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.
Anti-government protests and popular demands for reform, including of the once-sacrosanct monarchy, have accelerated in Thailand. In this Q&A, Crisis Group’s senior analyst for South East Asia, Matt Wheeler, explains how this crisis over political legitimacy has now reached a dangerous impasse.
Amid mass pro-democracy protests, authorities used emergency decree to crackdown on activists and low-level violence persisted in deep south. Following small-scale protests early Oct in capital Bangkok and provincial capitals, mass protest 14 Oct drew tens of thousands at Bangkok’s Democracy Monument before marching to Government House demanding resignation of PM Prayuth and his govt as well as new constitution and reform of monarchy. Royal motorcade of Queen Suthida and Prince Dipangkorn same day passed through protest area, prompting jeers from protesters. Citing motorcade incident, govt 15 Oct imposed “serious state of emergency”, prohibiting gatherings of over four people and broadening powers of arrest and censorship; police same day cleared protesters from around Government House. In defiance of emergency decree, however, anti-govt protests escalated for eight consecutive days: thousands 15 Oct gathered at Bangkok’s Rachaprasong intersection; police next day cracked down on demonstrators at Bangkok’s Pathumwan district; tens of thousands 17-19 Oct assembled in capital and in at least twenty provinces. Police 16-20 Oct arrested three activists for crime of threatening royal family. PM Prayuth 21 Oct said govt was willing to lift state of emergency if there was no further violence; thousands same day gathered at Victory Monument and marched through police barricades to Government House; protesters dispersed after giving Prayuth three-day deadline to resign. Royal Gazette 22 Oct said state of emergency was lifted. Extraordinary parliamentary session 26-27 Oct resulted in govt approval of proposed reconciliation committee but govt showed no signs of meeting protesters’ demands. Tens of thousands 26 Oct marched to German embassy in Bangkok demanding that Berlin determine if King Maha Vajiralongkorn violated German law by exercising political power while residing in Bavaria; German govt 28 Oct reportedly concluded no violation so far. Hundreds of royalists 27 Oct rallied at Lumpini Park. In deep south, suspected insurgents 9 Oct ambushed teacher protection team in Sai Buri district, Pattani province, killing one police and injuring two others; IED detonation in same area same day killed one ranger and wounded three others; roadside IED 12 Oct damaged armoured pick-up at Southern Border Provinces Administration Centre in Si Sakhon district, Narathiwat province.
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.
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.
Originally published in Bangkok Post