As Malaysian and Thai leaders prepare to meet in Bangkok to revive a stalled peace process for Thailand’s violence-wracked southern border provinces, the region’s Malay-Muslim rebels have moved to assert their own stance on what will and will not work in resolving a 15-year-old separatist conflict that has already claimed more than 7,000 lives and raised perennial fears of a spill-over into jihadist radicalization.

In a rare interview with Asia Times outside Thailand last week, spokesmen for the notoriously secretive Patani-Malay National Revolutionary Front – better known by its Malay initials BRN – sought to strike a conciliatory tone, stressing flexibility and a readiness for “sincere and authentic” negotiations with Bangkok. 

But Abdul Karim Khalid, the party’s official spokesman who had earlier appeared in statements released on YouTube, also warned that any attempt to railroad through a revamped process without considering the BRN’s proposals would mean “there will be no peace or security” in the border provinces.

Coming only days before an impending Bangkok summit on October 24 between Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and his Malaysian counterpart Mahathir Mohamad, the interview was clearly timed to remind both governments of the BRN’s centrality in the conflict: since violence escalated in early 2004 the movement has been the predominant insurgent force in the majority-Muslim provinces of Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat and parts of neighboring Songkhla and is now believed to control virtually all the separatist violence in the region.

New pointman

At the same time the rebel officials emphasized at length their political independence as a Patani-Malay organization that would resist back-room arm-twisting as Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok turn to key new appointments to resuscitate a clearly floundering peace process.

Following confirmation that Malaysia was willing to continue to serve as the “facilitator” for talks that started in 2013, in August Mahathir’s new administration replaced process pointman Ahmad Zamzamin Hashim, a former senior intelligence official, with Abdul Rahim Noor.

Seen as a hard-nosed operator, Noor, now 75, served as national police chief between 1994 and 1999 and earlier as head of the Police Special Branch (SB). Malaysia’s leading internal security and intelligence agency, SB is tasked with monitoring Patani-Malay separatist exiles living in Malaysia – and advising them of Kuala Lumpur’s preferences in responding to the conflict.

In Bangkok, meanwhile, Prime Minister Prayuth has also switched the Thai peace delegation chief, replacing soft-spoken former general Aksara Kerdpol with former general Udomchai Thammasaroraj.

A one-time southern region army commander who since retiring in 2013 had served as the head of a government advisory panel on the insurgency, Udomchai is seen as an experienced southern insider.

The last four years of talks overseen by Zamzamin have achieved remarkably little. On-off meetings in Malaysia have involved the Thai team interfacing with a separatist umbrella group known as MARA Patani. Of MARA’s five component factions, several are effectively defunct and none are known to control any armed following inside Thailand. 

Cobbled together by the Malaysian authorities and based in Malaysia under the watchful eye of SB, MARA has been dismissed by the BRN’s leadership, which had pointedly declined to join the talks.

No recognition

“Elements of coercion that we see towards parties in the MARA process are not something that BRN views as constructive, “noted Abdul Karim, who was flanked in the interview by an English-speaking BRN official identified simply as Kauthar. “And that’s the reason why we are not involved.”

For its part, the Thai team, fearful of according official legitimacy to a separatist organization of any stripe, had refused to formally recognize MARA as such, insisting that minutes of meetings refer only to “Party A” – the Thai team – and “Party B” – the MARA team. On the Patani side of the table, Thai unwillingness to recognize that their interlocutors even have a name has rankled throughout.

To the extent they have gained any traction at all, talks have turned largely on a Thai request that as a confidence building measure, MARA establish its credentials by establishing a “safety zone” in the border region.

In theory, the plan would involve a ceasefire initially in one pilot district – possibly later expanded to other districts – where the insurgents would suspend hostilities for a trial month. However, given that MARA controls no forces on the ground, and that the BRN – which has demonstrated command-and-control over rebel attacks – has turned its back on the entire process, the safety zone scheme has suffered a lingering bureaucratic death.

In flagging their own very different roadmap for negotiations, the BRN spokesmen who met with Asia Times stressed three broad points which they described as comprising a “concept” or “framework” for talks, rather than rigid preconditions. 

The first related to the primacy of the two belligerents in any dialogue which, they added, should also recognize the interests of other stakeholders in the region.

“We need to be very clear that when we talk of building a process together we are talking about the BRN and the Thai government – the two principal parties to the conflict,” said Abdul Karim. “The conflict is between these two parties, so obviously negotiations should be between them.

International involvement

“But this does not mean that other stakeholders are not important and the BRN has never rejected the principle of inclusivity,” he added. “The question is how to include other stakeholders in a way that is both sensible and effective. If the issue of inclusivity is not approached sensibly it will only go to undermine the whole process.”

The BRN’s second concern centered on what in the past the party has referred to as “international values and norms” – specifically the need to involve the international community in a mediatory or observer role at future talks. Any mediatory mechanism such as an international contact group or observer team would, as Kauthar put it, need to be “impartial, credible, authoritative and free of conflicts of interests.”

Running up hard against Bangkok’s long-standing insistence that the conflict remains a purely domestic issue, the demand for the involvement of an international entity beyond the role of Malaysia – which clearly cannot be impartial – constitutes a significant sticking-point.

The rebel spokesmen’s third point constituted a leitmotif running throughout the hour-long interview: that to resort to “force and coercion” would be counter-productive and that “mutual respect” was a pre-condition to progress.

This recurrent theme appeared to imply growing unhappiness over how Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok have interpreted Kuala Lumpur’s “facilitation” role to date, and real concern that under Malaysia’s new hard-knuckled facilitator further pressure, now targeted directly on the BRN, may be looming.

“We have not refused meetings with the Malaysian facilitator,” said Kauthar. “But on what basis are these talks being held? The basis we desire is that the facilitator should listen to and take into consideration BRN’s position.

“We have a clear concept for negotiations which needs to be understood both by the Malaysian facilitator and the Thai government as the other party to the conflict,” he added.

How far, if at all, the BRN’s roadmap for peace gains a hearing, let alone traction, in Bangkok later this week remains an open question at best. Significant declines in rebel attacks over recent months hardly suggest that the party is urging its case from a position of military strength.

What does seem clear though is that attempts to strong-arm the rebels into a process they have already rejected will likely back-fire painfully, fanning more rather than less violence in Thailand’s troubled south.