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Don Pathan
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Job Security Analyst
  Thai Security Analyst
Desc Thailand-based security and development consultant. He is one of few journalists with access to the Barisan Revolusi Nasional


Expert Deep South Thailand
  Barisan Revolusi Nasional
Juwae The name for BRN fighters in Malay. They were cultivated at a network of pondok schools, which focus on Islamic religious learning, in the 1990s

2016 08 24

[The entertainment district hit by the car bomb is one of only a handful in the restive south, offering bars, a disco and prostitution] It’s the type of place that society around here frowns upon. The campaign against social evil is not very high on the agenda of the insurgents here. Their strategy right now is to make the area as ungovernable as possible.

2017 01 17 Publish

Muslims in Thailand’s southernmost provinces are bidding farewell to a prominent spiritual leader accused by Thai police of leading a separatist movement intent on carving out a homeland for ethnic Malays in the region

Wartani News, a local media outlet, quoted family members of Sapae-ing Basor as saying he had passed away on Jan. 10 while living in exile in Malaysia. He died of a lung infection after being treated for diabetes and heart disease. He was 81

About 2,500 people congregated on Monday morning at Thamvithya Mulnithi, a high school in southern Yala province where Sapae-ing served as principal until he fled the country in December 2004. Sapae-ing had been charged with treason by police over his alleged involvement in a series of attacks on police and military facilities in the region

A significant number of students who joined the separatist cause and became armed militants graduated from the high school, making Sapae-ing an easy target for the government. About 6,000 students study at the school, and hundreds have taken up arms against the Thai government in recent years. Nevertheless Sapae-ing, who was educated at a university in Saudi Arabia, commanded respect from Thai authorities as well as admiration from local Muslim communities

He was the most selfless person we ever knew,’ said one cadre from the Barisan Revolusi Nasional, a key southern rebel group that surfaced in the early 1960s. ‘He always placed the needs and dignity of his community before him’

The BRN and other rebel groups went underground in the early 1990s after training and financial support from Middle Eastern countries dried up, amid a blanket amnesty program launched by the Thai government that offered small plots of land to former combatants

Photo : Sapae-ing Basor escorts Thailand’s then-Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai during a visit to the Thamvithya Mulnithi School in southern Thailand in the early 1990s; behind them is Haji Haron Sulong, Sapae-ing’s father-in-law and school rector

The groups revived their separatist campaign in late 2001, and began launching attacks against the government’s military and police outposts and remote camps. Today, the BRN controls the vast majority of the rebel combatants. Thai security and separatist sources said about 90% of armed combatants on the ground answer to the BRN

In January 2004, a group of BRN commandos raided an army battalion and stole about 350 military weapons, after killing four soldiers on duty. Since then, insurgency-related violence has been frequent and is responsible for about 7,000 deaths

Malay Muslims, and the armed combatants in particular, see Sapae-ing as epitomizing a narrative that sets them apart from the rest of Thailand, which is predominantly Buddhist. They view him as a man with integrity and strong religious credentials who placed the interest of his community over his own interests

A teacher from Thamvithya Mulnithi school recalled Sapae-ing checking bars and pubs after school hours to see if any of his students were drinking. Although technically not illegal, drinking and intoxication is strongly frowned on in this conservative Muslim community, where most marriages continue to be arranged by elder

Thai police have maintained that Sapae-ing is the overall leader of the BRN, and at one time they placed a 10 million baht reward on his head. The reward system for the region was dropped by the military government that assumed power after a 2006 coup that ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra

The mystique around the late spiritual leader has not faded. Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who led the 2014 coup that toppled the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s sister, issued a statement on Sunday expressing condolences to Sapae-ing’s family. He instructed the authorities to help the family transport his body back to Thailand’s southern region from Malaysia’s Terengganu state

Even so, a senior BRN source said the movement would continue its fight against the Thai government, noting that Sapae-ing’s death would not affect the group’s military operations. Thai security officials and BRN militants told the Nikkei Asian Review that his death would not have any significant impact on stalled peace talks between the government and Mara Patani, an umbrella organization of southern rebel groups

