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Government, Rebels Must End Pernicious Impasse
Government, Rebels Must End Pernicious Impasse
Behind Bangkok’s Wave of Popular Dissent
Behind Bangkok’s Wave of Popular Dissent
Op-Ed / Asia

Government, Rebels Must End Pernicious Impasse

Originally published in Bangkok Post

The government and the rebels in the South are talking, and their words say they want to find a way to end the insurgency, but their actions suggest both sides would prefer the current dreadful stalemate to the difficult compromises that would be necessary for real peace.

The talks between government officials and Majlis Syura Patani (Patani Consultative Council) or Mara Patani, the umbrella body of five separatist groups, have made little progress and the main insurgent group, the Barisan Revolusi Nasional Melayu Patani (Patani-Malay National Revolutionary Front, BRN), has kept aloof from the process. A pernicious stalemate prevails, with both state and militants preferring hostilities to compromise.

Unlike a mutually destructive stalemate that compels compromise, the impasse in the far South is anodyne; though dreadful, it is insufficiently painful -- for the combatants at least -- to force them to seek a negotiated end to the conflict. The Thai government and BRN both have ready explanations for their reluctance resolve the conflict through talks.

The National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) professes to support dialogue to end the insurgency but has refused to endorse an official dialogue process with the Mara Patani. The NCPO appears to be caught between being seen, by local people and the international community, to do the right thing by talking and an abiding fear bordering on paranoia that dialogue will elevate the status of the separatists, paving the way for international intervention and eventual partition of the country.

For its part, BRN has rejected the existing process and impugned the Thai government's sincerity. It insists it will only join a dialogue process with international mediation and observers, a stipulation that stokes the regime's fears of internationalisation. But the BRN also seems to be inhibited by its own parochialism, evident in the lack of a detailed political platform and capacity to participate constructively in talks.

And without the BRN, the insurgent negotiators have a legitimacy problem. The Mara Patani was formed in 2015 specifically to negotiate with the government, but many observers doubt they can speak for a critical mass of fighters, or that they have the broad political networks within the southern provinces that would allow them to truly represent the views of ordinary people. Professed BRN members hold leading positions in the Mara Patani, but do not have the sanction of the group's leadership.

Meanwhile, with local civil society increasingly stifled, prospects for bringing popular pressure to bear for genuine dialogue are slim. On Wednesday, a network of civil society groups in the deep South organised a seminar in Pattani to commemorate the International Day of Peace. Although organisers had earlier obtained permission to hold the event, local authorities shut it down.

Under these circumstances, dialogue is stymied and violence persists. Coordinated bombings on Aug 11-12 bear the hallmarks of insurgent operations and represent a worrying escalation. These Mother's Day attacks on popular tourist areas north of the customary conflict zone in the southernmost provinces killed four people and wounded 30. Although senior officials continue to deny any connection between the bombings and the insurgency, police investigations indicate that insurgents carried out the attacks and all related arrest warrants are for Malay-Muslims.

Having crossed the threshold of operations against tourist targets, there is a real prospect the rebels will stage further attacks outside the customary conflict zone. The Mother's Day bombings indicate the militants' capacity to inflict greater damage on lives, property and the economy. This would be disastrous. They may succeed in damaging the tourism industry, but at the cost of pushing the government toward an iron-fisted response with enthusiastic support from a broader Thai public that to date has been largely indifferent to the insurgency. In turn, an enhanced security response risks fostering state abuses that fuel militant narratives of Siamese oppression, and potentially open the door to more extreme radicalisation. Should future attacks cause foreign fatalities, the BRN risks earning the international community's opprobrium, which it has so far avoided. 

The Mother's Day attacks illustrate the risks of pursuing a pro forma dialogue that leaves out the main insurgent group. The NCPO should reconsider its approach of containing the insurgency and seeking militant capitulation rather than a comprehensive political solution. The government needs to develop avenues of exchange with the BRN's leaders aimed at starting official peace talks. The NCPO should also restore rights to freedom of expression and assembly. A lasting resolution to the conflict requires sustained public participation.

