Thai Junta's 'No' to Key Concessions Likely Dooms Dialogue in Muslim South

Thailand’s junta has recently said talks will restart with the clandestine, fractured liberation movement that has so far taken 6,300 lives in the country’s deep south, most of them civilians. Yet the army and the royalist establishment’s well-known opposition to key concessions such as autonomy and amnesties is a surefire sign that pacification is nowhere in sight.

Since the conflict escalated dramatically in 2004, it has been the most violent subnational struggle in Southeast Asia. The situation remains stalemated, with neither the rebels nor state forces gaining a decisive military advantage.

In 2013, in light of Thai security forces’ inability to quell the movement, the Pheu Thai government headed by Yingluck Shinawatra irritated the royalist establishment by initiating a highly publicized formal dialogue and signaling some support for autonomy. The establishment -- the military’s top brass, the monarchy, and the Democrat Party – had always insisted on secretive dialogue and have been generally averse to the slew of decentralized models of governance recommended by Thai intellectuals.

Because of that opposition, Pheu Thai’s dialogue team held back on formally responding to five core demands made public by Barisan Revolusi Nasional, the umbrella Islamic movement contacted by the government, in May 2013. The dialogue soon collapsed following a failed ceasefire attempt over the Ramadan holiday period. Figures from both the state and the rebel movement each claimed the other side violated the cessation of hostilities.

The 2014 coup has clearly demonstrated the weaknesses of electoral authority in this predominantly Buddhist country, which has long been dominated by an alliance between the monarchy and the military. At the same time, it underscored that Yingluck’s government had little clout over the course of talks with the separatist movement in Malaysia, which was used to mediate the process.

Still, Yingluck’s team, all loyalists to the Shinawatras, was able to persuade Malay Muslim separatist representatives to communicate to others in the insurgency to curtail bombings in economic zones. Only one bombing took place in an economic area over the course of the dialogue period in the first half of 2013.

However, following the collapse of the talks, insurgents reignited attacks in urban areas in late 2013 and early 2014, including several bombings in Songkhla’s border district Sadao. In December 2013, bombings on consecutive days in Yala town in April, three bombings in early May in southern Thailand’s largest city, Hat Yai, multiple bombings in Pattani town in late May, and bombings in Betong town of Yala province in July. Even some army officials who had lukewarm support for the Malaysian-brokered process acknowledged that the uptick in bombings likely stemmed at least in part to the collapse of the talks.

Two large bombs discovered by authorities in Phuket in December 2013 raised long-time concerns that insurgents were on the verge of expanding their violent campaign to popular foreign tourist destinations, but several sources claimed that the individuals responsible had no intention to detonate the bombs. A police officer who interrogated the alleged suspects told Asia Sentinel: “They only intended to demonstrate their ability to target an area outside of the region. They did not want to harm anyone.”

In the immediate aftermath of the May 2014 coup, some security officials in the region confidently asserted that state security forces would be able to better contain the movement because the government was in the hands of the army. Ever since, security forces have amped up cordons and search tactics, increased and manned check points, and deployed increasing numbers of soldiers to patrol villages.

Conversations with a range of local Malay Muslims from various parts of the region indicate that the suppressive measures have done nothing to win hearts and minds. However, some Malay Muslims and security officials have stated that such tactics have curtailed insurgent activity and contributed to making 2014 the least violent year since the conflict dramatically escalated in January 2004. A car bomb in Narathiwat town that left some 13 injured in mid-February has been the only large-scale bombing in an urban area since the middle of last year.

In January, the army distributed data to the media that showed that from October through December of 2014, security-related incidents had dropped by 40 percent compared with the same period in 2013. While repressive tactics played a role in that, so too did massive flooding in the region’s three provinces of Pattani, Yala, and especially Narathiwat.

Although they conveyed there is no clear evidence to prove it, some security officials also believe that the slowdown in violence stems from the crackdown on the infamous oil smuggling industry. The illegal trade made national headlines in December 2014 when Thai police arrested several police officers allegedly involved with the illegal industry.The police were tied to then Princess Srirasmi Akharapongpreechait, now the former wife of Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, the heir to the Thai throne.

