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Waiting for RI observers at Preah Vihear
Waiting for RI observers at Preah Vihear
Thailand: Malay-Muslim Insurgency and the Dangers of Intractability
Thailand: Malay-Muslim Insurgency and the Dangers of Intractability
Op-Ed / Asia

Waiting for RI observers at Preah Vihear

Originally published in The Jakarta Post

A year ago, Cambodia and Thailand fought a series of short but nasty skirmishes along their joint border. Efforts to reduce tensions through the deployment of Indonesian observers remain stillborn; one year on there are no observers and on the Cambodian side there is just a lone man with Indonesian and ASEAN flags blowing in the breeze.

The dispute, centered on the emblematic Preah Vihear Temple - in Cambodian territory but down the years oft-claimed by Thailand - was serious enough to seize the attention of the UN Security Council.

It also triggered signs that ASEAN wanted a more proactive role in ensuring stability in its region. This optimism, however, has given way to stasis and further questioning of the organization's ability to look after
its own backyard.

Earlier this month, I met an official from Cambodia's National Task Force whose job is to prepare the ground for the observers' arrival.

After I traveled four hours north from Siem Reap, home of the famous Angkor ruins, he picked me up in his new Mitsubishi flat bed with ASEAN logo decals and license plate: IOT 3.

IOT is for Indonesia Observer Team. Under the terms of reference signed by Cambodia in May 2011 ahead of the ASEAN Summit in Jakarta, there were to be 15 Indonesian soldiers and civilians on either side of the border.

Thailand has not signed the agreement and it never came into force. Then foreign minister Kasit Piromya initially announced Bangkok's agreement to the observer mission's deployment but objections from the military caused the historic deal to falter.

First, Thailand quibbled over the team's location, their name, their diplomatic status and what they would wear. Then Thai generals said they would not accept Indonesian soldiers in uniform on their soil as it was an
affront to their sovereignty.

A special meeting convened by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono on the sidelines of the summit could not remove the roadblock. A July 2011 decision of the International Court of Justice ordering their deployment was ignored.

The narrow interests of the Thai military trumped ASEAN's potential collective goal of coming up with a working mechanism to deal with violent conflict within its own membership.

Back in Cambodia's far north, on the border near Preah Vihear, bored Cambodian soldiers stare across the valley at their Thai counterparts; who seem, likewise, to have little else to do but in turn stare back. To occupy their time they eat, sleep, converse, play cards; it is too brutally hot to exercise. Some say they just want to go home.

After visiting the World Heritage temple site, we visited the empty headquarters of the ASEAN Mission for Cease-Fire Observation. The red and white Indonesian flag is everywhere. Had the Indonesians arrived, I asked?

No. What did my guide do all day? He waited for the Indonesians, was the response; he did not expect them anytime soon. This poor fellow, originally from Kompong Cham, Cambodia's border province with Vietnam many miles away, was like a sad facsimile of a character from a Conrad novel - sent out to the back of beyond by his bosses and, perhaps, forgotten.

A few days after my visit, on March 5, Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong and his Indonesian opposite number Marty Natalegawa met in Phnom Penh and reportedly discussed the IOT, but most officials in the capital seemed to want to forget about this problem in the year that is Cambodia's turn to chair ASEAN, and as Phnom Penh's efforts to secure a temporary seat on the UN Security Council intensify. Such is his life that my friend from the National Task Force waits for something that may never arrive.

But even if they were deployed, the observers would only solve part of the problem, as their area of operations only covers Preah Vihear and its environs, particularly the almost 18 square km provisional demilitarized area created by the ICJ decision.

Around 150 km to the west, troops from both countries face off against each other around the more obscure temples of Ta Moan and Ta Krabei. They are heavily armed, well dug-in, and so close that at Ta Moan they even share the same shade from the trees.

This is not sustainable - it is simply too risky that firefights could be triggered, even if only accidentally. Visiting Ta Moan, it was difficult to accept that Thailand and Cambodia, under the ASEAN umbrella, had sworn undying friendship toward each other.

The world's focus has shifted elsewhere, but here on this disputed frontier the conflict continues. The week before my visit gunshots terrified the residents of a nearby town; they turned out only to be soldiers shooting harmlessly into the air - last year's fighting suggests such noises might not always be so benign.

But rather than wait for the conflict to reignite and cause problems again for Cambodia, Thailand and ASEAN, there is a first step that could be taken toward preventing future misunderstandings and violent conflict - deploy the observers.

The flags are flying, the maps are posted, vehicles are fueled and, on the border, there is a lonely Cambodian official ready and waiting to provide a welcome.

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.