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.
Insurgent violence persisted in south and abduction of pro-democracy activist in exile sparked outrage and small-scale protests. In deep south, security forces 16 June exchanged fire with suspected insurgents in Saiburi district, Pattani; next day shot and killed suspected insurgent after he allegedly opened fire on them at checkpoint in Muang district, Pattani. Head of Thai delegation in Malaysia-brokered peace negotiations 19 June expressed his intention to restart talks with main insurgent group Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) in July or August. In two separate attacks, unidentified gunmen 22 June shot and killed village official and timber worker in Pattani and Yala provinces. In Cambodian capital Phnom Penh, unidentified gunmen 4 June abducted exiled Thai pro-democracy activist Wanchalerm Satsakit, who had fled Thailand after 2014 military coup; Wanchalerm’s disappearance 15 June sparked series of small-scale protests in capital Bangkok while prompting calls on social media to repeal article 112 of country’s criminal code under which insulting monarchy is punishable by up to 15 years in prison; PM Prayuth Chan-ocha same day warned activists that such criticism could damage their job prospects. To mark anniversary of 1932 coup that ended absolute monarchy, pro-democracy activists 24 June staged peaceful commemorations across country. Security officials 23 June attempted to link discovery of small-arms cache in Mae Sot, Tak province, on Myanmar border, to alleged anti-government plot to coincide with 1932 coup anniversary; in fact, arms were destined for rebels in Myanmar.
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