Thai probe underlines divide in rebel groups

 24 Aug 2016 - 2:42

 

By Don Pathan

Aspate of bombings that killed four people and injured around 35 in Thailand’s south are expected to have negative repercussions on ongoing peace talks between the government and Malay Muslim rebels in the far South.
In spite of silence from policy makers in Bangkok, Thai investigators believe the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) — the largest and most heavily armed of the deep South rebel groups — was behind the August 11-12 spate of attacks.
They were hoping members of an umbrella organisation, MARA Patani — which is claiming to represent many rebel units in peace discussions with the government — could help shed light, or perhaps act as go-between with the BRN, but MARA has decided to give the Thais a cold shoulder.
Thailand’s military government has been in discussion with MARA since 2015, but Thai officials said this week that the unofficial “pre-negotiation” talk will now be pushed to the back burner as it is becoming increasingly clear that MARA could not (or would not) provide information on the perpetrators behind the bombing and arson attacks in seven tourist destinations in the upper south.
Talking to Anatolia on condition of anonymity given the sensitivity of the information, security officials said they were hoping that members of MARA could assist, but were left frustrated — yet unsurprised — by their brush off given junta leader-cum-Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha’s recent dismissiveness of the group.
Although no one has claimed responsibility for the bombings, officials (despite initially stonewalling) now say they believe that the attacks were linked to the trouble in Thailand’s far South, in which more than 7,000 people have been killed since January 2004 when insurgency flared up in the majority Muslim, Malay speaking southernmost border provinces. All fingers, they say, point to the BRN, the one group that Thai and international observers say controls the vast majority of the combatants on the ground.
We tried to seek comment from BRN on the attacks earlier this week, but officials declined a response.
MARA Patani surfaced in August 2015 and made three key demands as attempted to negotiate: immunity for all key members, official recognition of the group as the government’s counterpart in the peace talks, and to make the negotiations to find peace in the south a national agenda. These demands must be met before a formal negotiation process can take place, they said.
From August 2015 to April 2016, representatives from the two sides met on several occasions to nail out the terms of reference (TOR) for a formal process, but when it came to signing the TOR, Thailand balked.
Chan-ocha told reporters in April that he could not recognize MARA because the organisation was associated with “criminal” elements.
Thai officials, however, claim that reference to “criminals” — combatants on the ground — was just a convenient excuse. The real reason they say has to do with Bangkok’s unwillingness to grant any Patani Malay separatist movement any more legitimacy than they think they deserve.
Moreover, said the source, Chan-ocha does not believe that MARA has any influence over combatants on the ground.
In spite of the ill feeling stemming from Chan-ocha’s statement, the two sides are expected to meet early next month in Kuala Lumpur to continue with the TOR, although Thai officials say any reference agreement will be “very diluted”.
Although MARA Patani does have a handful of self-proclaimed BRN members on its executive board, combatants on the ground have said that they do not take orders from the organisation or the self-proclaimed representatives.
Since its existence, MARA has consistently tried to make itself relevant. This includes reaching out to the international community, including the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the 57-member world body made up of Muslim countries.
MARA met an OIC delegation in Kuala Lumpur last January in spite of objection from the Bangkok government, but during the OIC Summit in Turkey this year, the Thai government succeeded in convincing OIC not to make any reference to MARA Patani in the final communique.
In the past, such ambiguity over the extent of MARA’s influence over combatants on the ground has played in their favor, as they know that Thailand desperately wants to curb daily violence to show the public that the military is progressing in the right direction.
On its launch, in August 2015, the movement claimed to have some 9,000 fighters on the ground, but over time — as insurgents continued to carry out attacks while violating humanitarian principles — MARA decided to recalibrate their position and distance themselves from the old claim.
One example was a March 2016 operation in Narathiwat’s Cho Ai Rong district, when scores of separatist militants used a local hospital to stage an attack on the army’s Paramilitary Ranger unit next door.
BRN said the attacks were meant to discredit the Thai-MARA peace initiative because the very district in which the ranger unit was located was poised to be designated as a cease-fire zone.
As a way to test if MARA has any influence with the combatants on the ground, Thai negotiators had requested that three districts in Thailand’s far South come under a so-called “safety zone”. BRN insurgents on the ground, however, sabotaged the plan to show that they were the ones in control of the situation, according to a source in the movement.
After a barrage of criticism from local residents and human rights organisations, MARA decided to play it safe by denying any involvement and criticising the use of a hospital as a staging ground.
BRN, which now sees MARA as a rival (as the two compete to win over combatants on the ground), has said that in spite of the criticism of the use of the hospital, discrediting the Thailand-MARA peace initiative was well worth it. And the security sources say the August 11-12 bombings were another moment of truth for MARA.
“MARA Patani has chosen to play it safe by distancing themselves from insurgency violence in the deep South, especially the ones that clearly violate humanitarian norms,” said a Thai security officer monitoring the conflict.
Moreover, it has actively come out against the perpetrators, many of whom it at one time claimed to represent.
“I strongly condemn the recent incidents that targeted innocent civilians,” Kasturi Mahkota, a key figure from MARA, said in a statement issued soon after the explosions.
Kasturi is the president of one of the three Patani United Liberation Organisation (PULO) factions, which signed up with MARA last year. With the gap between the groups and those on the ground increasing, questions are being asked as to how talks can possibly continue, with MARA Patani seemingly having little control over the insurgents.
BRN officials have told Anatolia that they will only talk peace with Thailand if they are given the same training in negotiations and diplomacy by the international community and foreign states afforded to rebel groups in Indonesia’s Aceh and the Philippines’ Mindanao.
As for MARA Patani, Thai security officials said they would almost certainly now evolve into a purely political entity and take up social-political issues.
“They could even liaise between Bangkok and BRN, assuming if this is acceptable to all sides,” one official underlined.

Anatolia