The BRN should reciprocate any overtures from Bangkok and be prepared to show gestures of goodwill up to and including a ceasefire to demonstrate that it is genuinely interested in a compromise solution. The BRN should subordinate military operations to pursuit of viable political ends and observe its obligations under International Humanitarian Law, including an end to attacks on civilians.

Mara Patani can still play a constructive role, but it should be candid about the extent of its influence inside Thailand and work toward a broader dialogue that includes the BRN.

Divisions and capacity constraints pose major challenges but are a less immediate obstacle than a lack of determination to negotiate a settlement. The belligerents need to take seriously their obligation to those they claim to represent to find a peaceful resolution, based on a decentralised political order that respects local identity and aspirations while preserving the unitary state. The government needs to understand that there will be no peace without compromise, and that a degree of autonomy does not necessarily lead to national dissolution.

Pro-democracy protesters show the three-finger salute as they gather demanding the government to resign and to release detained leaders in Bangkok, Thailand 15 October 2020. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
Q&A / Asia

Behind Bangkok’s Wave of Popular Dissent

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.

Why are this week’s protests significant?

On the evening of 16 October, riot police used water cannons in central Bangkok to break up a crowd of several thousand mostly young protesters who were assembling for the second day in defiance of a ban on public gatherings. The episode marked a violent escalation in a series of pro-democracy protests that has been gaining momentum over the past three months and intensifying further over the past three days.

A day earlier, more than 10,000 demonstrators had gathered a few blocks away, defying measures announced the same morning under a “serious state of emergency”, which prohibits gatherings of over four people in the capital. The government put the extraordinary measures in place to “maintain peace and order” after marchers reached the prime minister’s office and held a large rally the day before. Despite threats that anyone attending or even promoting the protest online would be arrested, thousands flooded the Rachaprasong intersection, in the heart of the city’s shopping centre district, soon overwhelming the sizeable police deployment. The protesters occupied the area all evening, cheering a succession of speakers before dispersing peacefully. Rachaprasong is a place redolent with symbolism: it was the locus of 2010 protests demanding a new election, which were suppressed in a deadly crackdown by Thai army troops that May. 

Protesters called for the release of more than twenty activist leaders who had been arrested earlier in the day. Soon after authorities announced the new emergency decree, in the pre-dawn hours, the police had also chased hundreds of protesters away from the streets around Government House, where they had set up camp following a day-long march on 14 October. Much better attended than the government had expected, that march was also of symbolic significance as it coincided with the anniversary of the 1973 student-led uprising that toppled a military dictatorship.

The enhanced state of emergency failed to quash the popular movement.

The large turnout at Rachaprasong – on short notice and in defiance of authorities’ threats to arrest anyone joining – signalled that the enhanced state of emergency had failed to quash the popular movement. While most recent protests appeared to include a representative sample of the young, middle-aged and old, the crowd on 15 and 16 October was decidedly youthful, with most demonstrators appearing to be in their early twenties. Some in the crowd were high school students and first-time protesters, driven to join by what they saw as an unjust emergency decree clamping down on any expression of dissent.

Who are the protesters and what do they want? 

Street protests are a regular feature of Thai politics, but the 2020 gatherings are different from earlier rounds of collective action in two ways. First, students and young people, who were largely absent from the Red Shirt and Yellow Shirt movements that shook the country between 2006 and 2014, are the driving force of the present mobilisation. The youth accuse the current government of being a reincarnation of the junta that ruled between 2014 and 2019, laundered by the 2017 constitution and a slanted general election in March 2019. They insist that the government – particularly the (unelected) prime minister and ex-junta leader, Prayuth Chan-ocha – resign. Other demands include dissolution of parliament and a new constitution drafted with public consultation. 

Secondly, and more strikingly, activists are calling for reform of the monarchy – namely, that it be brought under the constitution. Anon Nampa, a human rights lawyer, thrust the country into a new era on 3 August when he called for palace reform at a small demonstration in Bangkok. On 10 August, at a rally at a university campus north of the capital, a young student activist, Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul, read a ten-point manifesto on reforming the monarchy, including an end to royal endorsement of coups d’état. Both of them were arrested on 15 October, along with other prominent and vocal students.

