rights to self-determination for the people of Patani. Asmadee is the chief communication strategist for The Patani.