Hassan Taib is leading negotiations with Thai authorities over the country’s separatist south, but his influence over a fractured movement is questionable
By Sacha Passi Illustration by Victor Blanco
W hen the Thai government and the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) insurgent group agreed to enter peace talks in February, it was the first time an official political solution to the separatist violence in southern Thailand had been explored.
About 5,400 people have died in Thailand’s three Muslim-majority southernmost provinces of Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala since the violence began in 2004, and Malaysia agreed to act as a facilitator in an attempt to end the conflict. The BRN put forward Hassan Taib as its nominated peace dialogue partner, but the ethnic Malay Muslim insurgency remains fractured, with various active factions.
Thus far, Taib has failed to prove he has authority over the horizontal network of insurgents, whose broad aim is to establish an Islamic state in the south of Thailand. According to Kathleen Rustici, an associate director with the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in the US, his lack of influence could be attributed to Taib coming from an older group of campaigners who largely abandoned arms in the 1990s.
“There is a generational disconnect between the leadership and the on-the-ground insurgents,” Rustici said. “This means that the leadership, even if the person is considered broadly a leader, can’t always enforce the chain of command. The situation is complicated by the fact that there are so many groups, so even if one group stops violent action, other groups may continue, making it hard for peace to come to fruition.”
Although the extent of Taib’s leverage with groups such as the Pattani United Liberation Organisation – which is known to target Thai government employees such as teachers, civil servants and police – is unclear, the Thai government’s failures are evident. The deadly cycle of retaliation by government forces and secessionist insurgents continues on a near-daily basis, while the botched 40-day ceasefire to mark Ramadan highlighted weak links in the chain of command for both parties. Violent clashes during the Islamic holy month added 29 casualties to the ever-increasing number of victims.
Furthermore, the peace talks have largely descended into a stage for public demands and stalemates between Thai authorities and the BRN. Following the violence during Ramadan in July and August, the BRN threatened to pull out of the dialogue. However, discussions had resumed by September, when Taib submitted clarifications of the BRN’s five demands to the Thai government, including the unconditional release of convicted insurgents and detained suspects, as well as recognition of the organisation as a liberator rather than a separatist group.
“The BRN’s apparently hardline negotiating stance is intended to challenge the Thai side to adopt some clear positions instead of engaging in largely content-free ‘dialogue’,” said Duncan McCargo, a professor of Southeast Asian politics at the University of Leeds in the UK. “The BRN has privately told the Thai side that they are not expecting all of the demands to be met, but they do expect the Thais to offer a clear response and to spell out what is up for potential negotiation.”
Further talks regarding the demands are scheduled for the middle of this month, although it seems likely that the splintered nature of the insurgency will continue to limit Taib’s influence – if he had any to begin with.
“Nobody had ever heard of [Taib] until February,” said McCargo. “My understanding is that he is not especially influential… He is the fall guy or front man for other people who have much greater influence.”
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