Separatists at the table have just denied involvement in violence – further evidence they have no control over the combatants
MARA Patani is stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea.

The umbrella organisation of six longstanding Patani Malay separatist movements is facing its moment of truth.

Are they or are they not involved in the recent spike in separatist violence in the far South, particularly the operation in which a Narathiwat hospital was used as a staging post for an attack on the Paramilitary Ranger unit next door?

Answering yes could have legal ramifications that complicate ongoing peace negotiations with the Thai government. It would also suggest a violation of international humanitarian norms amid efforts by the umbrella organisation to gain legitimacy from the international community.

The Malaysian government is facilitating the latest peace talks and has posted its former spy chief to oversee a poorly thought-out initiative that’s being driven by its Special Branch.

If, on the other hand, MARA Patani were to deny involvement in the violence, their status as partners in the talks would automatically be rendered irrelevant. Why, after all, should Bangkok be speaking to people who are not involved with the insurgency’s combatants?

After a barrage of criticism from local and international human rights organisations and the Bangkok government over the invasion of the hospital, MARA Patani decided to play it safe and deny any involvement.That prompted Thai security officers to ponder out loud the merits of dealing with an organisation that appeared to have no command and control over the militants.

Bangkok’s longstanding practice in dealing with the Patani Malay separatists has always been to use either the envelope (bribe money) or the bullet.

But unlike the previous wave of insurgency that surfaced in the mid-1960s and subsided in the late 1980s, this time around the men with command-and-control are not interested in talking, leaving the negotiations to figures whose influence waned decades ago.

The half-baked peace initiative was launched under Yingluck Shinawatra’s government in February 2013. A so-called Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) leader, Hasan Taib, was hastily placed at the centre of the negotiations without anyone questioning what role or influence, if any, he had in the militant separatist leadership.

The Thai and Malaysian security officials involved knew that Yingluck’s initiative was doomed from the start because they didn’t have the right people.

As a backup, the so-called Track 1.5 quietly came into being as the official Track 1 with Hasan Taib at the helm died a natural death.

That death was hastened by the concerted efforts of a Thai military that was not part of the inception or planning of the peace initiative cooked up by Yingluck and her fugitive brother Thaksin.

But then came the May 2014 coup and with it the question of what to do with this hot potato. Junta chief General Prayut Chan-o-cha had seven months to think about it – the time between the coup and his December 2014 visit to Kuala Lumpur.

During the visit, Prayut announced that Malaysia would continue to facilitate the peace dialogue though conditions would be added. The separatists would have to develop a common platform and then demonstrate they had command-and-control over the militants.

One thing the junta had going for them was that the overall number of insurgent attacks had dropped dramatically.

For those invested in the peace dialogue, the drop in violence was proof of the talks’ traction. But separatist sources and other close observers insisted that the lull meant nothing, pointing out that as long as the insurgents still existed, the state hadn’t won.

Now, with the return of almost daily violence to this historically contested region, notions of a link between the peace talks and the insurgency have been shattered.

Separatist sources said a car bomb planted just two days before a Pattani seminar on the peace talks was a stern warning to participants that the conflict is far from over. Foreign participants were forced to cancel their trip to the event.

And then came the operation in Cho Ai Rong, Narathiwat, which signalled a moment of truth for many stakeholders. The hospital raid was a slap in the face for the peace initiative’s much-vaunted “safety zone”, where Bangkok was relying on MARA Patani to enforce a ceasefire. Cho Ai Rong was supposed to be among the five districts designated for the zone.

Separatist sources say last Friday’s gun and grenade attack on a teashop full of Malay Muslim residents in Yala’s Raman district was carried out either by a rogue unit or a pro-government death squad in retaliation for the spike. One villager was killed and four others suffered bullet wounds.

Meanwhile, the unprecedented nature of the Cho Ai Rong operation has shaken the Thai military to its foundations, demonstrating a capability and daring to undermine the entire security apparatus at will.

In the final analysis, however, Cho Ai Rong was not a military operation. It was a public relations exercise performed in front of hospital CCTV cameras and aimed at sapping Thai military will and morale. Needless to say, it succeeded in doing that – and much more besides.

Don Pathan is a founding member of the Patani Forum ( and a Thailand-based security consultant.