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Paving the way for peace talks in southern Thailand
Jim Middleton interviews the director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Thailand, Thitinan Pongsudhirak.


For years now a bloody conflict has been claiming thousands of lives in southern Thailand, with few signs of a way to bring the fighting to an end. Earlier this month, the Thai government signed its first ever deal with a Muslim rebel group, paving the way for peace talks after a decade of bloodshed.

But already the mainly ethnically Malay provinces have been hit by fresh attacks.

Jim Middleton speaks to Thitinan Pongsudhirak.
Transcript
JIM MIDDLETON:
Thitinan Pongsudhirak, welcome to the program.

THITINAN PONGSUDHIRAK, CHULALONGKORN UNIVERSITY, SINGAPORE: My pleasure.

JIM MIDDLETON: First of all, just how much a breakthrough is this?

THITINAN PONGSUDHIRAK: It's a significant step of course to begin any kind of peace talks for a deadly insurgency in southern Thailand, it's one of the deadliest in the world. But we have to be realistic about our expectations.

I think it is one thing for the government and one group of the insurgents to sit down and say that they want to pursue peace. But there are many other steps along the way, many other parties involved. The insurgent groups are several and they have not all joined the peace talks. Also the Thai government has many agencies. The main agency the government is using is the National Security Council. But the army's involved, the border patrol police, the rangers, the internal security operations command and so on.

So we have some inter-agency competition and rivalries in Thailand. And on the other hand the insurgents groups are not unified in their chain of command.

JIM MIDDLETON: We will come to the views of the various views of the various arms of the Thai government in a moment. But for now who are the BRN (Barisan Revolusi Nasional)? Do they represent most of the insurgents? And, more importantly perhaps, do they represent the aspirations of all the insurgents?

THITINAN PONGSUDHIRAK: This we do not know.

The Thai Government suggests that the BRN is the main organ of the insurgency. But the studies that we know involves the BRNC, the BRN Coordinate is the main operational arm of the insurgents, and there are other groups as well.

So there is a possibility here that we need to be talking to the right people. I think the BRN has come to the peace table, that's good because that will now force the insurgents to come to term, to come to agreement among themselves. Some may not join the peace talks and it may take time to come around. And for the Thai government also this will this force them to streamline their command chain of command.

We don't know who the perpetrators are, but we know they have some command and control on the ground to perpetrate violence at will. It has claimed more than 5300 people now in nine years and there is no end to it. The Thai government cannot put an ends to it, but yet the insurgents cannot win completely either. They know that they want to have more autonomy but they have to make their demands clear. They have to make their leadership clear. They also have to have some kind of mandate and some objectives about what they want.

JIM MIDDLETON: Now to the different arms of the Thai government. As you mentioned, the army was not directly involved and, yet, it is responsible for security in the south. Is there a suggestion that the army's less than enthusiastic about this process?

THITINAN PONGSUDHIRAK: The army is ambivalent about this process because so far it has considerable latitude on the southern policy. The army also has a lot of corporate interest involved. It has a big budget., it has a promotions, it has personnel. There's a big army presence in the deep south. So it is not that enthusiastic about the peace talks. In fact, if the peace talks are completely successful, the army would have to stay on the sidelines, go back to the barracks. This is something that would go against their interests.

Somehow the Thai government has to exert authority over the military, over the army.

JIM MIDDLETON: Do you think this government, the government of Yingluck Shinawatra, is capable of holding together of unifying the approach of the Thai side in these negotiations?

THITINAN PONGSUDHIRAK: Yingluck's preceedings governments have not been successful. No-one has been successful. The death toll is mounting. There is no peace in sight. So the expectations are low.

However, expectations now are very high because they have publicised it. So the more we see this in the public eye, in the public domain in the news headlines, it's not a good sign. So they need to be very private, very discreet, until - up to a point where they can gain some ground and make some progress and then they can publicise a little bit.

Yingluck, you have to remember, that Thaksin, her brother Thaksin Shinawatra, is also at play here. He was in Malaysia before. Malaysia is not the right kind of broker for us because the Thai people they that Malaysia is very close the insurgents. You know, the insurgents are Malay Muslims really. So somehow if we have to have a broker from the region it might have to be Indonesia or some outside mediator.

JIM MIDDLETON: You mentioned the involvement of Thaksin Shinawatra. There's a certain irony here because it was actions of the military when he was Prime minister back in 2004 by led to the serious escalation of the conflict in southern Thailand.

THITINAN PONGSUDHIRAK: You are spot on. This flared up in 2004 in January under Thaksin's watch and it exacerbated in October 2004. If you remember Thaksin was in charge, personally in charge that day when Malay Muslim protesters were arrested and abused and 78 of them died. That episode, that incident radicalised many young Malay Muslims. And we have known now from evidence that a lot of the death toll, the perpetrators involve those people who were at that day.

So it's ironic and perhaps counterproductive for Thaksin to be so involved so much. He has to perhaps play a more detached sideline role in favour of someone else, and certainly with Yingluck in the lead. Because otherwise we will not have the climate of trust when the people who have suffered under Thaksin's time are having to make peace with Thaksin.

JIM MIDDLETON: Thitinan Pongsudhirak, we had better leave it there. Thanks very much.
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