Over the last nine months the insurgency in the Deep South of Thailand has escalated dramatically. Just within the last week two bombs went off in Narathiwat province, another bomb exploded within the Pattani commercial centre, and five people were injured in a drive by shooting also in Pattani. Even with the Thai military killing 16 insurgents during an attack on a marine base just recently, there is little evidence of military progress in the insurgency.
At the same time Malaysia is heading into what could be called a "watershed" election. Premier Najib's personal popularity rating has fallen, there have been a number of campaigning mishaps for him of late, and there is an embarrassing military stand-off in Sabah with a group loyal to the Sulu Sultan, where the Philippine President Aquino is the one taking initiatives.
In this environment, both governments are in desperate need of a breakthrough with the insurgency. Of late, the insurgents have undertaken many embarrassing ploys like displaying Malaysian flags in the South last August 31st on Malayan Independence day. In addition, troops and other security forces are all tied in the south trying to protect major towns like Hat Yai and Chana from attacks, and Premier Yingluck Shinawatra has her brother's legacy of poor handling of the Southern insurgency problem hanging over her. Premier Najib badly needs some form of diplomatic coup to bolster his credentials, particularly with the rural Malays in Kelantan who are not unsympathetic to the insurgents cause, and the general population of Malaysia with the oncoming election due anytime in the near future.
Perhaps this is why the surprise of an agreement signed between the Thai Government during Premier Yinluck Shinawatra's visit to Kuala Lumpur with one of the major insurgent groups the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), should actually not be a surprise.
A memorandum was signed in Putra Jaya by Lieutenant-General Panradom Pattanathabur, Secretary general of Thailand's National Security Council, and Utaz Hassan Taib who was identified as the chief of the BRN liaison office in Malaysia. The document was witnessed by Mohamed Thajudeen Bin Abdul Wahab who is the Secretary General of the National Security Council within The Prime Minister's Department.
The simple text of the document reads as follows under the heading "General Consensus on Peace Dialogue Process":
"The Government of Thailand has appointed the Secretary General of the National Security Council (Lieutenant-General Panradom Pattanathabur) to head the group supporting favourable environment creation to peace promotion in the Southern Border Provinces of Thailand.
We are willing to engage in peace dialogue with people who have different opinions and ideologies from the state (note not directly referring to the BRN only), as one of the stakeholders in solving the Southern Border problem under the framework of the Thai Constitution while Malaysia would act as facilitator. Safety measures shall be provided to all members of the Joint Working Group throughout the entire process."
- dated and signed 28th February 2013
This document was heralded by all as an historical agreement and has been reported widely in both the mainstream Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur Press, although it's interesting Malaysia's online press hardly mentioned it.
The BRN was formed in 1963 and is one of up to 20 different insurgency groups in the Deep South of Thailand. Although the BRN may one of the largest groups, it is yet to be seen if any other groups may come onboard with these negotiations, or even take a hostile view of these negotiations believing that they have been left out and should be the group that the government be negotiating with. With jealousies between some of these groups, this is a minor risk that the Thai Government has taken.
As it has actually not been spelt out by the various insurgency groups what demands and aspirations they have, this process will at least put these points on the table for examination. In this sense the memorandum is a potential breakthrough because it may establish the gambit of positions both sides will talk from. Ironically through this insurgency, very few concrete demands or aspirations have actually been aired, although the various groups harbor ideals and aspirations alone a wide continuum.
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