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.
Anti-government protests and popular demands for reform, including of the once-sacrosanct monarchy, have accelerated in Thailand. In this Q&A, Crisis Group’s senior analyst for South East Asia, Matt Wheeler, explains how this crisis over political legitimacy has now reached a dangerous impasse.
Protests continued to grow in size as demonstrators staged largest pro-democracy rally since 2014 military coup; Muslim leaders proposed small measures to address local demands in deep south. Amid near-daily small-scale demonstrations mainly in capital Bangkok, police 1 Sept arrested activist and president of Student Union of Thailand, Jutatip Sirikhan, who was granted bail same day. Police 3 Sept arrested protest leaders Anon Nampa and Panupong Jadnok after Bangkok Criminal Court ruled they had breached their Aug bail terms by continuing to take part in protests, both released 7 Sept after police withdrew request to detain them; Constitutional Court 16 Sept accepted complaint accusing Anon, Panupong and Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul of attempting to overthrow govt. Also in Bangkok, on field adjacent to Grand Palace, activist group United Front of Thammasat and Demonstration 19 Sept organised largest pro-democracy rally since 2014 coup with more than 30,000 demanding dissolution of parliament, new constitution, end to harassment of activists and reform of monarchy. Demonstrators next morning installed plaque commemorating transition from absolute monarchy to democracy and attempted to deliver letter to king’s Privy Council demanding action on ten-point manifesto to reform monarchy. After police prevented protesters from reaching Privy Council offices, they handed letter to senior police officer. Protest organiser Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak 20 Sept called for general strike on 14 Oct, anniversary of 1973 student uprising. Palace 15 Sept announced that king had approved appointment, effective 30 Sept, of army chief General Apirat Kongsompong and head of corrections department Police Colonel Narat Sawettanan as deputies to Lord Chamberlain of Royal Household. Parliament 24 Sept postponed vote on constitutional amendments, instead voted to form another committee to consider charter change. In deep south, security forces 6 Sept killed two suspected insurgents in Thepa district, Songkhla province. Head of Thai delegation in peace negotiations with insurgents 13 Sept met with Muslim leaders in Nong Chik, Pattani, who proposed making Friday – Islam’s holy day – a public holiday, posting village signs in Thai, English and Malay and declaring latter as an official language in southern provinces.
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.
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.
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