*Thai rebels pay a price for coming above ground*

Thai military rebuffs BRN's unilateral ceasefire with violence, killing off
a Covid-19 chance for peace in restive southern region

*By **DON PATHAN* <>JUNE 21, 2020

A Thai soldier with an assault rifle takes position outside the Rattanaupap
temple in Narathiwat province on January 19, 2019 following an attack by
black-clad gunmen that killed two Buddhist monks. Photo: AFP/Madaree Tohlala

YALA – After 17 years of fighting that has claimed over 7,000 lives, laying
down arms was never going to be easy for Thailand’s Barisan Revolusi
National (BRN), the long-standing separatist movement that controls
virtually all of the southern conflict’s on-the-ground combatants.

De-escalation efforts have been hounded by the Thai Army’s relentless
assaults, with rotating top brass soldiers consistently bent on “teaching
them a lesson,” according to a Thai military source who spoke on condition
of anonymity.

But after years of hiding in the shadows as one of the world’s few
nameless, faceless insurgencies, BRN is starting to come above ground,
reaching out to the international community and raising its public profile
through initiatives that are winning it sympathy and in spots even praise.

Whether those moves represent a path to peace is in question. Thailand’s
top brass was reportedly not amused following BRN’s signing in January of a
“Deed of Commitment” with Geneva Call, an international nongovernmental
organization (NGO) that promotes rules of war with non-state actors

BRN vowed via the commitment to step up its protection of children in
conflict, in line with humanitarian principles and international norms.
Rights groups have previously criticized certain of the insurgent group’s
attacks that have killed and injured civilians.

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In a bigger step onto the international stage, BRN heeded United Nations
Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ call for a pause in armed conflicts
worldwide in a global humanitarian effort to curb the spread of Covid-19.
The announcement represented the first de facto unilateral ceasefire since
the conflict erupted in January 2004.

These initiatives have won BRN certain international kudos and jolted many
in Thailand’s top brass, with some hardliners reportedly blaming the Peace
Dialogue Panel, comprised of representatives from various agencies and
ministries that make up the government’s negotiation team, for not doing
enough to contain the BRN.

The secretive talks have born certain fruit, though they are now at risk of
collapse after recent violent incidents on both sides. According to
government sources, certain generals plan to lobby the government, led by
former coup-maker army commander Prayut Chan-ocha, to stack the
government’s panel with even more stonewalling soldiers.

Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha (R) greets Muslim religious officials
during a visit in Thailand’s southern province of Narathiwat on January 20,
2020, to hold a cabinet meeting. Photo: AFP/Madaree Tohlala

The current army chief, General Apirat Kongsompong, has reportedly never
liked the idea of talking to the BRN as he feels it gives the group
unwarranted legitimacy.

The military has long categorized the violence in Thailand’s Malay-speaking
southern region, encompassing the provinces of Yala, Narathiwat, Pattani
and parts of Songkhla, as “disturbances” rather than “insurgency.”

By framing the conflict as an issue of law and order, with rebels often
referred to as law-breaking “bandits”, Thailand’s top brass have
persistently rebuffed any “internationalization” of the conflict, including
calls for outside group mediation that has helped to resolve other global
armed conflicts.

While the top brass may reject the BRN’s latest move to engage the
international community, soldiers at the operation level hold different
views. Many Thai security forces would like to see the BRN extend their
ceasefire beyond the pandemic, which is currently winding down as the
country returns to normalcy after a lockdown.

The end of the pandemic and emergency rule could see the return of
anti-military and anti-government protests which were gaining momentum but
then lost steam due to the viral outbreak. A BRN ceasefire would give the
military more space and troops to contend with any significant new street
actions in the capital, Bangkok.

To be sure, BRN’s decision to sign the Geneva Call agreement and declare a
unilateral ceasefire was not just for public consumption. Rather, it was an
effort by BRN’s political wing to show the group’s elders and their own
rank and file that their negotiators can boost the movement’s international

BRN’s powerful military wing was against the idea of entering into direct
talks with state officials until certain conditions were met. Those demands
included the release of all insurgent detainees now held in Thai prisons
and a formal endorsement from Parliament that the talks are on the
government’s national agenda.

Thai soldiers paint over separatist messages left on a bridge by suspected
militants in the Yingo district in Thailand’s restive southern province of
Narathiwat on November 3, 2016. Photo: AFP/Madaree Tohlala

The insurgent group’s negotiators are still years away from becoming a
solid and serious political wing, critics say. But in the end, BRN’s
military wing and its secretive ruling council decided to allow negotiators
to meet with Thai government counterparts in a series of secret talks,
though they are known to be on very short leashes.

