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Marking time on the Thai-Cambodian border conflict
Marking time on the Thai-Cambodian border conflict
Thailand: Malay-Muslim Insurgency and the Dangers of Intractability
Thailand: Malay-Muslim Insurgency and the Dangers of Intractability
Commentary / Asia

Marking time on the Thai-Cambodian border conflict

On 18 July 2011, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ordered Thailand and Cambodia to “immediately withdraw their military personnel” in the provisional demilitarised zone (PDZ) it created around the Preah Vihear temple, scene of a long-festering territorial dispute between the two countries. Last week, a year to the day of that order, the two sides with some pomp and ceremony replaced the soldiers on these frontlines with police and paramilitary border guards. While the word “immediate” seems to have its own meaning in this part of the world, it is good news. This belated bilateral agreement is starting to defer to the court’s decision last year and it will turn down the temperature of this simmering conflict. It might also allow for the deployment of a neutral ASEAN observer force; Indonesian soldiers have been on stand-by to fulfil this role for over a year now – their deployment would mark a new and positive chapter in proactive ASEAN peacemaking.

Fighting around the World Heritage listed Preah Vihear and two other nearby border temples flared in February and April 2011. In a clash unusual for the region, two treaty allies and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) briefly went to war, exchanging tens of thousands of artillery rounds, including cluster munitions. The fighting in 2011 killed an estimated 28 people, maimed many others, and led to the temporary displacement of tens of thousands.

As we analysed in our December 2011 report Waging Peace: ASEAN and the Thai-Cambodian Border Conflict, the friction that led to the fighting fuelled by Thai domestic politics, much of the heat went out of this conflict after the change of government in Bangkok in July that year. But despite this political shift, the underlying conflict was not resolved and the situation on the border did not immediately change. It remained over-militarised and often unnecessarily tense. Earlier this month there were reports, later denied by the Thais, of Cambodian troops shooting at a circling Thai airliner thinking it was a surveillance drone. The border dispute can never be solved by force but only through painstaking talks and surveys that are needed for its final demarcation. Having soldiers too close to each other also impedes a long-term grand plan of making all of ASEAN’s border zones of economic “connectivity” rather than the frontlines as many of them were during the Cold War.

The withdrawal announcement came after a meeting on 13 July between Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and his Thai counterpart Yingluck Shinawatra in Siem Reap. Thai Foreign Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul then gave more details after a 16 July meeting that the Royal Thai Army also planned to redeploy troops from the area. His announcement followed talks between senior Thai security officials to discuss implementation of the ICJ order and the Terms of Reference (TOR) of the Indonesian Observers Team (IOT). This needed to be done before the 54-year-old case goes back to the ICJ for more oral arguments on 15 – 19 April 2013 related to the ongoing Cambodian request to have the court once and for all define the borderline around the temple. On 18 July, Cambodia Defence Minister Tea Banh made it official in a speech at the temple, where 485 Cambodian soldiers drove off, to be replaced with 255 policemen and 100 temple guards. The two sides say they are planning to jointly demine the PDZ.

In a landmark passage of its July 2011 judgement – it must not be forgotten – the ICJ also ordered the parties to allow ASEAN appointed observers from Indonesia to have access to the disputed area, effectively to be its eyes and ears. The regional organisation had earlier set its own precedent by agreeing to such a monitoring mission in February after the initial clashes around Preah Vihear. Foreign Minister Surapong said the 16 July meeting resolved that the foreign affairs and defence ministries would jointly consider the rules for the Indonesians before submitting it to cabinet. It would be forwarded to parliament for approval in accordance with Article 190 Paragraph 2 of the Constitution. As observed inWaging Peace, the turbulent domestic politics in Thailand and the cumbersome (and even questionable) constitutional process in that country have always been an obstacle. A Cambodia official told Crisis Group this week it is ready to unilaterally receive Indonesian observers, after having approved them in May last year. Indeed, it has a lonely official waiting and a post on the border ready to receive them replete with ASEAN and Indonesian flags flying.

While this conflict may be heading in the right direction, it is doing so slowly. Beyond questions of timing, the border dispute and the deployment of observers is another litmus test for the Yingluck administration and its relationship with the military. The agreement is a qualified triumph as once again the question is being asked: who is in charge? Thai military Supreme Commander General Thanasak Patimapakorn told reporters on 20 July that observers were no longer needed. There appears to be some political demining still to be completed on the Thai side. Just like in 2011, the supreme commander, whose office oversees border affairs, seems to be out of step with the civilian government. Speaking as if he were the foreign minister he said: “Indonesia considers that if the two countries can talk, they will have no need to come in, and this is also the two nations’ stance”.

