The recent visit of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha to Malaysia marks the official resumption of the Deep South peace dialogue. The event is long-awaited since the talks were suspended for one year. I have been watching this development with cautious optimism.
Although more than 6,200 lives have been lost in the decade-long armed southern conflict, political turbulence in the capital has overshadowed the situation on the periphery. In my view, long-lasting peace is most likely to emerge from peace talks and not military suppression.
In February 2013, the government of Yingluck Shinawatra initiated the first formalised peace dialogue with Malay Muslim insurgents led by the Barisan Revolusi Nasional Melayu Patani (BRN). Representatives of the Thai government and the BRN formally met three times in Kuala Lumpur with facilitation from the Malaysian government.
The BRN made five key demands, the most important of which was a call for Bangkok to recognise the "sovereign rights" of the Patani people over Patani land. The BRN clarified this phrase in a written document submitted to the Thai government through Malaysian facilitator Ahmad Zamzamin bin Hashim in September of last year. It said it did not seek separation of the predominantly Malay-Muslim region from Thailand, but wanted territorial autonomy.
Unfortunately, the talks stalled in December in the wake of increasing antigovernment sentiment in Bangkok led by ultra-nationalists. Hassan Taib, chief of the BRN delegation, said that any further dialogue could only happen after the Thai parliament endorsed its five demands and urged the prime minister to declare the process part of the "national agenda". The ensuing military coup in May this year left the prospect of peace talks in limbo.
It is an open secret that the military was not fully on board with the peace dialogue when it had at its helm Lt Gen Paradorn Pattanatabut, then secretary-general of the National Security Council and Pol Col Tawee Sodsong, then chief of the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Center (SBPAC). Both men were close to ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The army opposed the signing of the peace dialogues in the first place, hence the fear that the military government might abandon the initiative altogether after the coup.
Nevertheless, there have been signs that the military government was eager to continue with the peace dialogue but wanted to make it a "military-to-military" project - a demand that made the civilian Malaysian government uncomfortable.
Gen Akkanit Muensawat, a retired general and member of the interim National Legislative Assembly, was at first tipped to be the new chief of the Thai delegation, but Gen Aksara Kerdpol, the army's chief adviser, took the role.
There were also reports that Bangkok wanted Kuala Lumpur to replace Mr Zamzamin with a senior general and that some Thai officials had approached Jakarta to discuss the possibility of getting Indonesia to play a facilitator role.
The dust began to settle when Gen Prayut met with his Malaysian counterpart Najib Razak last Monday. Mr Najib told reporters, "Malaysia will continue [the peace process] and the Thai government has stated categorically that Malaysia is the only country that they will work with," and that Mr Zamzamin will stay in his facilitator role.
Gen Aksara was introduced to Mr Najib as the new head of the Thai delegation. The Malaysian prime minister told reporters that both countries had agreed on three principles as a basis to start substantive negotiations: there must be a period of no violence; all parties must be represented in the peace talks; and all parties must agree to a list of united demands before putting them forward to the Thai government.
It is important to note that this new bilateral agreement with Malaysia signifies an important shift in the army's strategy to tackle the southern conflict.
Since the resurgence of violence in 2004, the military opposed a formalised peace process, fearing that such a move would elevate the insurgents' political status and play into their hands. It regarded the southern conflict as an "internal affair" and shunned foreign involvement, including by Malaysia.
After failing to defeat the militants by force after a decade-long counter-insurgency operation, the army has increasingly acknowledged that military suppression is not a solution and that the armed conflict in the Deep South needs to end at the negotiating table. It began to see the value of having Malaysia as a facilitator, given that several key insurgent leaders are living on its soil. Kuala Lumpur is perhaps in the best position to convince the militants to engage in peace talks.
There is as yet no official response from the BRN and other insurgent groups as to whether or not they will return to the negotiating table. On the day of Gen Prayut's visit, dozens of banners, written in Thai, English and Malay, were hung across the four violence-plagued southernmost provinces bearing a similar message: "Is it appropriate to negotiate with the coup government? There is no guarantee of sincerity."
The militants have a legitimate concern. It is indeed doubtful whether the junta is ready to make any genuine political concession which could undermine its power. The banners apparently reflect that the movement's military wing is not in favour of resuming talks.
Abu Hafez al-Hakim, the pseudonym of a senior militant leader involved in the peace talks, wrote in an article recently published on his blog on Deep South Watch website- "there has been serious debate among the movement about whether it is to their advantage to talk to the military junta at this juncture". They are concerned that the "happiness talk" will rule out discussions on self-governance. Some insurgent leaders, he noted, are reluctant to join, others are willing, as long as both parties set no preconditions.
Supposing the final response from the insurgents' leadership is forthcoming and the peace dialogue resumes, there are still several challenges ahead to meet the three principles set out by Malaysia.
First, in order to create an environment of "no violence", dialogue parties will have to agree on a ceasefire, which often comes in the early stages of a peace process. Last year, the SBPAC hastily set up an ad hoc committee to monitor "common understanding" between the Thai government and the BRN to reduce violence during Ramadan. The committee did not function effectively.
In principle, the Thai government is a party to the conflict, and, hence, it is a conflict of interest for it to perform such a function. An impartial and independent ceasefire-monitoring mechanism is needed to help monitor and report on any violation of the truce. Civil society organisations are in a good position to play such a role, but this would require capacity building.
Second, the definition of "all parties" that would be represented at the negotiation table needs to be thoroughly spelled out. In September last year, the BRN had already agreed to include other insurgent groups, such as the Patani United Liberation Organisation (Pulo) and Barisan Islam Pembebasan Patani (BIPP), as insurgents' representatives. However, the question is whether the parties should also include groups outside of the insurgent network.
There is a risk that if other groups are excluded, they could turn out to be spoilers. In particular, Buddhists often feel they are being forgotten and abandoned, despite the fact that they constitute about 20% of the population in the Deep South. Should they have representatives in the formal peace talks? How will other groups and ordinary people be engaged in this high-level dialogue? More work needs to be done to find an effective way to enable civil society organisations, religious, business and grassroots leaders to increase their participation in the peace process.
Third, whether or not and to what extent a list of united demands could be achieved would depend on how inclusive the process is. Peace processes are mostly not a matter between or among conflicting parties, but in many conflict areas are a complex multilevel system.
The role of third-party facilitation is often critical in providing a safety net to keep the process on track. Broader participation apart from the formal talks will be equally important to its success.
Some Malay Muslims in southern Thailand to whom I have spoken believe that this is an opportune time to achieve a political settlement because the military government is stronger and more unified than previous civilian governments.
I still find it hard to be optimistic, given that the junta has severely curtailed freedom of expression and rights to assembly across the country. How can the genuine voice of the people be heard under these circumstances?
Whilst I am under no illusions, I still want to give the military government the benefit of the doubt. I hope the sheer scale of violence in the Deep South would stimulate the moral conscience of those in power and convince them that they can no longer continue to maintain the status quo amid such huge losses of human life.
This is a slightly edited version of the article published in the Bangkok Post on 9 December 2014, which is available at http://www.bangkokpost.com/opinion/opinion/448412/south-talks-a-cause-for-cautious-optimism. Rungrawee is an independent political analyst, who has written extensively on Thailand's southern conflict. She formerly worked for International Crisis Group.