At the negotiating table
This week, the Thai government and Malay Muslims are engaging in a peace dialogue that seems among the best hopes yet of resolving decades of violence in the country's Deep South. Observers are cautiously optimistic, but at the grassroots level, not everyone in the southern provinces agrees
Words and images by Lukas Messmer
Outside Nurul Huda Mosque in Yaning Village, a cemetery stretches out surrounded by patches of jungle, the graves overgrown with weeds. The simpler ones are marked with plain stones, the more elaborate ones with small replicas of minarets. Many bear the unmissable markings of age.
But in the middle of the cemetery, there are two brand new ones: Kamaruddin Huseng and Sulkiflee Suemae had been laid to rest there only three days earlier. Thai security forces had killed them in late February in the Tawe mountain range, about a dozen kilometres from the village in southern Narathiwat province near the Thailand-Malaysia border. According to officials, they were responsible for an attack on an army outpost in Sukhirin district on January 12 – the biggest clash between security forces and ethnic Malay insurgents in recent months.
“There is no justice for Malay Muslim people here”, says one of the men guarding the grave. For a week, he and others from the mosque committee watch over the two buried bodies and pray. They are cautious to voice their opinions.
“If you speak the truth, you die, disappear or land in jail,” one says.
Over chunks of watermelon, cookies and sweet soda, they cautiously share their opinions on the current conflict. They are all from Yaning, a small village of 500 Muslim families, and tell of soldiers visiting their houses, road checks and late night raids where men are arrested and detained. Most of the men here have spent different amounts of time in Thai army detention camps, one four times already, some for up to one month.
All agree that their sympathy lies with the two dead fellow villagers, Huseng and Suemae.
While unconfirmed, the two deceased were likely members of Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), the main Islamist separatist group active in Thailand’s southern provinces Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat and parts of Songkhla – an area where over 80% of the population is Malay Muslim. Founded in 1963, the BRN have been the most powerful rebel group in the region since 2017, and are at the heart of much of the violence with security forces which forms the backbone of the insurgency in the Deep South today.
Public and secret peace negotiations have been ongoing since 2013, but all previous talks failed as the BRN refused to take part. But currently, for the first time, the BRN is directly talking to the Thai government.
After backchannel talks in Germany and a first official meeting in Malaysia on January 20, both sides will officially meet again on March 2 and 3 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s capital. International observers from Switzerland and Germany will be part of the talks, which is considered a groundbreaking development by many stakeholders, but has angered Malaysia as they have been excluded from negotiations.
According to Sunai Phasuk of Human Rights Watch Thailand, who worked in the Deep South for many years, before these latest round of talks the BRN fought for independence, but now a possible outcome could be the creation of a local governor with it’s own administration for the whole Muslim south.
“This new round is more promising than ever,” Phasuk says. “Because Thailand, up until now, has been very reluctant to recognise the status of BRN as their counterpart. And the BRN now seems to be willing to accept a certain form of autonomy within the framework of the Thai constitution.”
The wider separatist movement in southern Thailand is often referred to as one of the longest-running insurgencies in the world, having started in the late 1940s. But a flair up in violence in 2004 has since led to more than 7000 people killed as more intense fighting has rocked the region.
“You must understand, the detentions and police visits create resentment,” Waebueraheng Waeyama, the head of Chuab sub-district, in which Yaning Village is included, tells the Globe. “People come back from the camps and can’t do anything about it. They either keep quiet, fight with arms or leave for Malaysia.”
In the middle of Yaning village, a unit of Thai Rangers clad in black, a light infantry force under the Thai army, stops cars, take pictures of drivers and their ID cards. They share them instantly in a group chats of the messenger app Line with the rest of the unit, which cross-checks the personal data with their own databases for wanted suspects. The practice is widely resented among the local population and creates a climate fear.
“If we fight in a peaceful way, we always lose”, says one of the Muslim men in Yaning Village. The group is sceptical towards the current round of peace talks: “If we talk and in the end there is no independence, what is the point?”
Huseng, one of the two dead suspected insurgents, lived in a modest house along the main road of Yaning Village. The walls are of bare concrete. A few shelves and tables are full of kitchen wares and schoolbooks. His family is still in shock.
“He was completely normal, he went to the mosque and the coffee shop”, says his wife Yah, now a widow. Occasionally, he would go to work in Malaysia for some time, she tells, but she would never have thought that he’d fight with an armed rebel group.
“My husband did not express himself a lot, he lived a very normal life”, she says. “He never talked about fighting for independence at all.”
It was her husband’s decision to allegedly take up arms, and yet, the family and their neighbours do not blame him for the tragedy.
“There is no justice,” says a neighbour, adding that they feel the Malay Muslim population is treated as second-class citizens. “We are held to different standards.”
Widowed Yah now only cares about surviving. Their eldest son is 19 years old and has just finished high school. He now has to care for his mother and three siblings, but there are not many options to find work in the village. Tapping rubber pays about 50 Thai baht ($1.50) per day, and the family worries about how to make ends meet.
“Independence? I never think about this,” says Yah. “I want a peaceful and better life.”
The local Muslim Malay population calls the region ‘Patani’, which today encompasses the three Thai provinces of Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat and four districts of Songkhla Province. For hundreds of years, it was an independent kingdom known as the sultanate of Patani, then a vassal state of what was then Siam, and formally annexed into the country that would come to be known as Thailand in the year 1909.
