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
Violence in deep south escalated since late Dec with militants attacking symbolic and soft targets, including, for first time in years, Buddhist monks. Militants 8 Jan lynched retired Buddhist teacher in Saba Yoi district, Songkhla, and used victim’s truck as vehicle-borne IED, wounding two soldiers; defence minister blamed main Malay-Muslim separatist organisation Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN). Bomb in Yarang district, Pattani, same day targeted teacher-protection unit, wounding police officer and twelve-year-old girl. Militants 10 Jan killed four Muslim defence volunteers outside school in Yarang district, Pattani. Gunmen shot dead imam in Rueso district, Narathiwat province 11 Jan. Two insurgents killed in gun battle with security forces in Yaring district, Pattani, 12 Jan; one ranger and eight-year-old girl wounded. Six militants on motorcycles attacked police station in Khok Poh district, Pattani province 13 Jan, killing police officer. Security forces 18 Jan killed insurgent suspect in Chanea district, Narathiwat. Insurgents same day detonated two bombs in Pattani, wounding five soldiers and two police. Also on 18 Jan, militants attacked Buddhist temple in Sungai Padi, killing two monks. Three police and three civilians wounded in 25 Jan bombing in Krong Pinang, Pattani. Chief of Thailand’s peace-dialogue delegation 4 Jan met with Malaysian facilitator to discuss new framework for talks with BRN. BRN released video and statement dated 4 Jan marking fifteen-year anniversary of renewed insurgency, saying peace possible only if govt is sincere. Chief of delegation 11 Jan said govt would study political decentralisation as possible component of resolution. Royal decree published 23 Jan ordered general election, which Election Commission announced will take place 24 March; announcements calmed rising tensions and some protests after junta mid-Jan said previously promised 24 Feb election would not take place.
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