Talks for peace in the South

A local civic group dubbed “Patani Forum” has proposed that the Thai Buddhist state seriously consider accommodating greater Malayu Muslim narratives about “self-determination” since this quest will not go away and neither will the violence in the Deep South.

Launched over a year ago, the Muslim activists, who include academics and media personnel, have gathered streams of opinions from Muslims in various areas including the Northeast and the North as well as Bangkok on the issue of the “peace talks” between people linked to separatist movements and the Thai authorities.

They also reached out to certain links with the insurgents and got inside information of the make-up of those involved in previous talks with the Thai authorities, which mostly took place overseas.

The Patani Forum finally launched a bilingual report “Negotiating a Peaceful Coexistence between the Malays of Patani and the Thai State” on Tuesday night in a Bangkok hotel to a Thai and foreign audience.

Don Pathan, key member of the Forum and a journalist with The Nation, gave a briefing on who participated and how in the Lankawai, Bogor, and Kuala Lumpur processes and why the talks failed.

Despite the colour-coded political instability, the Yingluck administration should continue to “get buy-in” from the general Buddhist-majority public to a peace process, said Mr Don, now a Yala resident.

“These should not be secret talks but should embrace policy. Muslims in the Deep South need a narrative that reflects the desires and identity of the Malayu Muslims. With appropriate accommodation (from the Thai state), the emerging path or process will in a way pressure juwae (insurgents) to get to the (negotiating) table, hence fewer casualties,” said Mr Don.

Yet he recognized that how this process develops in a meaningful way is linked to the level of trust and confidence between civil society and state agencies, namely the National Security Council and the military.

Gestures that could be considered concessions, Don suggested, could be recognition of their heroes; “Naming Haji Sulong Avenue like the American Whites names streets for the Black hero Martin Luther King. Or a course or quota for hundreds of Muslim students to be trained as nurses or medics.”

Ekkarin Tuansiri, a lecturer at Prince of Songkhla University’s Pattani Campus and a member of the Patani Forum, said negotiation on special administrative modalities was not in itself a means, as experience elsewhere in the world showed that split states did not always perform well or become corruption-free or economically sustainable.

But talks and engagement between separatists and the ruling state on an equal footing were needed as the only way forward, said Mr Ekkarin, adding that the Forum has engaged, and still engages, on the issue with other groups of people, including Buddhists and state authorities.

The Forum conceded that factors contributing to the failure of peace talks were not only the lack of political will in Bangkok and the monolithic Thainess ideology but from the disunity and lack of transparency on the separatist side as well.

Zakee Pitakumpol, a political scientist at Prince of Songkhla University’s Had Yai Campus, commented that peace talks remained a taboo for Thai society.  As soon as the term popped up, fear of splitting or separating from the Thai state clouded the mindset of not only officials but the public in general.

“When former Prime Minister Surayud Julanond offered an apology in 2007, there were no subsequent strategies or steps from the Thai state apparatus to move forward. This positive gesture, which could have been a stepping stone toward more peaceful relations, was therefore negated,” said Mr Zakee, who conceded that faces of those in the insurgent cells have yet to emerge and engage the general public on the ground.

The 119-page report concluded that since 2005, working relations between the authorities and members of civil society organizations have improved tremendously. These relations could evolve, the Patani Forum recommended, to serve as “internal mediation.”

The report concludes “while the movement understands very well the absence of an honest broker (for peace), many suggest that the peace process could still work without one, as long as the Thais are committed to peace.”

The group was hoping to “pitch” their peace talk projects with audiences in Malaysia and Indonesia next year.

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