The last meeting in these talks was held in Berlin, Germany, in November
2019, during which a term of reference (ToR) was produced as a blueprint
for future talks. The unsigned document identified Thailand and BRN as the
only two parties that can decide who will be the facilitator and mediator
for the talks.

The document did not refer to Malaysia, which was apparently kept in the
dark about the talks until news of the Berlin meeting was leaked to the
media. Malaysia, which shares a border with the conflict area and in the
past has allowed insurgents to take cross-border refuge, has served as host
to previous talks.

To avoid piquing Malaysia, which holds a key to any resolution of the
conflict, the two sides cobbled together a January gathering in Kuala
Lumpur between BRN negotiators and Thai representatives. It was followed by
a press conference that praised Malaysia’s facilitation.

At the same time, the Thai military has demonstrated that BRN’s new quest
for international recognition and legitimacy will come at a price. In
February, security forces launched long-range reconnaissance patrols to
uproot and smash BRN cells in the foothills of a Narathiwat province
mountain that killed five militants.

The search-and-destroy operation then shifted to the wetlands of Ta Se
district in Yala province in early March, resulting in the killings of four
militants and one government soldier.

Insurgents responded to relentless pounding in Ta Se, delivered by armed
helicopters, fan boats, and full-force foot patrols, with a reciprocal car
bomb detonated in front of the multi-agency Southern Border Provinces
Administrative Center (SBPAC) on March 18. At least 25 were injured in the
timed explosion.

Two weeks after the SBPAC car bomb, reportedly after lengthy consultations
with on-the-ground local activists, BRN declared a unilateral ceasefire on
April 3 and called on local residents to work with public health officials
to curb the spread of Covid-19.

A map of Thailand’s southernmost border provinces. Image: Wikimedia

The move came after a cluster of infections was discovered among Malay
Muslims who had returned from a religious pilgrimage in Malaysia, which has
been harder hit by the pandemic than neighboring Thailand.

But Thai military hardliners breached the cessation of hostilities on April
29 when a small team of BRN operatives tried to slip past a security unit
in Nong Chik district in Pattani province.

A well-placed source in the movement said the cell retreated in line with
the instruction to avoid gunfights. Another attempt was made the next
evening, but the rebels found themselves trapped in a fierce gunfight with
security forces that culminated in the death of three combatants.

BRN later released a statement that “strongly condemns the actions of the
RTG (Royal Thai Government) that failed to respect the hardships faced by
the people of Patani during the Covid-19 outbreak. It shows that the RTG
does not care about the humanitarian needs of the people of Patani.”

Observers on both sides of the political divide said the BRN statement was
also directed at their supporters, urging them to stay the conciliatory
course charted by the unilateral ceasefire. The Thai Army was indifferent
to the BRN’s statement, casting the violence as usual to a breakdown in law
and order.

Three days later, on May 3, gunmen on a motorbike drove up to two
Paramilitary Rangers in Pattani’s Sai Buri district and started firing at
close range, killing both on the spot. BRN leaders were silent on the
lethal assault and it’s still not clear they signed off on what appeared to
be a retaliatory operation.

Local media and the government officials were quick to point out that the
two Rangers were returning to their base from a Covid-19 activity held at a
village in the district. Rangers are often called upon to provide security
to public health and provincial officials.

An armed civil defense volunteer guard Muslim students with a banner saying
“we don’t want violence” during an anti-violence rally attended by Muslim
and Buddhist residents in Thailand’s southern Narathiwat province on
January 22, 2019. Photo: AFP/Madaree Tohlala

If the BRN admitted to giving the lethal order, then one could assume that
its pledge to end hostilities during the pandemic has come to a fatal

Local community leaders who often act as go-betweens for BRN rebels and
Thai security agencies acknowledge that BRN’s attempt to seize the
conflict’s moral high ground through more international engagement will be
hard to maintain with perceived as persistent Thai military provocations.

Some are now suggesting that BRN’s return to the underground until the
negotiating environment is more conducive to a settlement. In the past, BRN
took cold, if not isolated, comfort in never being obliged to confirm or
deny its role in violent incidents. But with its recent outreach and
engagement, it will be hard to return fully to the shadows.

*Don Pathan is a Thailand-based security analyst. The views expressed here
are his own*

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