But despite the optimism, all the talk about talks may amount to nothing more than hot air. Two large questions remain: Who is talking to whom? And what are they talking about?
Certainly, denials came fast and strong every time reports surfaced that government officials were indeed talking to rebel leaders. In August 2005, for instance, the outlawed Pattani United Liberation Organization (PULO) claimed it held talks with the government in a secret location in Lausanne, Switzerland, where Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej spent his childhood.
Chidchai Wannasathit, Thaksin’s deputy charged with overseeing the conflict, said at the time: “I insist that there have been no such talks.” Those sentiments were repeated by Thaksin’s hawkish defense minister, Gen Thammarak Isarangura na Ayudhaya, in March 2006.
“It is not right to recognize outlawed organizations,” he said in an interview. “If those experts know who the militants are, then just bring them to me.”
Most experts have known that talks were taking place behind the scenes, however, despite the public denials. And while the role of Thaksin and his deputies in the discussions is still unclear, denials were the order of the day.
COMMENT: On the question of denials, I think Dr Mahathir hints at Thaksin’s mindset in this recent interview on the talks:
Although, I believe Thaksin and Chidchai were aware of this. They didn’t say no and they were quite willing to, but I think they wanted to wait and see or something like that.
I do worry that Gen. Sonthi and Surayud have hyped up talks/negotiations/change in the situation in Southern Thailand that there will be a massive disappointment if the talks are not successful – I am measuring success by reduction in the violence.
Thaksin seems to have learned his lesson in 2004 when he suggested talks and was criticised for it so his approach since then seems to be to deny that talks are taking place so if they fail the government isn’t left with egg on its face. That Thaksin kept the talks quiet could also suggest he was not that confident of their success.
The article continues:
“The Thai government might now be saying they are open to speaking with the insurgent groups, but although it’s a very big step to be publicly calling for talks, they will very soon hit a big wall,” said Anthony Davis, a Thailand-based security analyst for Jane’s Information Group. “It is unimaginable that the Thai political and military establishment will be able to, or prepared to, negotiate with the militants’ demands. Even the insurgent’s most conciliatory demands go far beyond what Bangkok is prepared to discuss.”
COMMENT: I agree and said (see “Formal Talks with a Political Solution”) something similar earlier this month.
The article continues:
“This was a series of interviews to try to understand what really are their grievances and grouses and what they want from the Thai government,” Mukhriz Mahathir told Reuters. “We discovered that it was not secession they wanted, but really more attention by the Thai government for the south, in particular economic development and education.”
That seems a bit pat, however. Sure, Bangkok has sought to reduce the strength of local religious schools, which it saw as possible breeding grounds for separatist ideologies. And Thai authorities did raid a number of Islamic schools they thought to be insurgent training camps, arresting, detaining and even shooting students and religious teachers under powerful emergency laws passed by Thaksin’s government.
But that was all after the insurgency came to life. A campaign of shadowy, random violence strikes most people as a lousy way to attract the brightest teachers and lure potential investors.
COMMENT: I agree as I said on 13 October:
One question the insurgents might want to ask themselves, why has been a lack of economic development in the area? Maybe because investors and business people are scared to invest money in an area where people are killed at random. Did they ever think of that?
If all the insurgents what is what is outlined at talks in Langkawi then it simply defies belief.
The article continues:
“There is no reason why the groups behind the violence would negotiate with such basic offers such as education and economic reforms,” said Davis from Jane’s Information Group. “They don’t need to. They have Bangkok pushed into a corner and they have no reason or need to negotiate on such a limited proposal.”
COMMENT: Unfortunately, I agree with Davis here. The article continues:
Most observers agree that the real aim of the militants is independence for the region, or at least some form of basic autonomy. And though the new junta-installed government appears to understand the complexities of the South more than Thaksin, it is still a long way from entertaining autonomy for Thailand’s Muslim majority provinces.
It’s even doubtful that the new government would allow Malay to be used as an official language for the region. Sonthi may want talks, but his patrons may have already drawn a line on using the Malay language.
Thaksin and Prem didn’t agree on much, but they both were adamant in saying that the Malay language should never be used officially in Thailand. “We have to be proud to be Thai and have the Thai language as the sole national language,” Prem told locals at a gathering in Pattani four months ago.
COMMENT: Thaksin certainly was never going to make Malay an official language, particularly after Prem’s criticisms, but under Thaksin there were certainly signs of moving towards the use of Malay in schools in Southern Thailand (see here and here (scroll down). Compare that with the situation previously, from the ICG report of 18 May 2005 (p12):
“Promotion of the Thai language through education and the media was central to this effort. Teachers taught primary and secondary students to identify as Thai Muslims rather than Malay Muslims. Thai was the only medium of instruction, even in PSTIs. Students could choose among English, French, German and Arabic as a second language, but Malay was not allowed, and Malay language media were banned.”
I don’t see anyone mentioning exactly what the Great Prem who we have been lead to believed solved all the problems did to improve the use of Malay.
The article continues:
By closing the door on this basic demand before talks even start, it’s unclear how successful they can be. So far, the new interim government has not articulated a vision for southern Thailand.
Most of their efforts have been geared towards urging the new generation of separatists to come out of the shadows. Surayud’s government has called for the militants to cease operations for a month to show their willingness to enter peace talks. But this may be a strategy to see if the people who come forward really have the power to control the violence.
“The political negotiation process is Bangkok’s only hope for solving the conflict,” Rohan said. “I believe that the Thai elite will eventually realize the need to compromise on certain positions that they haven’t in the past. The alternative will be to sustain the violence.”
COMMENT: I think Thai society is some time away from accepting the possibility of allowing autonomy or independence in “exchange” for the insurgents stopping the violence. Part of the problem is that no one also knows if that is exactly what the insurgents want. The insurgents could make things easier for any discussion on these issues by openly stating their demands, but the insurgents trump card is the “conspiracy of silence“. As I said in January:
By not claiming responsibility, the groups behind the violence make it easier for idiots to advance conspiracy theories of the CIA (according to a Democrat MP) or the Thai government (according to a NRC committee member) being behind the violence. Unfortunately, there are people which will believe this and this only hinders the government in solving the situation in the Deep South.
Others also blame the US government. This is not to say that no Thai government official has engaged in extrajudicial killings, but independent statistics put that figure at 1.4%. Yes, that is still 1.4% too many, but it is certainly different from the government masterminding the violence as some believe.
Frankly, I don’t believe Thailand has reached the level of violence that will force the government to allow autonomy or independence. Both sides seem to be poles apart. This will only force the insurgents to continue the violence and even up the ante to force the government/society to move closer to what they want. One might call this a war of attrition between Thai society and the insurgents. Who will win is the question?
* Both formerly of IHT ThaiDay – oh how I miss IHT ThaiDay’s news coverage.