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Before the Peace Dialogue is resumed

 

When Thai Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin met his Malaysian counterpart Anwar Ibrahim in November, they did not discuss the conflict in Thailand's Deep South. As the Thai government prepares for a new round of peace talks, Hara Shintaro writes that there is a need for more public participation in the peace process.

(Photo from The Thai government website)

On 27 November, the Prime Minister of Thailand, Srettha Thavisin, met his Malaysian counterpart, Anwar Ibrahim, at the Sadao border checkpoint, for discussions on bilateral border trade, border security and tourism. Strangely but not surprisingly, there were no news reports that issues related to the conflict in the southern border provinces of Thailand or Patani were discussed by the two leaders. The place of the meeting, Sadao District of Songkhla Province, borders several districts within the conflict area, but the district itself is generally not regarded as a part of it; so perhaps it was the best place to talk about trade, development and tourism without touching upon the sensitive issues of the conflict and the peace dialogue to seek a peaceful settlement for that.

Apparently the peace dialogue process has never been a priority for the current government, led by someone from the business world. However, there were some significant moves related to this issue. On the same date as the meeting, the Thai Prime Minister appointed Chatchai Bangchuad, one of the deputy secretaries-general of the National Security Council (NSC), as the new chief of the Thai peace dialogue panel. His previous involvement in the peace dialogue as the deputy to the former Thai delegation chief General Wanlop Rugsanaoh can guarantee at least a certain level of continuity. More significantly, Chatchai is the very first civilian to lead the peace dialogue panel. Before him, Thailand had four chiefs, and all were from a military background. According to the appointment letter, the new panel has six members (including the chief), and includes the Secretary-General of the Southern Border Provinces Administration Centre (SBPAC), representatives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Justice, the NSC, and Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC) Region 4. Although the Secretary-General of SBPAC and the representative of ISOC Region 4 are soldiers, the dominance of the military in the coming dialogue panel is less conspicuous compared to the previous ones.

Prior to this development, on 11 October, the Thai Parliament agreed to set up a parliamentary select committee to support the peace process following a motion jointly submitted by the Move Forward Party, Pheu Thai Party, Prachachart Party and Bhumjaithai Party. This select committee is led by Chaturon Chaisaeng, an important veteran politician of Pheu Thai Party, and has two sub-committees: one for studying and enhancing productivity of the peace negotiation process, and the other for dealing with public participation in the peace process. Notably, in the names of the committee and sub-committees, the Thai term used for ‘peace’ is not ‘santisuk’ but ‘santiphap’. When the peace process first began in 2013, the process was named a santiphap process. This term is generally used to refer to ‘peace’. However, the junta changed the name to santisuk, which implies ‘domestic order’, ‘absence of violence’ or even ‘negative peace’. This change was prompted by the military’s obsession that a proper peace process might internationalise the conflict and its settlement. This change was in fact a desperate effort of the junta to contain the issue as a purely domestic one.[1] The restoration of the original name of ‘santipap’ for the parliamentary committee and its sub-committees might be seen as a small step forward in democratising the process.  

So far participation in the peace process has been limited to dialogue panel members, but these committees could open opportunities for various actors, such as politicians (not only MPs but also a number of ex-MPs and local politicians), academics, human rights defenders and activists. These committees also can function as a repository of information and knowledge on the peace process for the government side. On top of that, this mechanism might be able to become a gateway for the conflict issues in Patani to be discussed in Parliament. Although at this moment not much outcome can be expected, any future final peace accord must be authorised by Parliament. The very existence of this committee would be a sound preparation for a peace agreement to be translated into relevant laws.

Even though the Thai government is not yet fully prepared to launch the new round of the peace talks (for instance, the position of Secretary-General of the NSC is still vacant), preparations are going on. The new round of the peace dialogue must advance farther than the talks under the military government. Under the junta, the peace process made hardly any substantial progress. Although both sides agreed on three substantive issues (reduction of violence, public consultation and political solutions), only the first issue was discussed. Nonetheless, it remains unclear whether the new round of talks can make any tangible progress or not.

