Thailand’s junta has relinquished military rule in favour of pseudo-democracy in which a pro-military party governs with a narrow parliamentary majority. There are no obvious near-term triggers for political turmoil in Thailand, but the country’s fundamental political and social divisions have not been bridged, and there is potential for future conflict. In the deep south, the Malay-Muslim separatist insurgency continues, while the dialogue process appears moribund. Crisis Group aims to reduce the risk of escalation in the south and limit medium-term threats to political stability by supporting strengthened democratic institutions and promoting substantive peace talks.
Youth-led protests demanding a new constitution and reforms to Thailand’s monarchy led the country to a perilous juncture in 2020. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2021, Crisis Group urges the EU and its member states to push for the cessation of excessive use of force against protesters, strengthen efforts to monitor the human rights situation and offer support should a reconciliation process materialise.
Pro-democracy activists held protests throughout month on smaller scale, while violence continued in deep south. Pro-democracy protest movement continued activities throughout month in capital Bangkok and other cities, calling for release of jailed 22 protest leaders, amendment of lèse-majesté law and reform of monarchy; resurgent COVID-19 cases throughout month ensured turnout at protests remained in lower, double-digit figures. Leaderless rallies earlier in month descended into violent clashes between protesters and police. Two prominent protest leaders in detention remained on hunger strike; at least 83 people have been summoned by police on lèse-majesté charges since law was revived in Nov. Core leader of National United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship Jatuporn Prompan 4 April launched group called “People United” at rally in Bangkok, seeking ouster of PM Prayuth Chan-ocha. Violence in deep south continued. In Pattani province, clash between militants and police 6 April killed Muslim religious leader in Khok Pho district; six assailants 12 April seized two Muslim assistant village chiefs before setting fire to road-repair work site in Thung Yang Daeng district; two cell towers, CCTV camera, tires and security post 13-14 April were set alight in Yarang and Thepa districts. In Bacho district, Narathiwat province, marine outpost 13 April was targeted by pipe bomb. Militants 22 April threw IED at defence volunteer outpost in Yi-ngo district, Narathiwat; in ensuing gun battle, police killed one militant and arrested two others. In Sai Buri district, Pattani, motorcycle-borne gunmen opened fire on pickup truck, forcing it off the road and setting it alight, killing driver and two passengers.
Sound public health policies have largely spared Thailand from the coronavirus to date. But a looming economic crisis could shake the foundations of the political order. What is needed is revision of the 2017 constitution to allow for more pluralism and less inequality.
Talks to end the insurgency in Thailand’s southernmost provinces have repeatedly encountered obstacles, including the main rebel organisation’s abstention from the current round. With a new Thai official taking charge, and inviting that group to rejoin, both parties should drop objections that have hindered progress.
Thailand’s Malay-Muslim insurgency appears to some observers a potential seedbed for transnational jihadism, but the separatist fronts do not share ideologies or objectives with ISIS or al-Qaeda. The future is uncertain, and a resolution of the conflict, based on political decentralisation, could help deter prospective jihadist expansion in southernmost Thailand.
The August bombings in seven of Thailand's tourist towns portend a wider conflict, while the peace dialogue process has lost momentum. To get back on track, fragmented militants must end doubtful hopes of victory through violence, and the government must commit to a comprehensive settlement, including decentralisation and respect for the deep south’s Malay-Muslim identity.
Thailand’s military regime promised a return to democracy, but keeps prolonging its power by delaying general elections. Beyond a new constitution, Thailand needs a new social contract to resolve the crippling struggle between elected politicians and an unelected establishment that includes the army, bureaucracy and palace.
The insurgency that has plagued southern Thailand for more than a decade continues to fester. Peace talks have collapsed and rifts between the government and separatists remain deep. Resolving the conflict requires Bangkok to accept pluralism and decentralisation, and rebels to articulate their goals and commit to a dialogue process.
I think the reason [for the new talks in Thailand] is that [the Muslim separatists] recognize that the conflict is not going to end on the battlefield for them; it's going to have to end at the negotiating table.
As difficult as the [peace process in Thailand] has been up to this point, the most difficult work remains to be done.
[The Barisan Revolusi Nasional sees its struggle as] nationalist and anti-colonial. Subordinating their struggle to a forlorn agenda imposed by outsiders would be counter-productive, if not suicidal.
The militants [of the National Revolutionary Front] continue to demonstrate that they have the capabilities to launch attacks across the region despite of the security measures by the Thai state.
[The main southern Thai insurgent group BRN] perceive the current (peace) process as one driven by Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur for their own interests.
The bombings [in Thailand] may have been intended to compel the military government to reconsider its approach to the conflict in the deep south.
On 5 November, insurgents in southern Thailand staged their deadliest attack in years, killing fifteen people. Crisis Group’s South East Asia Senior Analyst, Matt Wheeler, explains what happened and what it means for the stagnant peace-dialogue process.
Crisis Group’s second update to our Watch List 2017 includes entries on Nigeria, Qatar, Thailand and Venezuela. These early-warning publications identify conflict situations in which prompt action by the European Union and its member states would generate stronger prospects for peace.
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.