‘He was a spiritual leader to us and to everybody,’ said the source, who declined to elaborate on the relationship between Sapae-ing and the BRN ruling council. Sapae-ing’s students described him as a very strict and disciplined person, but also extremely kind and well-mannered

Artef Sohko, a youth activist who graduated from Thamvithya Mulnithi in 2004, told the Nikkei Asian Review that he could not see any leader who possessed the kind of moral authority and commanded as much respect as Sapae-ing. Artef, the first ethnic Malay to be elected as the secretary-general of the Student Federation of Thailand in 2008, said that the Malay-speaking region will need such a man should there come a time when the national government and the people of the region are prepared to make concessions and negotiate their coexistence

2017 03 01 Publish

For a suspect with at least four warrants out for his arrest, Ahama Duere was calm and collected when he met Lt. Gen. Piyawat Nakwanit. Piyawat’s subordinates and press crews treated Ahama kindly and smiled as they walked with him to an awaiting helicopter. Ahama was not handcuffed. As far as anyone knew, he could have been any of the reporters accompanying the commander of the Fourth Army Area on a field trip

Separatism as an ideology among the Malay population in the historically contested Deep South runs deep, thus making virtually all Malay Muslim men here suspects or sympathizers in the eyes of authorities. Often, roadside bombs targeting military and police patrols are buried within the eyesight of residents. This speaks volumes about the relationship between the villagers and the combatants

[But] in remote villages, insurgents keep operating freely mainly because villagers continue to support them. They take turns making food for insurgents and sometimes providing them with shelter if their unit has been moved from another area for whatever reason

The decision to quit a combatant’s life and return to civilian life is not a difficult one, but requires taking a chance with Thai authorities. Such a decision does not constitute desertion as long as the cell leaders and the individual wanting to leave reach an understanding followed by an oath that they would not reveal the identity of their fellow comrades who are still active

Active combatants, on the other hand, are indifferent to the public relations exercise behind the Bring People Home Project, saying they are fully aware that the Thais are controlling the narrative. What matters to them is that they continue to capture the imagination and trust of the local Malay Muslim residents whose grievances and mistrust of the Thai state provided them with the legitimacy to carry on with their struggle for a separate homeland

For the time being, combatants said they do not consider the go-between - be it government officials or local civil society organizations working for security forces to persuade the insurgents to surrender - a target or a threat to the movement

BRN cadres said they are not too worried about combatants wanting to quit because the movement does not need that many people, not at this stage of the struggle anyway. In this kind of ‘unconventional warfare,’ what matters is that the movement can demonstrate that it can still be a threat to the state security apparatus

Keen observers of the conflict and local Malay Muslim residents of this region don’t buy the official line. So this begs the question: what is the purpose of this ongoing public relations offensive?

Senior policy makers said the idea behind Bring People Home and the so-called peace dialogue with MARA Patani - an umbrella organization of long-standing separatist groups who no longer control combatants on the ground - is all part of a long-term strategy that rests on the hope that villagers will become tired of the violence and turn their backs on the BRN and their combatants

Like other peace initiatives, the strategy is more like a big leap of faith. Few policy planners take the time to look back into history and ask what went wrong in the relationship between the state and its Malay minority and why, nearly half a century after the region came under direct rule of the state, an armed insurgency erupted and shattered the comfort level between the two sides

2017 04 08 Retrieve

[Thailand’s restive southern provinces were rocked by a wave of coordinated bomb blasts and arson yesterday, a day after the country enacted a new Constitution] The whole idea is to humiliate the Thai security apparatus. Right now, their aim is to make the area ungovernable as much as possible

2017 06 15 Retrieve

Insurgency violence is basically a form of communicative action between non-state actor and state security apparatus. What’s interesting about this conflict is that the audience is largely confined to the combatants and the state security apparatus. For the time being, the strategy of the insurgents is to discredit the security agencies and to make the area ungovernable as much as possible

