Following the smooth royal succession, and with the military government firmly in control,there are no obvious triggers in Thailand for political turmoil in the near term. Yet the country’s fundamental political and social divisions have not been bridged, and there is potential for future conflict between elected and unelected authorities. In the deep south, the Malay-Muslim separatist insurgency continues, as does a sterile and slow-moving peace-dialogue process that is rejected by the main insurgent group. Crisis Group aims to reduce the risk of escalation in the south and limit medium-term threats to political stability by supporting the strengthening of Thailand’s democratic institutions and promoting substantive peace talks.
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.
Originally published in The New York Times
While country prepared for 24 March general election, MARA Patani umbrella group of Malay-Muslim separatist fronts suspended moribund peace-dialogue process with Bangkok. After Thai dialogue chief General Udomchai Thammasaroraj refused to meet group in Kuala Lumpur 3 Feb, saying he would only meet with MARA Patani chief Sukri Hari, MARA released statement condemning what it called “hidden agenda” and Udomchai’s “unacceptable attitude”, and suspended participation in process until after election. Several killed in continuing violence in deep south. Incidents included: security forces killed two suspected militants in Chanae district, Narathiwat, 11 Feb, believed to be involved in 18 Jan slaying of two monks in Sungai Padi district; gunmen killed two Muslim farmers in Yaha district, Yala province 14 Feb; bombing killed ranger and wounded two other people in Bannag Satar, Yala, 26 Feb; and two plainclothes police officers were abducted from tea shop and executed in Cho Airong, Narathiwat 27 Feb. Shock announcement 8 Feb that Princess Ubolratana, older sister of King Maha Vajiralongkorn, would stand for PM for recently formed Thai Raksa Chart Party, which is aligned with former PM Thaksin Shinawatra, roiled political landscape. Move prompted speculation that king had broken with ruling National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), however he issued statement hours later quashing her candidacy. With election widely viewed as a contest between pro- and anti-junta parties, NCPO 20 Feb filed criminal charges against popular leader of anti-junta Future Forward Party, for critique of junta posted on his Facebook page in June 2018, potentially disqualifying him and his party from election.
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.
After a decade of violence, the capabilities of Malay-Muslim insurgents in Thailand’s Deep South are outpacing the counter-measures of successive governments in Bangkok that have been mired in complacency and protracted national-level political disputes.
[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.
Two years of military rule haven't really resolved any of the fundamental problems [in Thailand] ... and the constitution won't succeed in doing that either. The day of reckoning is just being delayed.
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.
Originally published in Bangkok Post
Originally published in Nikkei Asian Review
Originally published in The Interpreter