The latest meeting of the Join Working Group - Peace Dialogue Process (JWG-PDP) , the official name of the ( unofficial ) peace talk between the Thai (military) Government (TmG) and the Patani liberation movements (MARA Patani), was on 27 April 2016 in Kuala Lumpur. The Head of Party A, Gen Aksara Kerdpol, informed the meeting that the TmG was not ready to endorse the Terms of Reference (TOR) because the Thai Prime Minister has not yet approved it . The real reasons were however not disclosed.
On the following day, 28 April 2016, MARA Patani issued a statement: A brief update of 27 April meeting which was widely circulated in the media. "Although we were disappointed with that decision, it was respected. The Safety Zones issue was not touched at all" the statement said. (See here the English version of the article: 27 April 2016) Mara Patani will give ample time for the TmG to review the agreed TOR and inform the Facilitator of its decision in due course.
The response by the TmG was equally harsh and swift. “…Thailand cannot negotiate with law breakers. It must be based on law and justice process" said the Prime Minister, Gen Prayut Chan-O-Cha. "Why should we accept their demand of how they should be called? You know how many groups there are? You know why the talks were held abroad because they could not be held in the country,” he added. (See here)
Gen Aksara was more diplomatic. "Talks with Deep South rebels are alive but a limited ceasefire must be in place before Thailand can agree to terms for advancing the peace process" Bangkok’s chief negotiator said Friday.
“If there continues to be violence on the ground, the public will not have trust in peace talks,” Gen Aksara Kerdpol said two days after leading a Thai delegation in a meeting in Kuala Lumpur with negotiators from the rebel side.
“Therefore, it is a must to cease violence in certain areas, and then we can join together to prepare a comprehensive TOR [Terms of Reference] spanning over the trust-building stage,” he told reporters in Bangkok. (See here)
At this point it seems that both parties are referring to the much mentioned but the least understood document known as the TOR - Terms of Reference. The fact that the 27 April meeting in which the TOR was supposed to be endorsed ended after 75 minutes, raised questions and speculations. WHAT IS THE TOR? Why is it important? Why Thailand is not endorsed it when it was wrapped up and agreed by both technical teams?
The TOR is nothing but a set of rules and regulations where two or more parties agree to abide by in their interaction with each other. It is a basic requirement for any engagement, be it a game, a race, a business, or any other transactions. In this case it is the on-going peace dialogue between the TmG and MARA Patani. The main purpose is that each party is aware of its position, role, responsibility and limitation in dealing with its counterpart. The most important criteria for the TOR is that it must be agreed upon and accepted by both parties.
It is irrational to strike a deal and agree on some important ventures without any preset rules or guidelines that will bind the parties concerned in their future undertakings. It is more futile, in a peace process, to make agreements on vital issues without the TOR. It is the TOR that will boost the mutual confidence of both parties. In the earlier peace process under the then civilian Prime Minister Ying Luck, the General Consensus was signed on 28 February 2013 and the TOR was easily approved in its first meeting on 5 March 2013 without much hassle.
While it is inappropriate to reveal the detailed content of this TOR when it is still being classified as a "draft", it would be useful for the public and other interested parties to grasp the general idea of what the TOR is all about and how it was discussed.
There are eight articles in this TOR. Without going into details, the overview of the TOR is as follows:
- Article 1 outlines the background of the peace process.
- Article 2 identifies the dialogue parties A (Thailand) and B (MARA Patani).
- Article 3 details the role of the facilitator (Malaysia).
- Article 4 touches on formation of Technical Working Group
- Article 5 determines the Geographical Area.
- Article 6 covers Administrative Arrangements.
- Article 7 deals with the sensitive issue of Security Facilitation and Protection for Party B.
- Article 8 closes with the Amendments and Modification.
The current "draft" TOR acknowledges the initial process that kicked start on 28 February 2013, facilitated by Malaysia. This newly refined TOR aims at starting a formal process while Thailand prioritizes the peace talk as a National Agenda. The controversial word "immunity" is nowhere to be found in the six-page document.
Both parties respectively appointed technical teams to form a Technical Working Group for the TOR. Lt Gen Nakrob Bunbuathong headed Party A while Ustaz Shukri Hari headed Party B. The proposed document was discussed, argued, debated, and scrutinized by the said Technical Working Group. After three rounds of meeting over the period of five months it was finalized and agreed upon on 23 March 2016.
The agreed TOR could pave way for formalizing the process since the three proposals of MARA Patani are incorporated into the TOR (see detail proposals of MARA Patani here). Again it needs to be reminded that they (the three proposals of MARA Patani) are not demands. When the process is formal, more substantial issues could be discussed at a later stage, including the safety zones. The Steering Committee of MARA Patani has approved the finalized TOR earlier in April 2016.
