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A Coup Ordained? Thailand’s Prospects for Stability
A Coup Ordained? Thailand’s Prospects for Stability
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Thailand: Malay-Muslim Insurgency and the Dangers of Intractability
Thailand: Malay-Muslim Insurgency and the Dangers of Intractability
Report 263 / Asia

A Coup Ordained? Thailand’s Prospects for Stability

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.

Executive Summary

On 22 May, for the twelfth time in Thailand’s history, the army seized power after months of political turbulence. This is not simply more of the same. The past decade has seen an intensifying cycle of election, protest and government downfall, whether at the hands of the courts or military, revealing deepening societal cleavages and elite rivalries, highlighting competing notions of legitimate authority. A looming royal succession, prohibited by law from being openly discussed, adds to the urgency. A failure to fix this dysfunction risks greater turmoil. The military’s apparent prescription – gelding elected leaders in favour of unelected institutions – is more likely to bring conflict than cohesion, given a recent history of a newly empowered electorate. For the army, buyer’s remorse is not an option, nor is open-ended autocracy; rather its legacy, and Thailand’s stability, depend on its success in forging a path – thus far elusive – both respectful of majoritarian politics and in which all Thais can see their concerns acknowledged.

The coup’s stage was set by yet another round of a power struggle between forces allied with former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his opponents in the traditional establishment and urban middle class. Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, who won office in 2011, faced large anti-government protests from November 2013 following an ill-judged bid by her party to pass an amnesty law that would have allowed for the return to Thailand of her brother, in self-exile since 2008. The protesters, sensing the moment, wanted to bring down the government, citing “parliamentary dictatorship”, runaway populism and alleged corruption. Yingluck called a general election, but it was boycotted by the main opposition, subject to disruption and invalidated by the Constitutional Court. In May, the same court forced Yingluck from office for an administrative violation. With the caretaker government hobbled but refusing to resign, the army declared martial law and seized power.

Yingluck’s ouster and the coup echo earlier rounds of turmoil. Thaksin-affiliated parties have won every general election since 2001, usually in the face of staunch establishment resistance, and none but his first government has been permitted to see out their term. Thaksin showed an authoritarian bent, yet his parties win each time there is a return to the polls. Under these circumstances, the ouster of Yingluck’s government seemed to many – both those for and against it – as almost inevitable. This time, the more active role of the military in government, the intensifying political divide and the impending royal succession create a tightening torque of tension that might prove difficult to roll back.

In seizing power so soon after its last intervention in 2006, and following its involvement in violently quelling 2010 street protests, the military, under General Prayuth Chan-ocha, appears determined to learn from what it sees to have been its past errors. Thus, the ruling National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) has moved forcefully to repress dissent and looks unlikely to relinquish power any time soon, with talk of October 2015 elections now replaced with vaguer commitments. Further, the interim charter gives absolute power to the NCPO, including amnestying its members for past and future actions. It provides no role for elected representatives or means for popular political participation. The parameters it sets out for the next constitution suggest elected authority will be heavily circumscribed, previous efforts to tamp down the influence of Thaksin and his proxies having failed.

It is far from certain that the electorate will quietly accept such a diminished status. Voters, increasingly accustomed to choosing their governments, are also ever more riven across geographical, to some extent class, and quasi-ideological lines. These interlocking and fundamental challenges concern the relationship between Bangkok and its peripheries; persistent income inequality; and the reality that the country’s leaders – caught in a clash between those for whom the popular ballot is paramount and those for whom majoritarianism masks its own form of tyranny – find dogmatism easier to come by than statesmanship.

After months of political turmoil, the economy is sluggish. In spite of its proclaimed anti-populism, the military has found no alternative to extensive public spending. The decade-old separatist insurgency in the Malay-Muslim-majority southern provinces grinds on. The NCPO insists it will pursue dialogue with militant leaders, but its refusal to countenance any form of special administration for the region calls into question the rationale for talks.

Absent a change of course, the NCPO’s suspension of civil liberties, media censorship and measures to remove the power of elected officials appear to foreclose any possibility of achieving its stated aim of establishing democracy. Thailand’s biggest need is for a national dialogue to forge consensus on its future political direction; to settle on a shared notion of democracy; and to ensure that the majoritarian will can be respected in the form of a fully empowered executive and legislature, while protecting the interests of all.

