BANGKOK — The death of the leader of a major southern separatist movement could fall either way for ongoing negotiations between Bangkok and the rebels, according to experts involved in the peace effort.
After leading the secretive National Revolutionary Front, or BRN, since the start of its 13-year campaign for secession, Sapaeng Basoe, once the most wanted man in Thailand, died of lung infection Tuesday in exile in Malaysia, according to media reports. He was 81.
Speaking to reporters Sunday, the general who represents the regime’s peace dialogue with the BRN and other armed groups said Sapaeng’s death may convince hardliners to come to the negotiation table.
“Having fewer spiritual leaders as time goes by will result in an easier peace dialogue,” Gen. Aksara Kerdphol said.
Sapaeng, who embraced Wahhabism, a more trenchant brand of Islam while studying in Saudi Arabia, is regarded as the “spiritual leader” of the BRN, the most well-armed and active among all militant groups currently seeking independence for the three Muslim-majority provinces in the southern border region.
The conflict has claimed at least 6,800 lives since it first broke out in January 2004.
Although Sapaeng did not participate in the talks with Thai security forces – a BRN secretary stood in – it was unclear whether he gave his blessing to the effort.
Paradorn Pattanatabut, who led negotiations for the previous civilian government, said Sapaeng was ambiguous when he reached out to the separatists in 2013. Whether the BRN would be more forthcoming in the current talks depends solely on who replaces Sapaeng as the group’s chairman, he said.
“Their factions are still at odds with each other. It depends which faction will have more weight after he died,” Paradorn said by telephone. “If the military faction wins the succession, the situation ahead would be very exhausting for us. If the dialogue faction gets it, it would be good for us.”
Since the BRN famously does not release statements to the public, the government will only find out who has succeeded Sapaeng from intelligence reports passed along by Malaysia, where the movement’s leadership is based, Paradorn said.
And he’s not optimistic.
“It’s undeniable that the military faction has more weight right now,” Paradorn said. The past year has seen an escalation of violence, including a string of attacks that killed four during Mother’s Day holidays and a massive car bomb using a weaponized ambulance.
A scholar who studies the southern insurgency said Sapaeng’s death won’t change much. While Sapaeng was the appointed chairman of the BRN, the movement was largely run by local leaders who favor military action over peace talks, said Srisomphop Jitpiromsri, director of the Deep South Watch news agency.
“Therefore, their disagreement with the peace policy and their preference for attacks will not change,” Srisomphop said. “They won’t suddenly join the talks.”
However, the BRN may opt for a nonviolent approach if its operatives see that the military government is sincere about negotiating, the professor said.
“If there’s progress and practical results, the military faction of the BRN may decide to join,” Srisomphop said. “I don’t think the BRN has completely ruled out negotiations.”