But is there still a need for the Indonesians? Crisis Group believes observers are still important to verify any agreement and prevent future turmoil. They also seem to still be on the trilateral agenda. On 19 July, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa met in Phnom Penh with his veteran Cambodian counterpart Hor Namhong to try and unravel another regional conflict in theSouth China Sea. A senior Indonesian official told Crisis Group that the ministers found time to discuss the plan to send observers to the Thai-Cambodian border, which was still being actively considered as they waited for the Thais to approve the TOR. In the meantime, the agreement to redeploy troops was a welcome development for South East Asia, with observers, anyway, just being a means to an end, which was peace.

This is coded language for all the parties not to expect too much, too soon. For foreigners living in Thailand this might be another illustration of “Thai time”, although Thais themselves would probably disagree that they have a punctuality problem. Indonesia, home to the culture of jam karet or rubber time, appears to be relaxed with this modest pace of progress. As Natalegawa becomes something of an expert on regional shuttle diplomacy, he knows all too well that even when ASEAN is “aggressively waging peace” it will do so at its own measured tempo.

Commentary / Asia

Thailand: Malay-Muslim Insurgency and the Dangers of Intractability

The Malay-Muslim separatist insurgency in Thailand’s South has little in common with jihadism, but persistent instability could provide openings for foreign jihadists who thrive on  disorder. In this excerpt from the Watch List 2017 – Second Update early warning report for European policy makers, Crisis Group urges the European Union and its member states to encourage Bangkok to accept some degree of decentralisation and to implement measures that can diminish radicalisation.

This commentary is part of our Watch List 2017 – Second Update.

The occurrence of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS)-linked or inspired violence in Jakarta, Mindanao, and Puchong, near Kuala Lumpur, has raised fears of a new era of transnational jihadist terrorism in South East Asia. To date, ISIS has used Thailand as a transit point rather than a target; indeed, there is no known case of a Thai citizen joining the group. But the persistence of a Malay-Muslim separatist insurgency in the kingdom’s southernmost provinces, where roughly 7,000 people have been killed since 2004, is a source of concern among some Western governments, Thai officials, local people and even some within the militant movement. Repeated, if poorly substantiated reports of ISIS activity in Thailand, from foreign fighters transiting through Bangkok to allegations of Malaysian ISIS members buying small arms in southern Thailand, have prompted questions about the insurgency’s susceptibility to radicalisation along transnational jihadist lines. Yet even absent intervention by foreign jihadists, the insurgency’s own dynamics could lead to greater violence.

Thus far, the separatist insurgency has had little in common with jihadism. Rooted in the country’s nearly two million Malay Muslims, who constitute a majority in the provinces of Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala, its aspirations are nationalist in nature: liberation of Patani, the homeland they consider to have been colonised by Thailand, and defence of Patani-Malay identity against so-called Siamification. Moreover, the insurgency draws support from traditionalist Islamic leaders, upholders of a syncretic, Sufi-inflected Islam who oppose the rigid views propagated by jihadists. Even the relatively small Salafi minority rejects ISIS’s brutal tactics and apocalyptic vision; some among them claim that ISIS is a product of Western machinations. For Barisan Revolusi Nasional Patani Melayu (BRN, Patani-Malay National Revolutionary Front), the main Malay-Muslim militant group, in other words, association with transnational jihadists would risk cutting them off from their base while triggering greater isolation. It could also internationalise efforts to defeat them.

Dangers of an Intractable Conflict

Yet perpetuation of the conflict risks altering its trajectory which, in turn, threatens to change the nature of the insurgency. In principle, this could potentially open opportunities for foreign jihadists, who have proven adept at exploiting other protracted conflicts. That remains for now a theoretical threat: little evidence thus far suggests jihadist penetration in Southern Thailand. As noted, neither the insurgency nor the broader Malay Muslim community has shown any inclination toward jihadism.

Without progress in peace talks or an inclusive dialogue, insurgents might resort to more dramatic acts of violence.

Without progress in peace talks or an inclusive dialogue, insurgents might resort to more dramatic acts of violence however. They already have shown they can stage attacks outside the deep south, as they did in August 2016 when they conducted a series of coordinated, small-scale bombings in seven resort areas, wounding European tourists among others. Militant groups also might splinter, with rival factions competing to demonstrate their capabilities to potential supporters and the government. In turn, increased violence or attacks against civilians – particularly outside the conflict zone – could fuel an anti-Islamic backlash and stimulate Buddhist nationalism, creating tensions between Muslim and Buddhist communities throughout the country. A prolonged conflict means more young Malay Muslims will have grown up in a polarised society and experienced traumatic events. This could split a more pragmatic elder generation from a more militant younger one.