Stronger institutions for representation and accountability are the best hope for more responsive and resilient government. Without them, individuals and groups are cast back upon opaque patron-client relations to secure their interests. The independent agencies must be impartial and the independence of the judiciary upheld. There needs to be consideration as to whether greater decentralisation could accommodate regional differences and reduce the stakes of controlling national government. Until state power answers to elected authority, stability and democracy will be elusive. This requires, in part, that elected authorities observe limits on power that ensure transparency and protect the rights of political minorities; addressing corruption, a significant challenge, will require concerted measures within that democratic framework.

Like the 1991 and 2006 coups, that of 2014 did not provoke an immediate violent backlash. Many welcomed the army’s intervention to restore order, stamp out corruption and “move the country forward”. But both earlier coups eventually resulted in deadly confrontations between troops and protesters. The current build-up of pressures suggests that past may prove to be prologue.

Brussels/Bangkok, 3 December 2014

Commentary / Asia

Thailand: Malay-Muslim Insurgency and the Dangers of Intractability

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.

This commentary is part of our Watch List 2017 – Second Update.

The occurrence of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS)-linked or inspired violence in Jakarta, Mindanao, and Puchong, near Kuala Lumpur, has raised fears of a new era of transnational jihadist terrorism in South East Asia. To date, ISIS has used Thailand as a transit point rather than a target; indeed, there is no known case of a Thai citizen joining the group. But the persistence of a Malay-Muslim separatist insurgency in the kingdom’s southernmost provinces, where roughly 7,000 people have been killed since 2004, is a source of concern among some Western governments, Thai officials, local people and even some within the militant movement. Repeated, if poorly substantiated reports of ISIS activity in Thailand, from foreign fighters transiting through Bangkok to allegations of Malaysian ISIS members buying small arms in southern Thailand, have prompted questions about the insurgency’s susceptibility to radicalisation along transnational jihadist lines. Yet even absent intervention by foreign jihadists, the insurgency’s own dynamics could lead to greater violence.

Thus far, the separatist insurgency has had little in common with jihadism. Rooted in the country’s nearly two million Malay Muslims, who constitute a majority in the provinces of Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala, its aspirations are nationalist in nature: liberation of Patani, the homeland they consider to have been colonised by Thailand, and defence of Patani-Malay identity against so-called Siamification. Moreover, the insurgency draws support from traditionalist Islamic leaders, upholders of a syncretic, Sufi-inflected Islam who oppose the rigid views propagated by jihadists. Even the relatively small Salafi minority rejects ISIS’s brutal tactics and apocalyptic vision; some among them claim that ISIS is a product of Western machinations. For Barisan Revolusi Nasional Patani Melayu (BRN, Patani-Malay National Revolutionary Front), the main Malay-Muslim militant group, in other words, association with transnational jihadists would risk cutting them off from their base while triggering greater isolation. It could also internationalise efforts to defeat them.

Dangers of an Intractable Conflict

Yet perpetuation of the conflict risks altering its trajectory which, in turn, threatens to change the nature of the insurgency. In principle, this could potentially open opportunities for foreign jihadists, who have proven adept at exploiting other protracted conflicts. That remains for now a theoretical threat: little evidence thus far suggests jihadist penetration in Southern Thailand. As noted, neither the insurgency nor the broader Malay Muslim community has shown any inclination toward jihadism.

Without progress in peace talks or an inclusive dialogue, insurgents might resort to more dramatic acts of violence.

Without progress in peace talks or an inclusive dialogue, insurgents might resort to more dramatic acts of violence however. They already have shown they can stage attacks outside the deep south, as they did in August 2016 when they conducted a series of coordinated, small-scale bombings in seven resort areas, wounding European tourists among others. Militant groups also might splinter, with rival factions competing to demonstrate their capabilities to potential supporters and the government. In turn, increased violence or attacks against civilians – particularly outside the conflict zone – could fuel an anti-Islamic backlash and stimulate Buddhist nationalism, creating tensions between Muslim and Buddhist communities throughout the country. A prolonged conflict means more young Malay Muslims will have grown up in a polarised society and experienced traumatic events. This could split a more pragmatic elder generation from a more militant younger one.

