Death of a child and the promises of peace dialogue

By Chaiwat Satha-Anand

On a hot summer afternoon, nothing is better than an ice-cream. When you are nine, the summer ice-cream your mom bought for you when she took you to a fair or something like that attained beautiful meaning.

Nisofian Nisani was in front of the ice-cream shop on Suwanmongkol Road in downtown Pattani when the 5 kg bomb exploded and took away his young life back to the Mercy of God on March 21, 2013 at 1.30 p.m. Fourteen others including his mother were also wounded in the violence that has claimed more than 5,000 lives and physically wounded more than 10,000 people in the past 9 years in southern Thailand, marking this deadly conflict as one of the most mysteriously ferocious in the world today.

The death of this boy at this time assumes special significance since this was the first time an attack on civilians has occurred after the signing of the “General Consensus on Peace Dialogue Process” in Kuala Lumpur on February 28, 2013 and just a week before the follow-up meeting on March 28. The death of this child points to what needs to be talked about in the coming peace dialogue. In addition, this violence, and/or similar incidents that might happen in the near future, would serve as acid tests of the strength of the ensuring peace process.

The appointment of Lt.Gen.Paradorn Pattanatabut, the Secretary General of the National Security Council to sign the document on behalf of the Thai government and tasked with the creation of environment conducive to peace promotion, reflects for the first time a clear policy direction in pursuit of peace dialogue with the insurgents. This policy direction is a result of several factors which include Thaksin’s strong determination to do something about this problem, the Thai-Malaysian governmental collaboration, and perhaps most important – years of hard works by some security officials at different levels, military and civilian, who have engaged various insurgents in some kinds of “talks” without such a unified policy for so many years.

It goes without saying that those who would come to the Kuala Lumpur table on March 28 will be there with different reasons and motivations. There might even be those who believe that in order to engage in “peace dialogue”, all one needs is to exercise strong pressure – read coercion – on the parties involved to make it work. But I would argue that for a peace process such as this to work, there is a dire need to understand “peace dialogue” for what it is, what it can or cannot do, what then should be “talked about”, and finally what may be needed to sustain such a peace process.

The reality of peace dialogue

Peace dialogue is not peace negotiation. The end-result of peace negotiation is usually a peace agreement (or a set of), while for peace dialogue it is – as the signed document suggested – the creation of an environment conducive to peace in the Deep South of Thailand. A most crucial feature of such an environment is trust between the parties which is difficult to cultivate. If forced, a meeting can indeed take place, but often without the trust that would sustain the effort in the long run. Exactly 500 years ago, Machiavelli wrote in his incomparable The Prince that “…like all other things in nature that are born and grow quickly, cannot have roots and branches, so that the first adverse weather destroys them…” (Chapter 7).

It is important to understand that of the conflicts which came to an end in the past 20 years, 80.9% were through peace agreement. Today, 40% of all armed conflicts are open to dialogues of some forms, while about 60% needs external mediation-facilitation. By the end of 2011, 19.5% of the dialogues were going well and 43.6% faced difficulties. (Escola de Cultura de Pau, Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona, 2012).

Imagine a deadly conflict with its own life cycle, and it should not surprise anyone that among the most difficult to deal with, are four protracted conflicts – Palestine which is now 96 years old (beginning with the November 2, 1917 Balfour declaration), Kashmir – 63, Cyprus – 38, and Western Sahara -21. These are protracted and therefore difficult conflicts, because beyond security of the states involved, the underlying issues are land, identity, sacred spaces, and self governance.

Rattiya Salae, a professor of Malay language at Taksin University has pointed out that this southern deadly conflict is about “ ا – ب – ت” – Arabic alphabets (Alif, Ba, Tha) for Islam, Bangsa (ethnic culture which includes language) and Tanah (land). If such is the case, then southern violence in Thailand could also be seen as a similarly protracted deadly conflict which is difficult to deal with, other economic interests, regional competition, or illegal businesses in the area notwithstanding.

Peace dialogue is a part of peace process which is a complex modalities consisting of contacts, explorations, dialogues, negotiations and finally agreement(s). These can be subdivided into informal/formal, indirect/direct. For example, before a formal direct contact such as the one held in Kuala Lumpur last month, there should be three other stages – informal indirect contacts, formal indirect contacts, informal direct contacts. These four stages are necessary as a trust building effort, something which might be relegated to marginal importance if the process is forced. Following this modality, the coming Kuala Lumpur meeting on March 28 could be exploratory in nature. The question then is what should the meeting explore?

Conditionality of peace process

To enter into a peace process, especially in its exploratory stage, one cannot set preconditions, i.e. if you don’t do A or B, I will not talk to you! However, it is impossible to enter into a peace process, engaging in peace dialogues, without understanding its conditionality, i.e. that whatever is going to be talked about depends on existential conditions which is dynamic.

I would say that the most important issue now is the cessation of violence, and not about alternative forms of governance in the area. In fact, discussing alternative forms of governance in most cases are for the purpose of ending violence in the first place. In this sense, alternative forms of governance become means of ending violence within the peace process project.

Those who wish to explore this peace process needs to talk about: geography, time, weapons, and targets. Of the more than 1,600 villages in the three southernmost provinces, only some 200 have suffered from violence. In the spirit of exploration, a few villages, say three or six from these 200 in the three provinces, could be selected as an experiment in “peace zones” where for a specified period of time, there will be no violence from both the insurgents and the Thai state.

Since it would be unrealistic to assume that BRN and their colleagues who will come to the March 28 table can really control violence on the ground, there is also a need to discuss other forms of fighting by other insurgents that will probably limit the use of violence in certain zones outside the designated “peace zones”.

Perhaps the peace dialogue should also explore the possibility of inviting those who refuse to talk at this time to become “PAHLAWAN YANG TERHORMAT” or “honor fighters” in other exploratory zones. Let me call this: “honor zones” where the use of explosives are excluded, and civilian targets which include teachers, women, children, clergy (Buddhist monks, Muslim ulama/imam, Christian clergy), sacred spaces (temples, mosques, churches, etc.,), schools, as well as stores or shopping places should be considered outside the scope of violent attacks.

It should also be noted that there are at least 40 factors that could derail any peace process, such as internal divisions in an armed group, disagreement over issues on the agenda, mistrust in the facilitator, or rise in military activities, and demands for the complete cessation of violence, among other things. Peace processes such as this one is no different. For example, when violence continues, many will point their fingers at the peace process and conclude that it is futile.

Peace processes such as this one will be fragile. Therefore it needs a vast support from Thai society as well as a profound understanding from security agencies involved, the latter might come from inter-organizational dialogues. To mobilize both the support and understanding in the Thai context at this time is both difficult and necessary, if such derailing factors are to be effectively mitigated.

And when one is not so sure if h/she is on the right track of peace process to end violence in southern Thailand, remember the death of the child- Nisofian Nisani.

* Chairperson, Strategic Nonviolence Commission, Thailand Research Fund Professor, Faculty of Political Science, Thammasat University and TFF Associate.

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