BANGKOK - Thailand deems its just-ended truce with insurgents in the country's deep south a "success" and hopes to settle the rules of a long-term cease-fire by the end of the year, a spokesman for the government's negotiating team has told VOA.
Ethnic Malay Muslim rebels in Buddhist-majority Thailand are fighting for independence for the country's three southernmost provinces - Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala - which comprised the sultanate of Patani until the British deeded them to the then-king of Siam in 1909. Over 7,300 people have been killed in the fighting since violence flared up last in 2004 and the government imposed martial law over the region.
After years of fruitless peace talks, the government's negotiating team, or Peace Dialogue Panel, and the largest and most active of the rebel groups, Barisan Revolusi Nasional, announced a truce on April 1 to run until May 14. The six weeks overlapped the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, when violence has spiked in years past.
"Yes, success. The government [is] happy with the situation," Chayut Chitnana, an assistant to panel chairman Wanlop Rugsanaoh, told VOA May 17.
"In the old days in Ramadan the violence statistic [was] high, but for this year it decreased, absolutely decreased," he said. "Besides the violence situation, about the atmosphere in the area, the people [gave] good feedback to the government that they [could] have religious practice without fear of violence."
He said the government counted only one insurgent attack during the truce - a pair of coordinated explosions on April 16 that killed a civilian and wounded three police officers, which he blamed on the Patani United Liberation Organization, another rebel group. The PULO reportedly claimed the attack, carried out, it said, for being left out of the peace talks.
Trust and unity
Chayut said the one attack compared well with about 14 during Ramadan last year, after a 2020 lull ascribed to pandemic-related lockdown rules. Deep South Watch, a nongovernment group tracking the violence independently, counted about twice as many incidents during Ramadan in both 2021 and 2019, nearly 100 in 2018 and 2019, and some 250 at their peak in 2013.
In return for BRN's restraint this year, Chayut said, Thai security forces refrained from raiding suspected insurgent camps and hideouts or from acting on outstanding arrest warrants. He said about 100 low-level insurgents also took the government up on its offer to let them visit friends and family at local mosques without risk of arrest.
"The Thai government hopes this project can build trust between the Peace Dialogue Panel and also the BRN. We would like to show the insurgents that we have sincere [desire] to talk with them, and it's one of the confidence-building measures to show that we will commit with the other side in order to [reach the] next phase," the spokesman said.
Chayut said the panel has suggested holding the next meeting in early June, to get started on setting up a long-term cease-fire by December, one with a joint monitoring system to assess any alleged breaches. The panel also hoped to bring the other rebel groups into any future deal, he added, and had already reached out to the PULO and others.
BRN could not be reached for comment.
FILE - Muslims celebrate Eid al-Fitr, the Muslim festival marking the end of the holy fasting month of Ramadan, at a mosque amid the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Pattani province, Thailand, May 24, 2020.
Rungrawee Chalermsripinyorat, a lecturer at the Peace Studies Institute of southern Thailand's Prince of Songkla University, also deemed the truce an overall success.
She said it proved to a skeptical Thai army that the BRN leaders attending the peace talks do wield control over the group's fighters in the field. To BRN, she added, it signaled that Thailand's hawkish military may be willing to give the panel a chance at settling the conflict politically.
"What it shows this time is that there is better unity [on] the Thai government side as well. So, we see more unity on both sides, both the BRN and ... the Thai government agencies," she said.
Doubts and dissonance
Rungrawee warned, though, that the contest between hawks and doves within the government was far from settled and could still derail the talks.
She said the army was rattled when thousands of youths came out for a May 4 rally in Pattani to show their pride in their Malay Muslim identity. While the event was not overtly political, she added, it was dotted with the odd BRN flag and punctuated by chants echoing BRN slogans.
"If the government continues to believe in this [the panel's] approach, there's a possibility that there might be discussion on a long-term cease-fire," said Rungrawee. "But if they go back and resort to the same old suppression approach, then things might change in a different way."
Artef Sohko, president of The Patani, a political action group advocating for self-determination for the southern provinces, shared her doubts about a smooth path to a lasting cease-fire.
He said the Ramadan truce "went well" but noted that BRN had been scaling back its attacks for a few years already. And while army units in the south pulled back from main roads and cities during the truce, he added, they merely redeployed to rural areas and have kept up intelligence operations there.
Artef said the army has been talking to community leaders about the people who attended the May 4 rally, asking that they come in for questioning. He said his sources in BRN also told him that no actual members of the rebel group took the government's offer to meet with family over the holiday at local mosques, afraid their relatives might be persecuted afterward.
"They did not trust the Thai side to live up to its commitments," he said. "In the past, security officials would come to their homes and ask them where is your boy, where is your son. And the usual answer would be we don't know. So, for them to show up at the mosque with their son, it would be like admitting that they were lying."
Artef said fissures were also forming in BRN itself, over whether the group's negotiators were giving up on the dream of independence in exchange for some sort of autonomy, risking a split into armed factions that could lead to another surge in violence.
He said negotiating a stable, long-term cease-fire under the circumstances would be tricky.
"I don't think the Thais will achieve this," he said, "not by the end of this year."