Jiraporn Ngamlertsuporn, a Thai Research Fund researcher, said the 30-year separatist movement under the collective banner of Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) was carrying on the century-old quest for independence from the Thai state, but has continually adjusted its approaches and strategies.
Ms Jiraporn based her conclusions on four years of extensive field research and interviews with about 50 BRN members including core leaders and the rank and file. She dubbed the current status of the movement as post-BRN which remains commited to waging violence against the Thai state despite months of peace talks.
The BRN movement has shifted its political characteristics from a socialist bent during the context of colonial liberation to a more emphatic tone of Islamist society-building.
"Internal struggle and consolidation has resulted in the movement's reasoning for a quest for a motherland [Patani], a race [Malayu], and religion [Islam]," she said at a weekend seminar held by the TRF and the Thai Journalists Association.
Thailand, however, should understand that the BRN was a revolutionary movement and had never let go of its ultimate goal of independence and building an Islamist society, Ms Jiraporn said, pointing to the recent core messages in the BRN's YouTube communications with its followers in southern Thailand.
"In the future the movement will face a key issue of defining the end goal - to what extent the boundaries will be if it wages an independence war that allows them to claim the Islamic legitimacy of jihad. After all, they have debated all along whether [independence] includes the Kra Isthmus on down, five provinces [Narathiwat, Pattani, Yala, Songkhla and Satun], or four provinces [no Satun] or three provinces and some parts of Songkhla,” said Ms Jiraporn.
She noted that the BRN was structured for the purpose of revolution, so it did not have a common or decisive modality of how post-independence structures of social and economic development should be designed.
Those who opted to continue their ultimate quest of independence turned out to be more reformist with different strategies by creating facilities of their own, including education and hospitals, she explained.
She said Thai society should realise the different types of factors including the leaders’ personal backgrounds and the global context that affected the nuances of the movement.
To better address the southern insurgency, Ms Jiraporn suggested that Thailand undertake security sector reform to accommodate human rights principles and minimise radicalism among the operatives.
“We might start with prisoner-related projects, and try to think within a disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration [DDR] framework. The current solution of the Internal Security Act's Article 21 has so far not well-addressed the problem,” she said.
She suggested that dialogue with those who give up fighting was one channel, but a more important option was to engage with the current fighters to get them to give up and return to fight non-violently along with other measures that appeal more to the intellectual types of fighters such as the cyber warriors.
Gen Ekkachai Srivilas, director of the Office of Peace and Governance at King Prajadhipok's Institute, said the independence movement was not communicating with Thai society at the moment. It declared its manifesto to previous Thai governments, and some administrations such as the MR Kukrit Pramoj government seemed to understand and responded positively with sets of guidelines for local authorities.
Gen Ekkachai agreed that the movement had had internal clashes in past decades but settled their different perceptions of goals and approaches and tried to fine-tune the 12 insurgency factions into one voice under the BRN.
Thailand needed to understand what sort of problems it was facing as the movement was believed to control half or more of the villages in the region through threats, intimidation, isolation and elimination of people to prevent the masses from breaking and cooperating with the state apparatus, he said.
They were more efficient in psychological warfare and intelligence gathering at district and community levels, he said, adding that the peace talks participants remained in a struggle over methodology.
Chaiwat Sathanan, a Thammasat University peace scholar, said the southern insurgency was not unique as other societies with unfinished nation-state situations faced similar problems.
He said understanding the movement needed consideration of generational and contextual factors. “It is rather not of a global jihadist character, but local warfare. And when members of the movement talk about their desired utopian Islamic or Shariah-ruled society, they just think of a nostalgic, peaceful brotherhood society rather than a rigid legal one as interpreted by certain clerics,” said Mr Chaiwat.
Terrorism globally did not produce desired results, said Mr Chaiwat, referring to a Rand Corporation study that showed only 7% of terrorist violence was eventually won, while nearly half of the fighting failed.
"Peace talks are not negotiations, but they will create a conducive environment and bring about trust and confidence that will later lead to more systematic and fruitful discussions,” Mr Chaiwat said.
He said when the peace talks got going, the violence did not stop as the fighters tried to prove to those who joined the non-violence wagon that they were wrong. But peace talks will gradually de-legitimise those still resorting to violence.
"Peace talks are a fragile process as many players still benefit from violence, but it is believed to be a more humane and acceptable type of weapon in fighting this seemingly invincible insurgency problem," Mr Chaiwat said.