Stalled dialogue

The surest way to reduce these risks would be to bring the insurgency to an end – a task at present both daunting and long-term. The ruling, military-led National Council for Peace and Order, which seized power in a May 2014 coup, is engaged in a dialogue with MARA Patani (Majlis Syura Patani, Patani Consultative Council), an umbrella group of five militant organisations whose leaders are in exile. But many perceive the dialogue, facilitated by Malaysia, essentially as a public-relations exercise through which Bangkok intends to signal its willingness to peacefully resolve the conflict without making any concessions. Likewise, there are doubts that MARA can control most fighters: although the BRN has the top three slots in MARA Patani’s leadership, BRN’s information department insists these members have been suspended and do not speak for the organisation.

After a year-and-a-half, the MARA process remains stuck. In April 2016, the Thai government balked at signing a Terms of Reference agreement to govern talks, which remain unofficial. At the time, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha argued that MARA lacked the necessary status to act as the government’s counterpart. After a hiatus, the two sides resumed their meetings in August and, in February 2017, they agreed in principle to establish “safety zones”, district-level compacts in which neither side would target civilians. They also agreed to form inclusive committees to investigate violent incidents, although details still need to be worked out and they have yet to announce a district for pilot implementation.

For its part, BRN insists on impartial international mediation and third-party observers as conditions for formal talks with Bangkok. In a 10 April 2017 statement, BRN’s information department reiterated these prerequisites and noted that negotiating parties themselves should design the process, a jab at Malaysia’s role as facilitator. Demonstrating that they exercised control over fighters, the BRN implemented an unannounced lull in attacks from 8 to 17 April, a period preceded and followed by waves of coordinated attacks across several districts.

In late June 2017, a senior Thai official said that the government might re-examine the issue of the identity of its counterpart, a rare public sign of high-level deliberation and possible flexibility. Although this could suggest willingness to consider BRN’s conditions – including the sensitive question of Malaysia’s role and that of any internationalisation – which it previously had rejected outright, it could also constitute another delaying tactic.

The National Council for Peace and Order apparently still clings to the conviction that the conflict can be resolved through attrition, enemy surrenders and economic development, without any fundamental change in state/society relations in the deep south. The military, whose entire ethos is based on the image of national unity and whose senior officers tend to view enhanced local power as a first step toward partition, is loath to contemplate autonomy or political decentralisation. Since taking power, it has suppressed once-lively public debate about decentralisation models, such as proposals for elected governors or sub-regional assemblies.

Options for the European Union

In this context, one of the international community’s longer-term goals should be to encourage Bangkok to accept some degree of political decentralisation as fully compatible with preservation of national unity. For the European Union (EU) and those EU member states that are engaged in the country such as Germany, in particular, an important objective would be to encourage the government to establish a more inclusive dialogue and to support it, when possible, through capacity building for both parties. Admittedly, their influence with the National Council for Peace and Order is limited. After the 2014 coup, the EU suspended official visits to and from Thailand, as well as negotiations for the Free Trade Agreement and the Partnership Cooperation Agreement, pending a return to elected government. Restrictions on popular representation, codified in the new constitution and laws, mean that even a general election, now scheduled for 2018, might not satisfy the EU’s requirement of functioning democratic institutions. Moreover, Bangkok is not yet prepared to countenance an EU role.

[The] EU and member states should urge the Thai government to restore civil liberties and freedom of expression to allow more open discussion and debate.

That aside, relations with Bangkok are not hostile; Thailand and the EU held a Senior Officials Meeting 9 June 2017 in Brussels, the first since 2012. When conditions permit, the EU should be well placed to support a peace process, given perceptions in Thailand of its impartiality. In the meantime, the EU and member states should continue encouraging the parties to deal with each other constructively. This could include sharing experiences in sub-national conflict resolution and political power devolution or offering training on matters such as negotiations, communication and conflict management.

In the near term, the EU and member states should urge the Thai government to restore civil liberties and freedom of expression to allow more open discussion and debate. Among other benefits, such steps would facilitate a public conversation within Malay Muslim communities that, in turn, might diminish risks of radicalisation. Already, the EU backs civil-society organisations’ endeavours to promote community and youth engagement in peace building. This ought to continue.