Until World War II, the Thai state rarely interfered in local affairs. Then, during a time of nationalistic fervour, the central government started a process of ‘Thaification’, imposing Thai customs, language and symbols on the Muslim provinces in the south. In 1944, Thai civil law was enacted all over the country, but Malay Muslims, with their unique culture and traditions, have long resisted assimilation into Thai culture and language.
“Suddenly, people had to go to Malaysia to get married according to Muslim customs”, says Chaturon Lamsopha of that time. He is the grandson of Haji Sulong, a much revered Muslim scholar and leader in the region who fought for more autonomy and local customs.
In a now famous list of seven demands from 1947, Sulong, who the Thai state considered a separatist, requested on behalf of the local population that the south be governed by Muslim leaders; the Malay language be used in schools and government; that local people be governed by Islamic law; and that local taxes be spent locally.
He vanished in 1954, allegedly killed by elements of the local Thai elite.
“He’s like a hero today,” says Chaturon. “Teachers print his face on t-shirts and he is still the inspiration for many.”
Chaturon heads the Haji Sulong foundation in Pattani province, where he keeps Sulong’s memory alive and documents of his life intact. Among them is a recipe for a Malay curry, written by his grandfather while imprisoned in Bangkok. Another relic is a printing template of one of the first timetables for the Muslim five daily prayers – Sulong had calculated the correct times according to Southeast Asia’s geographic location.
Chaturon still lives in the same buildings that his famous grandfather did 70 years ago. And he also holds the same demands.
“The most important thing is to elect our own leaders”, he says when asked about the most pressing issue in the region. “Now, they send them from the central government. They never lived here before. They don’t ask. They don’t know our identity.”
He has his doubts about the current talks being successful and wonders whether the BRN delegation led by Anas Abdulrahman, a religious teacher from Yala province, really represent the fighters on the ground.
The delegates are nearly all between 50 and 80 years old while some of the fighters are still in their teens, with a schism evident between the older set, willing to compromise on autonomy over independence, and their more fervent younger counterparts.
Thailand’s Deep South feels like a country within a country that is neither fully Thai nor Malay, offering a mix of both cultures. But the enforcement of Thai culture and language by the state over the decades has long been a contentious issue.
To explain the situation in the area, Chaturon often has to switch to Thai, which he speaks perfectly, as sometimes he struggles to find modern or complex words in his mother tongue of Jawi (or Yawi), the local version of Malay.
“We often also think in Thai”, he explains, adding that on social media people use the Thai alphabet to write local Malay as there is no Jawi script.
In Yala province, more than 6,000 students attend the Thamavitya Mulniti School in Yala city. Hundreds of girls and boys scurry through gender-specific courtyards. The school is private and considered one of the best in Thailand and offers a mix of the official Thai academic curriculum and an Islamic one.
A group of 16-year-old girls, Hanan, Awatif, Nasuha, Khodiyah and Shifa, are on their way to their next classes. Day-to-day they are rarely impacted by the ongoing conflict, except each week when army units visit the boarding school to check identities and interview people.
“We don’t know why they come to our school”, they all say.
The girls, who identify as Malay but hold Thai citizenship, want to become teachers.
“If we had independence, we could decide what we want”, they explain in tandem, talking over each other in a rush of teenaged eagerness. “But we still live under the Thai government. If we had our own country, we could use our own language everywhere we go and write the signs in Malay. And, this is important for us, we could follow Islamic laws.”
They chose this school as a compromise as it offers an Islamic curriculum to educate them as Muslims, and an official Thai curriculum for career options: “We have to continue our studies at universities here [in Thailand] to get a job.”
In the towns, teenagers sip iced caramel lattes in hip cafés, Thai style. One of them is the Kapa Bistro in Su-ngai Kolok. The Malaysia border is only three kilometres away, and at the bus station next door, travellers arrive from the country. The Kapa Bistro seems innocuous, but it sits at the frontline of young activists campaigning for self-determination.
“Many people think peace talks are the best tool to solve the problem”, says Artef Sokho, adding that he wants a referendum for the people to be heard. “But they are not. The government and the armed groups both have to return the right to the people to decide what they really want.”
Sokho is the acting chairman of The Patani, a political action group that aims to return the right for self-determination to the people in the region. Apart from the café, members of the group also run a Tom Yam restaurant in Malaysia and smoothie shops, the funds from which they use to finance The Patani.
Artef sees the conflict in Thailand’s south in the same category as independence movements in Quebec in Canada, Catalonia in Spain, Palestine in the Middle East, Okinawa in Japan, or Scotland in the UK.
But Artef argues the peace negotiations being held between the Thai government and the BRN on March 2 and 3 wrongly frame the conflict as a security problem, and not the political and cultural issue he views it as.
“We think these are fake talks, it is not a real peace process,” he says, adding that on the Thai side, he sees no political will to solve the issues. “Thailand needs democratic reform first.”
On the BRN side, he feels that the decision to talk about autonomy at the peace talks is not carried by all the members on the ground.
“We have to think about how to change from armed struggle to political struggle”, he says. “That is the only way to engage with the independence movement.”