The appointment of a civilian as the head of the dialogue panel is certainly a positive change. However, the tasks and decision-making power allocated to the chief of the dialogue team are still highly limited. This is in contrast with the BRN counterpart. Anas Abdulrahman, BRN’s chief negotiator, told the author that he was given a full mandate from the party’s (BRN) leaders to make decisions related to the issues on the table.[2] This lack of authority on the Thai side is among the main reasons for its reluctance to sign any agreement document. This, in turn, has caused a high level of dissatisfaction on the BRN’s side. Unless more decision-making power is allocated to the Thai dialogue panel, not much progress can be expected from the new round of talks.

The term used for the first of the three substantive issues, reduction of violence, is also problematic. It is too ambiguous to be a topic of serious discussion. For instance, if the number of violent incidents in the conflict area declines by, say, 20 percent, is this what is meant by reduction of violence? One of the BRN’s dialogue panel members informed the author that the armed group was ready for a more concrete and formal type of reduction of violence, such as a ceasefire or cessation of hostilities.[3] The Thai side has always avoided these terms for fear of upgrading the peace process. However, talking about such an obscure notion as reduction of violence is merely wasting precious time. It should be formalised in a tangible arrangement, even if it entails signing agreement documents.

For the new round in the peace process, public consultation will be a significant indicator of progress. Political solutions to the conflict that will highly likely involve structural changes in administration seem out of the reach of the current government. It will take at least several more years to achieve an agreement of any meaningful quality that can bring about positive peace in the region. Public consultation is a form of public participation and can make the process more inclusive and accordingly more stable. Inputs from local people in the conflict area are crucial to come up with holistic, sustainable solutions. At this moment, most of the local people in this area, either Muslims or Buddhists, still feel that the peace process is something always going over their heads. The creation of a sense of ownership is another challenge to be tackled in the new round of talks.

Thawee Sodsong, leader of the Prachachart Party and former Secretary-General of the SBPAC, is currently in the position of Minister of Justice. He was also involved in the first round of the peace dialogue together with the then Secretary-General of the NSC, Paradorn Pattanathabutr. This is a good opportunity for him to demonstrate strong engagement in the peace dialogue by providing legal immunity to BRN members in conducting public consultations when both sides reach some agreement.

In order to enhance public participation, inclusivity and a sense of ownership, the roles played by the facilitator are crucial. So far, there have been three facilitators, but none of them has ever communicated sufficiently with the local population in the conflict area. As a consequence, at least some sections of the local population believe that instead of acting as an honest broker, Malaysian facilitators have served national interests. Moreover, those BRN members close to the dialogue panel told the author that the facilitator still continues to pressure them. An ex-combatant in Malaysia said “Malaysia does not facilitate the dialogue. It’s always trying to direct the course of the dialogue.” If the United Nations Guidance for Effective Mediation is used as a norm, there are several aspects which Malaysia should improve in order to handle this complicated process successfully.  

BRN, as a dialogue partner of the Thai government, should demonstrate its serious engagement in political struggle. Although the current situation is not yet conducive to discard the use of violence altogether, the organisation should make continuous efforts to shifts its emphasis more toward political struggle. In this matter, communication is one of the keys. BRN must reduce its reliance on unilateral communication. In addition, communications from BRN are still in the nature of responses to current issues. More regular and interactive communication channels will bring far more benefit to the organisation than unilateral messages.

At this point we still do not know exactly when the peace dialogue is to resume. Although political solutions are still far away, the new civilian government should present discernible differences from the previous military government. The process should not always remain stuck around talks on reduction of violence. As long as all parties involved in the process engage seriously, at least some meaningful exchanges on public consultation are not impossible.   

 

[1] For further explanations on these terms, see “From santiphap to santisuk: What Mahathir’s visit to Thailand indicates” by Hara Shintaro. Published on 16 November 2018 via Prachatai English. https://prachatai.com/english/node/7841

[2] Anas Abdulrahman, the head of the BRN dialogue panel, May 2023, Kelantan, Malaysia.

[3] A BRN peace dialogue panel member, November 2023, Terengganu, Malaysia.

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