2017 08 17 Publish

Four years on from the launch of peace talks aimed at ending a separatist insurgency in Thailand’s three southernmost provinces, progress is moving at a snail’s pace. Some critics say that both the Thai government and Islamist militants appear to be going through the motions of a bogus peace process

Divisions among the insurgents need to be overcome, allowing collective negotiations with the Thai government, and the ruling junta needs to stop ignoring the cultural and historical grievances between the population of the South and the Thai state

Muslims account for less than 6% of Thailand’s overall population, but make up about 90% of the population in the three southern provinces. In these regions, they have a greater affinity with neighboring Muslim-majority Malaysia than with Thailand’s predominantly Buddhist heartland

The Barisan Revolusi Nasional, the main Islamist group leading separatist militants in the region, sent representatives to the talks but appeared determined to derail them, making tough demands that included the release of all detainees held on treason charges. It also demanded the participation of the international community, and called on the Thai government to recognize it as the sole representative of all the people in the region, including ethnic Chinese and Thais. Bangkok rejected these demands, giving the BRN a pretext for walking out of the talks, which it did by the end of 2013.

Refusing to consider negotiating solely with the BRN, the junta called on all separatist groups to deal with the government under a common banner. The insurgents are now represented by MARA Patani, an umbrella group made up of ethnic Malay separatist movements, which has been bolstered by recognition from Malaysia and others in the international community

However, the BRN refuses to join MARA Patani. Since it controls virtually all the insurgents on the ground, the BRN believes it should be dictating the terms for talks. A handful of BRN mid-level cadres have joined MARA Patani, but Thai security officials and separatist sources said these individuals do not have a mandate from the BRN’s ruling council, which controls the combatants

One of the obstacles to the process is Bangkok’s insistence that the discussions should adhere to the Thai constitution, which clearly states that the kingdom is indivisible. The BRN said Bangkok’s position was a ‘non-starter,’ and it would be unwilling to enter the talks unless this constitutional stipulation is removed. In return, however, the BRN would not propose the issue of independence

According to Thai official sources, Abdulloh Waemanor, a senior member of the BRN ruling council, has sent a message to the Thai government through the Malaysian facilitator that his group will not sabotage any effort to establish a demilitarized ‘safety zone’ in the region … Officials in Bangkok welcomed the news, but a BRN source said Waemanor was being ‘diplomatic’, and urged stakeholders not to read too much into the gesture. BRN militants on the ground pointed out that there is a great deal of animosity between them and MARA Patani. In the end, the significance of the gesture will depend on how meaningful Waemanor and the BRN ruling council want it to be

Another problem is that MARA Patani wants Thailand to grant its executive members legal immunity – particularly those who are subject to arrest warrants. However, Bangkok is resisting. The Justice Ministry is against the idea of giving any separatist leaders immunity for fear of a political backlash and the possibility that it would set an unwanted precedent,’ said a government official

… there are also signs of bickering among top Thai officials. In late June, Deputy Defense Minister Udomdej Sitabutr said MARA Patani might not be the right group to talk to because of its apparent lack of control over the insurgents. Udomdej’s remarks have irked Gen. Aksara Kerdphol, who is Thailand’s chief negotiator in the dialogue process. Aksara and others in the government, including the prime minister, believe that if the BRN wants to join the talks, it must come under the MARA Patani umbrella

The BRN [Barisan Revolusi Nasional] is unlikely to budge unless Bangkok agrees to internationalize the process. But allowing foreign governments to sit at the negotiating table could prove unpopular with the Thai public. Thais have proven indifferent to the southern Malays’ historical grievances and cultural narrative, which sets them apart from the rest of the kingdom

In August 2016 BRN militants carried out a wave of bomb and arson attacks in seven provinces in the upper south region, which is popular with foreign and Thai tourists. The two-day blitz demonstrated that the BRN retains the capacity to inflict damage and to undermine the state security apparatus

