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.
The Thai government has restarted talks with the main insurgency in the country’s southernmost provinces. A quiet back channel helped the parties make progress – and reach a Ramadan ceasefire – while the official negotiations hosted by Malaysia paused. The parties should build on these achievements.
Pro-democracy demonstrators demanded PM Prayuth Chan-ocha’s resignation as opposition tabled no-confidence vote, while militant attacks resumed in deep south. Some 200 pro-democracy protesters in capital Bangkok 11 June marched from Democracy Monument to Victory Monument, demanding PM Prayuth Chan-ocha’s resignation. Following march, several dozen protesters pressed on to Din Daeng district toward Prayuth’s residence at 1st Infantry Regiment base; police confronted protesters who threw bottles, fireworks and set fire to police vehicle near Din Daeng intersection. Pro-democracy protesters 19 June held march on same route, calling for release of people jailed under lèse-majesté law and for law to be revoked; few dozen youths clashed with police at Din Daeng intersection, with no injuries reported but one person hospitalised following seizure, while police arrested two protesters aged 17 and 18. Meanwhile, opposition parties 15 June filed no-confidence vote against PM and ten cabinet ministers; censure debate expected mid-July; vote comes in wake of 22 May Bangkok governor election in which Chadchart Sittipunt — independent candidate and former member of Pheu Thai Party — won landslide victory; result widely interpreted as signal of declining electoral prospects for ruling Phalang Pracharat Party. In deep south, after Ramadan Peace Initiative expired mid-May, unknown attackers 1 June killed Malay-Muslim man in orchard in Bannang Sata district, Yala province; authorities did not draw direct link to insurgency. IED hidden in garbage truck 20 June exploded near police checkpoint in Panare district, Pattani province, wounding three police officers; assailant same night tossed hand grenade at sub-district security operations base in Raman district, Yala. Patani United Liberation Organization (PULO) leader Kasturi Makhota 20 June said PULO likely to join peace dialogue process between main separatist group Barisan Revolusi Nasional and govt.
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.
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.
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.
On 5 November, insurgents in southern Thailand staged their deadliest attack in years, killing fifteen people. Crisis Group’s South East Asia Senior Analyst, Matt Wheeler, explains what happened and what it means for the stagnant peace-dialogue process.
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.