More savvy BRN seeks foreign 'aid'

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A statement issued by the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) on April 10 demanding conditional terms to begin peace talks has sparked heated questions about the Thai government's choice of dialogue partner in the ongoing talks with insurgent groups in southern Thailand.

BRN, or the "National Revolutionary Front", is a liberation group that operates in Thailand’s southernmost region, historically known as Patani. Some BRN members have joined a handful of liberation groups in their personal capacity to form the umbrella organisation Mara Patani, which has been engaging in a peace dialogue with the government. The BRN’s leadership has decided to stay away from the military-led process.

However, the main question is whether to what extent Mara Patani can command and control the fighters on the ground.   After a spike in violent attacks in recent weeks, the BRN issued a press release suggesting it will only discuss peace on its own terms.

The statement was preceded by a wave of violence that saw two suspected insurgents killed by security officers on March 29 in Narathiwat province's Rueso district during what the security forces claimed to be an exchange of fire.

Over the next week, three major attacks took place. The first occurred on March 30 when a group of armed men on a pickup truck opened fire at a police station in Narathiwat's Rangae district, killing one police officer and injuring four others. On April 3, a group of more than 30 people stormed a police post in Yala's Krong Pinang district with assault rifles and improvised grenades, injuring nine police.

The situation spiralled further on the night of April 6 and early the next morning when a total of 32 attacks -bombings, arson and shootings - took place in 19 districts in the four southernmost provinces.

The coordinated attacks damaged dozens of electricity polls and caused widespread blackouts in Patani. Residents continued to experience electricity shortages for several days.

The latest operation demonstrates not only the sustained military strength of the BRN but the apparent ease with which it can still attract new recruits.

Moreover, after displaying its military might, the group issued its statement demanding the negotiation process be crafted by two negotiating parties as well as third-party observers and impartial "mediators".

In making this fresh demand, the BRN seems to be drawing on the lessons it learned from earlier negotiations under the former Yingluck Shinawatra government in 2013. At that time, it was dragged into the talks launched by the Thai and Malaysian governments and seemed ill-equipped and ill-prepared.

The latest statement suggests it is more wary this time round. It even contains implicit criticism of Malaysia's apparently dominating role in the previous dialogue process.

The fact that many Patani liberation leaders are residing on Malaysian soil makes it difficult for the BRN to negotiate on an equal footing, and that is why proposals for an alternative facilitator and mediator such as Indonesia have been floated from time to time.

Its key demand in the statement is that members of the international community become involved. This echoes one of its five previous demands, namely, that the peace talks involve observers representing the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and non-governmental organisations.

However, this raises the question of how the government would deal with the BRN proposal while it has already been engaged in a dialogue track with Mara Patani.

Mara Patani is often asked whether it has command and control over the armed militants on the ground. But while some BRN members have joined the umbrella group at their own initiative, the two groups often seem to be competing, with the BRN leadership unwilling to engage in the regime-led peace process.

While internal disagreement is common in any armed group, it is important to note that no factions have stepped forward to reject the peace process in principle. Nonetheless, the BRN's statement effectively ups the ante by laying down stricter requirements than MARA Patani .

As the BRN is no doubt aware, the last thing the Thai government wants is international involvement in the southern conflict. Malaysia, for example, only got involved when Yingluck was in power, who was on opposing side of the royal establishment.

But given that the royally endorsed new charter weakens the executive powers, and creates room for the military to dominate Thai politics for at least five years after the first general election, the regime will likely push hard to keep the conflict an "internal" affair.

As such, the BRN's demands may fall on deaf ears. Some analysts suggest they could "kill" the peace talks, which are progressing and now at the stage of working on "safety zones" to build confidence and trust.

I suspect the talks with Mara Patani will continue because they are being conducted under terms seen as acceptable by the military government. But will the Patani liberation movement gain any political concessions? Unlikely. Cynics may see the talks as nothing more than a feet-dragging exercise by the regime.

Yet both the BRN and Mara Patani continues to try different approaches to secure meaningful negotiations where their grievances and demands can be genuinely addressed. And engaging the international community may help guarantee this.

The BRN's statement shows that it recognises the importance of waging diplomatic battles on the international front - perhaps drawing lessons from liberation movements elsewhere. This statement was sent exclusively to members of the foreign press. From a quick survey, no Thai media has received it from the original source.

 Abdulkarim Khalid, a BRN delegate in the 2013 peace dialogue, told the BBC's Indonesian-language service that the group wants international involvement.

From a peace-building perspective, it is refreshing to see this clandestine group increasingly engage in above-board political activities.

Having withstood the Thai military forces for the last 13 years, the BRN's military strength is beyond doubt. Its next challenge lies on the international front, a new opportunity that the BRN is apparently learning to master.


Rungrawee Chalermsripinyorat is an independent analyst who has been monitoring the violent conflict in southern Thailand. This article originally appeared in the Bangkok Post on 18 April 2017