Banners carrying the message "Democracy = Patani Peace" in Malay, Thai and English found in Yala on 12 May 2023. (Photo from Isra News)
On 12 May 2023, two days before Thailand’s general election, 19 banners carrying the same message were found in 8 districts of the country’s southernmost provinces. In some places, there is nothing special about hanging banners with political messages. In this region, where a deadly conflict between the Thai state and Malay Muslim insurgents has continued for nearly 20 years, such actions are often reported as ‘security cases’ and ‘perpetrators’ are tracked down by security forces. In this instance, the banners carried the same message in Malay, Thai and English: “Democracy = Patani Peace.”
The message fits with the hopes of the BRN members I know in Malaysia. As an ex-combatant told me, “The dialogue process with the military government is like driving around the same roundabout without any exit. The delegates only talk about the same topic - ‘reduction of violence’ - again and again. No progress”.
BRN members I interviewed all expressed their wish to go back to their homeland, Patani. However, none of them are willing to join the ‘Bring People Home Project’, described as ‘a half-baked amnesty program.’ They feel that joining it is equal to surrendering to the state as wrongdoers. They want to go home (not be ‘brought home’) with dignity as Patani freedom fighters. Given that a final peace agreement between the Thai government and the insurgents is still very far away, one of the very few chances for them to go home with dignity would be to grant them immunity for participating in public consultation, a substantive issue agreed upon as a general principle of the peace dialogue process. Instead, the Thai delegation only offered ‘security guarantees’ to BRN members who are willing to participate. The offer is almost meaningless, for BRN do not trust security guarantee from the Thai state. As another ex-combatant in Malaysia said, “If immunity is granted, I’d like to join the working team for public consultation. Even if I get shot dead, I’ll be happy because I can be a shahid (martyr) although I’m no longer involved in armed struggle.”
The Thai delegate has repeatedly talked about ‘reduction of violence’, another substantive issue contained in the general principles. They want an arrangement to the one adopted during the Ramadan Peace Initiative, a 40-day-long de facto ceasefire during the Muslim fasting month in 2022. BRN believes that such arrangements are no longer necessary for mutual trust building. In their opinion, what should be tabled for discussion is a formal ceasefire or a COHA (cessation of hostilities agreement) in order to conduct public consultation simultaneously. Anas Abdulrahman, the head of the BRN delegate, further asserted that the agreement for a formal ceasefire and public consultation must be witnessed by international actors, and that implementations in the field should be monitored by both internal and external teams. Anas insists that the process is accepted by the military wing of the organisation, but their representatives are not yet involved in the BRN delegates. Nonetheless, he said the military wing would be formally involved in the dialogue when the time comes to talk about a formal ceasefire. “But it is useless to call them for the meeting as the Thai side is always talking about reduction of violence.”
A politician from MFP told to the author after the election that his party has no objection whatsoever against granting immunity for conducting public consultation and involvement of international or foreign actors in monitoring. This conversation took place when there was a hope that Thailand would have a new democratic government. The party was not against setting up a parliamentary commission for monitoring the peace process, and granting the process a status as a national agenda. The MP thought that it would be highly unlikely for a peace agreement to be achieved in the next 4 years. However, he felt it would be possible to demonstrate to local people that 4 years under the new democratic government was much better than 8 years under the old military one and added that the new government would try to make concrete progress towards a final peace agreement.
BRN’s expectations for a new democratic government were very high. Two politicians were often mentioned as people with a broad understanding of the issues - Romadorn Panjor from MFP and Kannavee Suebsang from Fair Party. Romadorn is an academic and the editor of a well-known research institute in the region, Deepsouth Watch. Kannavee has considerable working experience in the region - both with the UN and the National Security Council of Thailand. If an MFP coalition formed the government, the two were slated to be given positions relating to the southern problem.
This did not happen. Instead Pita Limjaroenrat, the head of MFP was temporarily suspended as an MP for alleged violations of election law. Then, the Pheu Thai Party (PTP) made a drastic move to ‘put an end to the country’s political polarisation’, forming a new coalition with conservative parties under military influence. Finally, on 12 August, after more than three months of political vacuum, Setha Thaveesin, a real estate developer from PTP, was appointed the 30th Prime Minister of Thailand. Now almost all prospects for the peace process appear to be gone.
Some people might argue that the process will make headway because the new coalition has at least two experienced negotiators: PTP’s Paradorn Pattanathabutr, a former secretary general of the NSC and the Thai delegate head, and Thawee Sodsong, a former secretary general of the Southern Border Provinces Administration Centre (SBPAC). Both were involved with the Thai dialogue team in 2013 under the Yingluck administration. Their experience cannot be denied. As the new government is still under the strong influence of conservative institutions and the military, it remains to be seen if they will be able to offer new concessions.
Progress for the peace process under the new government will largely depend on how democratic it is. The more democratic, the more the process will be made. A good beginning would be to restore the former name of the process. The Prayuth administration changed it from ‘santiphap’ to ‘santisuk’. The first term suggests a positive peace where all or at least most of the causes of a conflict are dealt with. The latter appears to mean little more than the absence of violence. If the new government restores the old name of the process, one invented by PTP in 2013, it might indicate decreasing influence of the military. If the ‘santisuk’ talks continue, however, discussants will be back on the roundabout.
 Isra News Agency, Southern insurgents hung banners supporting democracy in connection with peace [in Thai], 12 May 2023. https://www.isranews.org/article/south-slide/118504-fabricbannerbrnflag....
 A BRN ex-combatant, interviewed in Kelantan, Malaysia, May 2023.
 Benar News, Southern Thai Peace Talks Hit Snag Over Rebel Group’s Demand. 29 March 2018. https://www.benarnews.org/english/commentaries/far-south-view/Don-Pathan...
 The Malay text of the General Principle is available on https://twitter.com/jurucakap/status/1586765790325477376
 A BRN ex-combatant, interviewed in Kelantan, Malaysia, May 2023.
 Anas Abdulrahman, head of the BRN delegate, interviewed in Kelantan, Malaysia, May 2023.
 An MP from Moving Forward Party, Pattani, July 2023.