BANGKOK — Fresh attempts to open dialogue with separatists in the Deep South will include the most hard-line group for the first time, the new chief negotiator said Friday.
Gen. Udomchai Thamsarorat confirmed, albeit indirectly, that the National Revolutionary Front, or BRN, would be part of future multilateral discussions which in over six years have failed to defuse secessionist violence that has convulsed since 2004.
“This dialogue will include every armed group,” Udomchai said to the more than 100 reporters gathered at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand when asked whether he would reach out to the BRN. “We will talk to each group separately.”
Pressed whether that meant the BRN, the former southern army chief replied, “You call them BRN but I would use the term ‘every armed group.’”
Whether BRN has committed to the talks or Udomchai was being optimistic remains to be seen. Malaysia has tried to help bring them join talks, but according to Malaysian media, had yet to make any commitment as of last week, when the two negotiators met for the first time. That same day, the BRN celebrated the 15th anniversary of its armed insurrection by releasing a video.
“Dear people of Malay Patani, if we are still strong, it is not wrong for us to continue until we win. If the peace effort by Siam is true, we can make peace. But if the peace effort is only to trick us, then we will fight,” Benarnews reported BRN spokesman Abdul Karim Khalib saying in the video.
Speaking today, Udomchai, who has replaced Gen. Aksara Kerdphol as head of the Thai negotiating team, repeated what has been the central sticking point adopted by all previous government efforts: The question of independence will not be touched.
“The dialogue must take place within the framework of the constitution,” which outlaws secession, the 65-year-old said, though he added that the insurgents are welcome to run in elections and promote their agendas through legal means.
“Come enter the process!” the soft-spoken Udomchai said in an abrupt flare of passion. “Run in elections! Why don’t they send people to be politicians and amend the constitution?”
He also insisted that the talks will not be considered formal negotiations. A ceasefire will not be discussed, and talks will mostly take place in secret away from public ears so that “everyone involved can let it out freely.”
A number of armed groups are seeking independence for the three southernmost provinces with the goal of reviving the sultanate of Patani, a kingdom annexed by Bangkok a century ago.
The BRN is believed to be the most powerful among them. The cell has been blamed for various attacks on security forces and civilians. Udomchai estimated that at least 5,800 people have been killed since the insurgency erupted 15 years ago.
Although the Thai authorities initiated dialogue in 2013, the effort has not included the BRN, who has reportedly refused to talk. Experts have lamented the dialogue as meaning little without its participation.
Udomchai is a former commander of the army’s 4th Region, which covers the southern region. He also serves as a junta-appointed legislator.
His appointment to the job in October coincided with Malaysia’s naming of Abdul Rahim Noor – a close ally of PM Mahathir Mohamad – as Udomchai’s counterpart.
Udomchai said he has already talked with Noor about their missions. Malaysia’s secret service is willing to coordinate with separatists residing there to bring them to the table, he said.