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.
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.
Protests continued amid growing calls for constitutional reform. In capital Bangkok, human rights lawyer Anon Nampa 3 Aug organised small demonstration at Democracy Monument, where in taboo-breaking speech he called for reform of monarchy; in response, senior govt official 5 Aug filed lèse-majesté complaint against Anon, and police 7 Aug arrested him and activist Panupong Jadnok for involvement in 18 July rally, releasing both on bail 9 Aug. More than 5,000 gathered 10 Aug at Thammasat University in Pathum Thani province, demanding dissolution of parliament, new constitution and end to harassment of govt critics; at end of rally, student activist Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul unveiled list of ten demands aimed at reforming monarchy, including revoking lèse-majesté law and prohibiting king from endorsing coups. PM Prayuth Chan-ocha 11 Aug said protesters had gone “too far”. Prayuth 13 Aug called on Thai citizens to reject efforts to divide them. Police 14 Aug arrested protest organiser Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak in Nonthaburi province, released him on bail following day. Activist group Free People 16 Aug organised largest pro-democracy rally since 2014 coup as some 20,000 gathered at Democracy Monument. Police 19-20 Aug arrested nine activists including Anon, all released on bail 20 Aug. Authorities 26 Aug arrested two Free Youth Movement leaders and charged them with sedition among other crimes before releasing them on bail. Anti-govt protesters gathered overnight at 14 October Monument 27-28 Aug; protesters scuffled briefly with police. Prayuth 4 Aug said govt would propose constitutional amendments to parliament but reneged on his promise 18 Aug; Army Chief General Apirat Kongsompong 19 Aug said he had no objection to amending constitution. Facebook 24 Aug complied with govt request to block access in Thailand to Royalist Marketplace, a satirical page with more than one million members; Facebook said it would challenge legality of govt order. Cabinet 25 Aug approved extension of COVID-19 emergency decree for one month until 30 Sep. In deep south, suspected insurgent bombings 13 Aug killed two rangers in Pattani and Narathiwat provinces; security forces 14-16 Aug killed seven suspected insurgents in Pattani province.
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
Originally published in The New York Times