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.
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.
Student protests following Feb dissolution of opposition Future Forward Party (FFP) paused in the wake of concerns over COVID-19 spread, while Thai officials and Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) representatives met for second round of formal peace dialogue on ending conflict in deep south. Hundreds of students 13 March marched, carrying signs critical of govt and calling for new constitution. Protesters have since halted political gatherings due to concerns about COVID-19. Election Commission 10 March announced filing of criminal charges against FFP party founder Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit for “applying to be an MP candidate knowing he was not qualified” based on his holding of shares in defunct fashion magazine when he ran in March 2019 general election. Former FFP executives Piyabutr Saengkanokkul and Pannika Wanich, and MP Pita Limjaroenrat, leader of Move Forward Party, 16 March answered five charges related to Dec 2019 protest, including conspiring to hold gathering without notifying authorities. Thai officials and BRN representatives 2-3 March met for second round of formal peace dialogue in Malaysia’s capital Kuala Lumpur. Violence however continued in deep south: insurgents 7 March killed one police officer, wounded two in Sri Sakhon district, Narathiwat; gunmen 8 March killed assistant village headman in Yarang district, Pattani; military operation against militants 17-18 March left three militants dead after gunfight broke out on border between Pattani and Yala provinces, renewed clashes 18-19 March killed one militant and one soldier. Meanwhile, militants 17 March wounded 30 in vehicle-borne IED attack in front of Southern Border Provinces Administration Center in Yala town.
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.
Martial law has brought calm but not peace to Thailand’s febrile politics. The military regime’s stifling of dissent precludes a frank dialogue on the kingdom’s future and could lead to greater turmoil than that which brought about the May 2014 coup.
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
Originally published in Nikkei Asian Review