For several years, the army had been investigating oil smuggling because some BRN figures allegedly use smuggling profits to financially support the movement’s armed struggle. A source with intimate knowledge of the case said that two BRN figures operate a company in northern Malaysia that works with the Sino-Thai mafia figure Sahachai Jiensermsin (aka Sia Jo), the alleged kingpin of this trade, in which oil from Malaysia and Singapore is smuggled into southern Thailand.

The army and police arrested Sia Jo in the Muslim region’s Pattani province last year, but he was later freed by police and has been on the run since last October. According to security officials, a prominent former Thai Buddhist Democrat Party MP who is widely regarded as the leading politician involved in the trade allegedly urged Malay Muslim separatists tied to the smuggling network to scale down attacks in light of the heightened attention on the trade.

No matter the underlying reasons for the reduction in violence, communication with soldiers who have had extensive experience in the region indicates that few believe that the army can curtail the violent separatist liberation movement to the extent that significant concessions need not be offered.

Some see a formal negotiation track and some form of autonomy as inevitable but not until well after the national-level conflict and ultra-sensitive royal succession are ironed out. With King Bhumibol Adulyadej 87 years old and in poor health, many high and mid-ranking soldiers believe that monarchial authority is bound to decline in the country over the long-term.

For the time being, however, the junta’s current allegiances to the old royal establishment and simultaneous reluctance to embrace dialogue in the same manner as the Thaksin-aligned Pheu Thai party are key reasons why insiders believe it is unable to garner support from both the Malay Muslim liberation movement and Malaysia.

Over the course of the past 11 years of unprecedented levels of violence, Malaysia has been reluctant to assist Thai authorities when they have requested their Malaysian counterparts to clamp down on insurgents using Malaysia as sanctuary and even training. It was only when Pheu Thai signaled dramatically more openness to dialogue that Malaysia began to cooperate with the Thais by nudging some Malaysian-based separatists to the dialogue table.

But now with the Thai army in control, Malaysia would prefer to stall the dialogue process and wait until a democratically-elected Thai government arrives, several well-placed sources contend. Similarly, sources in and around the BRN-led movement claimed that the fractured nationalist movement has little interest in kick-starting dialogue with groups in the state that have long been reluctant to consider autonomy.

Other separatist groups have been trying to piggy-back onto BRN and establish a role for current and future dialogue. For instance, for the past few years, factions from Patani United Liberation Organization (PULO) and Gerakan Mujahideen Islam Patani (GMIP), as well as BRN, have allegedly mobilized a group of insurgents to form the Patani Liberation Army (PLA), which sources say consists of merely 100 to 150 insurgents.

According to some sources, PLA was responsible for the bombs found in Phuket in 2013 as well as a bombing on Rhamkamhaeng Road in Bangkok in 2012, which left seven people injured. Some sources claim that Shamsuddin Khan and Kamae Yusoh, who hail from two separate factions of PULO, are core leaders of PLA. Both have been living in exile for decades but still maintain communication with separatist figures in the region.

In the early years of this current stretch of insurgent insurrection, GMIP was allegedly one separatist group with regional Islamist goals and had ties to Jemma Islamiyah, the Indonesian-based group with links to Al Qaeda. However, the separatist movement remains largely guided by ethnic nationalism, rather than pan-Islamist goals. Moreover, in spite of some known sympathy for ISIS in the Muslim minority region, any links would only invite unwanted foreign attention and even possibly force Malaysia to cooperate more with Thai security.

In the eyes of foreign legations, it is not the Malay Muslim separatist movement’s ambitions for some form of self-determination (e.g., autonomy or independence) that is the primary obstacle to better regulating the debilitating conflict, but instead the Thai establishment’s long-time reluctance to even consider significant concessions that could hold some appeal to the separatist movement and the minority region’s predominantly Malay Muslim population.