Thailand’s Junta Ignores Southern Thai Insurgency

Despite a commitment by the Thai junta that took power in 2014 to pursue talks with Muslim separatists in the far south of the country, the junta “has focused on preserving bureaucratic and military prerogatives” without any effort to resolve the long-running insurrection, according to the International Crisis Group.

Since the confrontation blew up in 2004, more than 6,000 people have died, both Muslims and Buddhists, and more than 10,000 have been injured. There are concerns that the insurgency, formerly an ethnic struggle for more autonomy, has been taken over by hardline Jihadis who have declared war on both the Buddhist minority and local Malay Muslim moderates.

The insurgency has grown less lethal over the past year, according to the ICG, but there are worrying indications militants may have expanded operations beyond the traditional conflict zone of the four southernmost provinces

An official dialogue process between Bangkok and separatist leaders that began in 2013 was doomed by divisions on both sides. Although the junta has vowed to pursue talks, the junta rejects pluralism and political debate, “promoting ‘Thainess’ and ‘unity’ concepts that are unlikely to reduce tensions in the south.”

Resolution of the conflict will instead require a new relationship between the national government and the people in the region, which means greater political decentralization which the junta is unlikely to provide.

“All sides should now work to prepare infrastructure for future talks, including dedicated dialogue teams, communications procedures and means for popular participation,” the ICG said.

The military’s lack of action has nullified a 2013 initiative of the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, which the coup overthrew. The government initiated a dialogue process, facilitated by Malaysia, with representatives of Barisan Revolusi Nasional Melayu Patani [the Patani-Malay National Revolutionary Front, or BRN], the principal insurgent group. After three plenary meetings, and before advancing to confidence-building measures, this “Kuala Lumpur Process” collapsed, undermined by rifts on both sides of the table.

“But though rushed and bungled, it changed the conflict’s dynamics,” according to the ICG. “A Thai government had acknowledged the political nature of the insurgency and committed to dialogue. BRN was compelled to depart from its habitual reticence and articulate a political platform. The dialogue also highlighted deficiencies that the protagonists must address if any new process is to succeed.”

For the militants, these include a lack of capacity within the political wing and internal discord on the merit of talks. The Thai side, the report said, also lacks experience in negotiations of this kind, and its internal divisions are arguably deeper than those on the militant side.

The military’s public skepticism about the Kuala Lumpur Process highlighted the fundamental problem of the institution’s independence from elected authority. After the May 2014 coup, this became moot. “The ruling National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) restructured the bureaucracy responsible for the region. Enhanced counter-insurgency measures contributed to a significant drop in violent incidents and casualties.”

But coordinated bombing attacks began to occur well outside the traditional conflict zone, and evidence of possible military operations on the tourist island of Phuket began to appear. On April 10, a car bomb on the tourist island of Koh Samui showed some of the hallmarks of militant attacks, and all known suspects in the incident are Malay Muslims, the IGC said. “These bombings could indicate a new phase of the conflict, though questions remain about the motivation behind them.”

While the junta has paid lip service to recommencing the dialogue, after more than a year in office, there is no evidence of progress although officials insist that they are quietly making secret overtures to potential militant interlocutors.

“The junta’s centralization of power and its sworn obligation to preserve the kingdom’s unity cast doubt, however, on its readiness to compromise.”

Some militant groups in exile have joined together to pursue dialogue under the banner of the Patani Consultative Council (Majilis Syura Patani, MARA Patani) but BRN hardliners so far have stayed on the sidelines.

“Without the movement’s full participation, any dialogue process would be forlorn,” the report says. “Given the current adverse environment for conducting substantive talks, the actors should concentrate for now on establishing a durable framework and institutions that can carry such negotiations forward when that environment becomes more favorable.”

Official dialogue should first focus on modest goals such as agreement on acceptable designations for all parties and communication protocols between delegations and with the media, the report recommended. “Agreement on procedural issues would represent genuine progress in what will be a long process.”