About 7,000 people have been killed in insurgency-related incidents since January 2004. The junta needs to stop pretending that it has the situation under control and that it has contained the violence in the far South. The BRN has already shown that it is capable of operations outside the traditional theater of separatist violence, and that it is willing to export its campaign to other regions

MARA Patani could act as the political wing of the movement, with the BRN retaining control of the fighters on the ground. Collectively, the two arms could then negotiate with the Thai Government

Muslims who have been unlawfully killed by soldiers and Buddhist civilians murdered by insurgents in an effort to demoralize the local population and discredit the security apparatus

2017 09 22 Publish

In its efforts to farm out security duties to officials at the village level in Thailand’s Deep South, the nation’s military has taken a significant step forward by starting to re-organize the Tambon Defense Force (TDF) in the troubled border region. A tambon is a local government unit that encompasses a cluster of villages. It is an administrative subdivision just below the district and provincial levels. Like the village chiefs and his staff, the head of a tambon is known in Thai as a kamnan. This official, once elected, can stay in the post until he or she reaches the mandatory retirement age of 60. Kamnans are issued a handgun and shotgun, largely for their personal protection

As with the provincial governor and district chiefs, the kamnan falls under the Thai Ministry of Interior chain-of-command, and mainly oversees administrative details in the tambon, such as births, deaths and the registration of homes. He or she is also tasked with mediating small disputes among villagers.

Many thai police and soldiers in the region have quietly accused the kamnans and village chiefs - especially those in remote areas - of turning a blind eye to separatist militants in their villages and tambons. Many police and soldiers in the region have quietly accused the kamnans and village chiefs - especially those in remote areas - of turning a blind eye to separatist militants in their villages and tambons. Thai security officials take their silence as tacit support for the insurgents but, they admit, there isn’t much they can do about this in legal terms. Other officials say the silence is for their survival’s sake

Insurgents, for their part, claim that kamnan and village chiefs share the same historical mistrust of the Thai state and therefore they support their separatist ideology. Most village officials declined to talk about this on the record for fear of reprisal from either state security officials or insurgents. However, many of them admit they don’t trust the Thai state. They also say they know the insurgents and are aware of militant activities in their respective communities

The Patani Malay historical and cultural narrative is not included in the state-constructed narrative. The armed insurgency was largely a reaction to the government’s policy of assimilation that the Malays feel comes at the expense of their cultural and religious identity. In addition, a culture of impunity remains a big problem. Rights abuses are well documented. Yet no government official has ever been charged with any crime

In the past, the Thai military obtained help from local villagers by establishing a Village Defense Volunteer force across the region. Because its armed members are volunteers, they receive no salary. Teams of volunteers work in isolation, not linking up with their counterparts in other villages

The re-organized TDF, on the other hand, will connect all 262 tambons in the Deep South under the army’s security grid. This means that the kamnan, the village chiefs, and his team - all of whom receive their salaries from the MOI - will receive the same alerts as the security personnel in case of any threats or attacks mounted by insurgents. TDF will not take part in search-and-destroy operations targeting insurgents’ hideouts or makeshift training camps, according to one senior military officer in Pattani. But members of the TDF will be asked to go on foot patrols with soldiers or man army checkpoints, which will put them in the line of fire from insurgents

Separatist militants don’t usually target these village officials unless one spies for the Thai military or police. But because of the job description, participation in the TDF will put these officials at risk. How the separatist militants will perceive their participation remains to be seen

2019 07 17 Retrieve

[Analysts said the Barisan Revolusi Nasional is a secretive group in which cells operate independently and people higher in the organization sometimes learn about attacks after the fact] That’s the way they are structured. It’s foolproof. The Thais can take down one cell but not reach the other. The insurgents are part of the community … they’re everywhere but nowhere. And they have multiple roles. One minute you could be tapping your rubber or feeding your chickens, the next minute you set off a roadside bomb and then follow up with a brief gunfight