Stalled dialogue

The surest way to reduce these risks would be to bring the insurgency to an end – a task at present both daunting and long-term. The ruling, military-led National Council for Peace and Order, which seized power in a May 2014 coup, is engaged in a dialogue with MARA Patani (Majlis Syura Patani, Patani Consultative Council), an umbrella group of five militant organisations whose leaders are in exile. But many perceive the dialogue, facilitated by Malaysia, essentially as a public-relations exercise through which Bangkok intends to signal its willingness to peacefully resolve the conflict without making any concessions. Likewise, there are doubts that MARA can control most fighters: although the BRN has the top three slots in MARA Patani’s leadership, BRN’s information department insists these members have been suspended and do not speak for the organisation.

After a year-and-a-half, the MARA process remains stuck. In April 2016, the Thai government balked at signing a Terms of Reference agreement to govern talks, which remain unofficial. At the time, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha argued that MARA lacked the necessary status to act as the government’s counterpart. After a hiatus, the two sides resumed their meetings in August and, in February 2017, they agreed in principle to establish “safety zones”, district-level compacts in which neither side would target civilians. They also agreed to form inclusive committees to investigate violent incidents, although details still need to be worked out and they have yet to announce a district for pilot implementation.

For its part, BRN insists on impartial international mediation and third-party observers as conditions for formal talks with Bangkok. In a 10 April 2017 statement, BRN’s information department reiterated these prerequisites and noted that negotiating parties themselves should design the process, a jab at Malaysia’s role as facilitator. Demonstrating that they exercised control over fighters, the BRN implemented an unannounced lull in attacks from 8 to 17 April, a period preceded and followed by waves of coordinated attacks across several districts.

In late June 2017, a senior Thai official said that the government might re-examine the issue of the identity of its counterpart, a rare public sign of high-level deliberation and possible flexibility. Although this could suggest willingness to consider BRN’s conditions – including the sensitive question of Malaysia’s role and that of any internationalisation – which it previously had rejected outright, it could also constitute another delaying tactic.

The National Council for Peace and Order apparently still clings to the conviction that the conflict can be resolved through attrition, enemy surrenders and economic development, without any fundamental change in state/society relations in the deep south. The military, whose entire ethos is based on the image of national unity and whose senior officers tend to view enhanced local power as a first step toward partition, is loath to contemplate autonomy or political decentralisation. Since taking power, it has suppressed once-lively public debate about decentralisation models, such as proposals for elected governors or sub-regional assemblies.

Options for the European Union

In this context, one of the international community’s longer-term goals should be to encourage Bangkok to accept some degree of political decentralisation as fully compatible with preservation of national unity. For the European Union (EU) and those EU member states that are engaged in the country such as Germany, in particular, an important objective would be to encourage the government to establish a more inclusive dialogue and to support it, when possible, through capacity building for both parties. Admittedly, their influence with the National Council for Peace and Order is limited. After the 2014 coup, the EU suspended official visits to and from Thailand, as well as negotiations for the Free Trade Agreement and the Partnership Cooperation Agreement, pending a return to elected government. Restrictions on popular representation, codified in the new constitution and laws, mean that even a general election, now scheduled for 2018, might not satisfy the EU’s requirement of functioning democratic institutions. Moreover, Bangkok is not yet prepared to countenance an EU role.

[The] EU and member states should urge the Thai government to restore civil liberties and freedom of expression to allow more open discussion and debate.

That aside, relations with Bangkok are not hostile; Thailand and the EU held a Senior Officials Meeting 9 June 2017 in Brussels, the first since 2012. When conditions permit, the EU should be well placed to support a peace process, given perceptions in Thailand of its impartiality. In the meantime, the EU and member states should continue encouraging the parties to deal with each other constructively. This could include sharing experiences in sub-national conflict resolution and political power devolution or offering training on matters such as negotiations, communication and conflict management.

In the near term, the EU and member states should urge the Thai government to restore civil liberties and freedom of expression to allow more open discussion and debate. Among other benefits, such steps would facilitate a public conversation within Malay Muslim communities that, in turn, might diminish risks of radicalisation. Already, the EU backs civil-society organisations’ endeavours to promote community and youth engagement in peace building. This ought to continue.