6 June 2024

It may be that the Thai negotiators sitting across the table from the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) see them as easy pickings, but this low-hanging fruit – the Cessation of Hostility Agreement (COHA) — should be a cause of concern for the Malays of Patani, as it could legitimise more cheap ploys by the government, looking to make a quick score without thinking about long term investments in a meaningful and sustainable peace.

Even at the risk of sounding like cheap political rhetoric, all sides approached reduction of violence, or more to the point, a ceasefire, as something noble and good for the public. For Patani’s conflict resolution, however, one needs to understand that nothing comes easily.

“Civilian protection is the responsibility of all sides, the government and the rebels. People here should not have to wait for a ceasefire to feel safe.” said Rukchart Suwan, former president of Buddhists for Peace (B4P) and currently an advisor to the group. B4P’s help ensured that the Buddhist views in the region are not overlooked in the peace negotiations between the Thai Government and the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN).

Ramadan has been exploited repeatedly for quick political gains. Soon after Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra launched her peace process on February 28th, 2013, her team wanted to test whether their negotiating partner had command-and-control over the combatants on the ground. A ceasefire was announced and it was pegged to the holy month of Ramadan of that year.

Thai soldiers on the ground, whose commanders didn’t care much for Yingluck’s peace initiative anyway, crushed a BRN cell in Cho Airing District of Narathiwat, effectively, ending the ceasefire just days after it began.

The idea that there should be a ceasefire just because it is Ramadan may sound catchy and has a nice twist to it – an auspicious time demands a peaceful period. What Thailand is doing is, however, essentially nothing more than attempting to build consensus among the Patani Malay as to when a ceasefire should be implemented. It is part of their COHA.

What is need is a better understanding of the ceasefire from both sides. Doing it right requires a lot of work and preparation. First, there must be a monitoring agency, usually a neutral party from another country, with the mandate to investigate alleged violations. Are the Thai Army or the BRN ready for this?

Last year, the Thai government didn’t think about a monitoring mechanism until after the Ramadan ceasefire came into effect. They turned to the National Human Rights Commission, an agency which the junta ripped apart soon after the 2014 coup. After the ceasefire ended, the government had the audacity to call it a “success”, simply because the BRN combatants did not carry out any attacks.

Incidentally, BRN combatants did not waste any time reminding the Thais that nothing comes easily in this historically contested region. A series of all out vicious attacks were launched just days after the ceasefire ended, dashing any hopes among the Thais that the so-called “success” was something they could build on.

The COVID-19 pandemic was an opportunity for BRN to take the moral high ground, which they did cleverly. Unfortunately, the Thai government negotiators did not have the courage to tell the Army that the right thing to do was to respond positively to the BRN goodwill gesture.

For 24 months, between the unilateral ceasefire coming into effect in April 2020 to April 2022, at the start of the Ramadan ceasefire, at least 64 combatants had been killed in a series of lopsided standoffs. The most interesting part is that only one surrendered to the security forces. The rest fought to the death, knowing that their chance of making it out alive was next to nothing.

If anything, the all-or-nothing response from the Thai Army was a stern statement to the BRN combatants: surrender or die fighting. There was no long-term plan, much less anything that is even close to what would qualify as counter insurgency, or COIN, an operation with the goal of winning the hearts and minds of the local Malays, as a way to undermine support of the BRN. Such policy and strategy required sophistication and sensibility, the two things the Thai government and the Army do not seem to have.

More than 7,300 people have died since January 2004 in insurgency-related incidents, and yet, the peace process is yet to move beyond confidence building and onto something concrete. All the while, fighters on both sides of the political divide are killing one another, as the so-called representatives from both sides negotiate the text of the COHA.

The reported gunfight on January 20th, 2023, rubs many people in this region the wrong way, both Buddhists and Muslims. Ramadan is just around the corner and many are wondering if there will be another ceasefire, like last year. If there is, one can be sure that the Thais probably didn’t learn anything from the last year’s ceasefire.

The Thai Army takes comfort in the fact that they are victorious on the battlefield, never mind that the government forces possess superior firepower. Perhaps they forgot that they are not fighting a conventional war.

Like any other insurgency, violence in the Patani conflict is a form of communicative action. If COIN requires the state actor to win the hearts and minds of the locals, then Thailand has failed miserably. The conflict in Patani is essentially political in nature: An ethno-nationalist group taking up arms to liberate their homeland from an invading force.

Thailand is clumsily bringing religion (Islam) into this thinking, believing that it will help speed up certain things. Such a tactic risks turning the conflict into a religious one.

If they bothered to look at Islamic history, they will see that Ramadan has no bearing on wars or conflict, starting with the Battle of Badr, the first large scale battle between the first Muslims and the non-believers of Mecca.

In the Malay context, the Tak Bai massacre was carried out during Ramadan. Security officers didn’t seem to care what month it was, as they fired into an unarmed crowd, killing half a dozen unarmed men and stacking the survivors, one on top another, on the back of military transport trucks, suffocating 78 to death along the way.

For the time being, many in the region, and the rest of Thailand, are hoping for meaningful change with the upcoming election. For Patani, it is hoped that the next government will seek support and advice from members of the international community about how to conduct a peace process with integrity.

It is also hoped that the international community will continue to engage with the Patani conflict. Indeed, Thailand needs all the help it can get, especially when it comes to humanitarian principles and norms.

Perhaps someone, somewhere in Thailand will have the courage to state clearly that it was a big mistake to kick the International Committee for the Red Cross out from the Patani region.

By Asmadee Bueheng