[On June 14, Abdul Rahim Noor, the Malaysian facilitator of the talks, said talks would resume ‘in two weeks,’ but this did not occur] It seems that everything is still up in the air; no one seems to know what the talks will look like

Just weeks ago, Sukree Hari decided to step down. In my view, there is an opportunity for both sides to come together now that the ‘spoiler’ Sukree is gone. The attitude among the MARA Patani and Thai officials is that, a bad peace process is better than no peace process at all

2019 10 17 Publish

Future Forward Party also said the army should pull out of the Deep South, where a 15-year-old separatist insurgency has claimed more than 7,000 lives, according to figures provided by researchers from Prince of Songkhla University - Pattani Campus. In so doing - and in demanding accountability for questionable counter-insurgency tactics and alleged torture of suspected insurgents - FFP succeeded in connecting with Malay Muslims in the Thailand Deep South

Turnout at the recent election jolted the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), the one long-standing separatist group controlling virtually all combatants on the ground. According to sources in the movement, in the period leading up to the March 2019 vote, there was discussion among local cell leaders about boycotting it. But the idea did not evolve into a full-fledged campaign like the August 2016 drive by BRN calling on locals to vote ‘no’ on the referendum on the Constitution drafted by the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), as the junta called itself. The referendum passed by a slim margin nationally, but the Muslim-majority Deep South strongly rejected it

Some pattani voters destroyed the ballot by scribbling on it. Villagers were even urged to write ‘Merdeka,’ or ‘independence’ on their ballot - but many feared that making such a bold statement could come back to haunt them

But the 2019 general election tells a different story. The fact that the Muslim-majority Deep South had the highest voter turnout in the country irked the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN). The Future Forward Party did not win any of 13 parliamentary seats in the Deep South, but earned almost three times the 30,000 votes they were expecting. FFP’s leader, Thanathorn Jungroongruangkit, made at least four visits to the region during the campaign, generating excitement. Pattani village boys in sarongs flocked to get a glimpse of him

Others lined up for selfies with Thanatorn Juangroongruangkit that, in the view of many, helped restore faith in Thailand’s parliamentarian politics among Malay Muslims in the region. It was a faith that pretty much disappeared following the October 2004 Tak Bai incident, when 78 demonstrators suffocated after being stacked on the back of military transport trucks

Upset at the refusal of the Wadah faction - local Muslim parliamentarians - to speak out against the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), of which they were a key coalition partner, local Malays would not vote for them in the Parliament. At the last general election, the Wadah rebranded itself, formed a party of its own and promoted greater Malay cultural space in the context of multiculturalism

[But] for young pattani voters in the region, it was Future Forward Party’s relentless assault on the thai military that attracted their support. Never mind that FFP was courting LGBTs and calling for gender equality - issues that don’t resonate with the conservative Deep South. Malay Muslims in the region still saw common ground. Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) members were dumbstruck by the high voter turnout, and forced to go back to the drawing board and to contemplate what it meant for them as a ‘liberating force’

Thailand’s powerful army chief, Gen. Apirat Kongsompong, is also frustrated at the outcome of the general election … Apirat took his message straight to the new wave of young politicians and the people who support them. During a recent gathering that was more like a one-man political rally, Apirat said Thailand was facing ‘hybrid warfare’ orchestrated by ‘ill-intentioned politicians’. Apirat did not mention by name the FFP leader, but the public and participants at the army conference hall understood that the message was directed at Thanatorn Juangroongruangkit

Gen. Apirat Kongsompong also went on at great length about the Patani conflict, saying he had lost friends and colleagues in the fight, as he hit back at Army critics. He pointed to the spate of bomb attacks in Bangkok on 2019 08 02 that was allegedly carried out by young men from the Malay-speaking Deep South. He did not blame the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), but suggested the masterminds were the same ‘ill-intentioned’ people. Most Thai security officials believe the culprits behind the attacks were BRN members and that it was the movement’s way of sending a stern warning to Bangkok to stop pressuring their leaders to come to the negotiating table