Out of eight articles of the TOR, the crucial ones are articles 2, 5 and 7. They were the hot and sensitive articles that dragged the exhaustive discussions and argument for hours. Article 2 involves the identification of who the Party B is. The TmG proposed "people with different opinion from the State", stopping short at mentioning the name "MARA Patani". In the previous process (2013) it was the BRN. This time around we want to be more specific. The movements are NOT just the BRN but MARA Patani, an umbrella organization formed by six Patani movements. (See: What is MARA Patani?)
We understand the TmG's concern that to accept MARA Patani as its dialogue partner is like giving a recognition and upgrading the status of Patani movements, something the TmG, or any other Thai governments, always avoid to commit. Refusing to accept your dialogue partner by not mentioning the proper name means disrespect and narrow-mindedness. It just show that one is not truthful in the interaction with one's counterpart.
Gen Aksara's claim the on-going violence as a reason not to accept MARA Patani or the TOR is baseless and unacceptable. Most peace experts agree that violence does NOT stop immediately when a peace process starts. In some cases the violence even escalates. And don't forget that violence is from BOTH sides and from other unidentified groups, not from the movements alone.
According to Gen Aksara, it also is unclear whether MARA Patani has legitimate standing as an umbrella body negotiating on behalf of rebels and whether the rebel ranks are united behind it.“Like I have said before, they do not have a clear status while we do have an order from the Prime Minister office [to conduct negotiations]. So, I said, we should continue to build mutual trust,” Aksara added. (See here)
As far as MARA Patani is concerned we request the Party A to acknowledge, not necessarily recognize, that we are its de facto dialogue partner i.e. the Party B is no other than MARA Patani. . The golden question to be asked here is "How one could be considered sincere and truthful when one can't even mention his dialogue partner's name?"
The discussion on geographical area as designated by article 5 went fairly well. Initially MARA Patani proposed five provinces based on the definition of the Southern Border Provinces. Later it was settled as 3 provinces (Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat) and four districts in Songkhla, while Satun and Sadao, though not included in the TOR, the Technical Working Group agreed that both are to be recorded in the minute of meeting for future discussion. This would enable the people in both areas to self-determine whether they want to be part of the political settlement in the future or to maintain the status quo.
The most touchy but fiery discussion was on article 7, initially focused on "immunity". The word "immunity" was rather sensitive to the TmG, so we have to come up with an alternative word or phrase “Security Facilitation and Protection for Party B". It implies giving safety guarantee travelling into/out of Thailand and protection from detention and persecution during the passage and stay for purposes related to peace effort.
This fair treatment, like any other peace processes elsewhere, is to enable members of Party B to perform their political duties undisturbed and their missions uninterrupted. Although the word "immunity" is not found in any part of the TOR, the issue was agreed by both sides to be noted in the minute of meeting pending future discussion. To establish safety zones or limited cease-fire in future the immunity issue needs to be revived and debated because it will involve the exposure of Party B members in the designated zones.
Regarding the proposal of the peace process be adopted as a "National Agenda", it was no longer an issue. Both parties agreed to put that in writing in the TOR as a guarantee of continuity of the process in the event of change of government. The TmG has affirmed repeatedly in several occasions and documents, including the commitment pledged to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in 2007, that resolving the conflict is prioritized as a National Agenda.
Lately, there have been some unfavorable statements from the government .The Prime Minister sarcastically labeled us as "law breakers", while Gen Aksara indicated that we, MARA Patani , do have a clear status , hence do not deserve immunity or safety protection. MARA Patani members consider both statements insulting and unwarranted.
"We don't want to have peace talk", said the Prime Minister. “Since it was initiated by the previous government, we are bound to continue knowing that it could not solve any problem", he added. "The previous government insisted doing it so we are forced to follow up. I say NO, I will not call them MARA Patani and will not recognize anyone. It is against the law". (See here)
We do not intend to be rude, but it is worth cautioning them that their status is equally questionable. The fact that this government came to power illegally through a coup, which if failed, would be considered as rebels and subject to execution according to Thai law. We also would like to remind Prime Minister Prayut of his trip to Kuala Lumpur on 1 December 2014 to meet Prime Minister Najib Razak requesting the peace process be resumed and for Malaysia to facilitate the talk, very much contradicts his negative statement above.
In any peace process, reciprocal respect and sound diplomacy is important if both parties are sincere and want to succeed. We need to cooperate not to hinder. We need to be open-minded and flexible not being narrow-minded and rigid. We need compromise and conciliation not unyielding and confrontation. Explore each other’s' needs and concerns, working together for the best possible way to accomplish peace that is just, conprehensive and sustainable for the people of Patani, regardless of their ethnicity, religion or class they belong to.
About the author: Abu Hafez Al-Hakim is a member of MARA Patani Dialogue Panel. The views expressed in this article are personally his and do not reflect the official views of MARA Patani