Will Anas Abdulrahman Lead Ethnic Malay Muslim Militants to Peace with Thailand?

Publication: Militant Leadership Monitor Volume: 13 Issue: 4

On the eve of Ramadan, the spokesperson for the Barisan Revolutionary National (BRN) rebels, Anas Abdulrahman (also known as Hipni Mareh), announced that his militant group would halt attacks in Thailand throughout Ramadan, which lasts from April 3 to May 14 (pikiran-rakyat.com, April 2). The Thai military accordingly promised not to conduct any operations to arrest or kill BRN members during Ramadan. Abdulrahman stated such “confidence-building measures” could end up leading to a long-term peace treaty between the BRN and Thailand. This was thus an important step toward peace, one which occurred in the fourth round of negotiations between the parties held outside of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Considering how secretive and unavailable the BRN is to the outside world, including national and international press, any of Abdulrahman’s words, let alone ones of confidence about peace, set an optimistic tone regarding the possibilities of ebbing the tide of conflict in southern Thailand (reliefweb.int, November 8, 2019). Abdulrahman himself is from southern Thailand’s Yala Province, which borders Malaysia and is the epicenter of the insurgency of the Thai Muslim ethnic Malays, who seek greater autonomy or independence from Thailand. Before becoming the BRN spokesperson, he had also been a teacher at the Thamvitya Muliniti School in Yala, which is the largest private Islamic school in Thailand (crisisgroup.com, April 19). This provided him credentials to become a BRN political affairs head and later spokesperson as he networked among youths and, therefore, prospective militants (benarnews.org, January 21, 2020).

However, Abdulrahman has historically sought “confidence-building measures” with the Thai government only to see negotiations fail. In January 2020, for example, he noted in the first round of peace talks with the Thai government that both parties needed to find common ground before any success could be seen. Further, he ”thanked God” for bringing both parties to the table and asserted that “confidence building between both sides” was needed to avoid the futile back-channel negotiations that had occurred previously (benarnews.org, January 21, 2020).

Recent hopes of peace were disrupted when, on January 3, 2022, BRN claimed responsibility for bombs that damaged power posts and a mobile phone signal tower and caused blackouts in southern Thailand (ucanews.com, January 5). According to the BRN claim, its “warriors of a new generation” would end Thai rule over the country’s majority Muslim ethnic Malay provinces. Nevertheless, there were questions around whether the BRN faction allied with Anas Abdulrahman ordered those attacks. Only ten days earlier, for example, Abdulrahman stated that the BRN “always respects international humanitarian law” and gave no indication the BRN would soon undertake a series of attacks after the New Year. He also criticized Thailand for refusing to acknowledge there was a “conflict,” which he alleged the Thai government did to avoid internationalizing the issue (nikkei.com, December 23, 2021).

Despite the January 3 bombing and another attack that killed 15 people in southern Thailand in November 2019, peace talks have not been fully derailed, with no small contribution from Anas Abdulrahman’s promise of a ceasefire during Ramadan (aljazeera.com, November 6, 2019). The current ceasefire also followed a period of reduced contact between Abdulrahman and Thai officials caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, when only lower level functionaries were negotiating between the BRN and the Thai government (nikkei.com, December 23, 2021). Abdulrahman also promised during COVID-19 that although there was no formal “ceasefire” with the Thai government, the BRN would “stop carrying out attacks unless the BRN is attacked and we have to defend ourselves (malaymail.com, January 22).”

Abdulrahman has proven to be a pragmatic BRN spokesperson, who is consistently willing to engage Thai authorities in negotiations, notwithstanding concurrent low-level attacks by the BRN and more violent attacks by other anti-Thai ethnic Malay Muslim rebels who appear to be outside BRN control (bangkokpost.com, April 16). At the same time, the start-and-stop negotiations are yet to lead to long-term, tangible results and the BRN’s demand for autonomy or independence continues to be rebuffed. Thus, for now Abdulrahman still holds power for being a potential arbiter of peace, but if he fails to secure BRN goals or achieve a long-term ceasefire, it could lead to the empowering of more radical and violent groups that will reject Abdulrahman’s and the BRN’s claims to represent ethnic Malay Muslims in southern Thailand altogether.