Activists are calling for reform of the monarchy – namely, that it be brought under the constitution.

Since these controversial speeches, protesters have criticised King Maha Vajiralongkorn, or Rama X, with unprecedented candour – for residing in Germany while the country faces the COVID-19 pandemic and for squandering the people’s taxes, among other issues. Until recently, such open criticism of the monarchy was unheard of in Thailand. It is punishable by up to fifteen years of prison. But while the harsh lèse-majesté law remains on the books, in practice, the longstanding taboo on public discussion of the monarchy has eroded surprisingly quickly over the last two months. Some protesters now openly lampoon the king, who acceded to the throne three years ago after his father, who had reigned for 70 years, died.

Despite this unprecedented criticism, which distresses many Thais, the government had refrained until 15 October from using the lèse-majesté law to curtail the protests. Police had arrested some student leaders for violating an earlier emergency decree imposed to support public health measures amid the pandemic and other laws, but then released them on bail. The students immediately returned to giving fiery speeches, and protests proliferated across the country, including a series of rallies by high school students demanding reform of the country’s stodgy and outmoded educational system. 

The government’s tolerance now appears exhausted.

The government’s tolerance now appears exhausted. The immediate pretext for the imposition of the “serious state of emergency” was alleged threats to Queen Suthida, whose motorcade passed anti-government protesters on 14 October, after apparently diverging from a planned route earlier cleared by police. Protesters raised three-finger salutes inspired by the popular Hunger Games film series – in which oppressed masses adopt the gesture as a symbol of defiance of tyranny – and jeered as the royal convoy passed, but there was no violence or obvious threat thereof. Two activists have since been arrested and charged with endangering the queen, which carries a potential sentence of life in prison. 

Why now?

Rallies calling for far-reaching political change started to escalate earlier this year, particularly on university campuses, after the Constitutional Court dissolved the upstart Future Forward Party in February. Established in 2018, the party had surprisingly come in third in last year’s general election, proving to be extremely popular with young voters. The COVID-19 pandemic stifled burgeoning demonstrations, but rallies resumed as the lockdown eased. The abduction of exiled activist Wanchalerm Satsakit in Cambodia in June – following the unexplained disappearance of at least eight others since 2016 – also sparked public outrage and galvanised a new generation of activists.

Faced with growing protests, the government seemed to relent on amending the 2017 constitution, a document drafted by junta appointees primarily to facilitate continued junta rule with a sheen of electoral legitimacy. But on 24 September, a two-day parliamentary debate on six amendment bills proposed by various parties ended without a vote, as the legislature went into recess until November. Any move to amend the constitution requires support from two thirds of the 250 appointed senators, which did not materialise. Instead, the governing Phalang Pracharat Party proposed a committee to study the bills for 30 days. Opposition parties walked out, denouncing what they viewed as a delaying tactic. Government officials have since hinted that charter amendment could take years, leading many to believe nothing will happen until the next general election in 2023. Protesters have little confidence in the government’s willingness to revise its bespoke political order.

What are the risks of a government crackdown? 

Thailand holds the world record for number of military coups, and its history is checkered with political violence. Many observers thus fear that the government – run largely by ex-generals – could opt for repression to quell the rising protests. The 15 October state of emergency, arrests of activists, and deployment of riot police against peaceful protesters mark a clear shift in the government’s response. With protesters emboldened by the 15 October rally’s success, they are likely to stage further demonstrations in Bangkok, in spite of warnings from senior government officials that all who participate face arrest and charges of violating the emergency decree. In view of the scale of recent rallies, more stringent government actions present a risk of violence greater than at any point since the April-May 2010 army crackdown that killed more than 90 people. 

The stakes of the conflict, including the monarchy’s role in Thai society, and the terms in which both sides are speaking about it, are elemental and fraught. For many Thais, the current moment evokes memories of 6 October 1976, when police and right-wing paramilitaries – set off by an alleged insult to Vajiralongkorn, who was then crown prince –massacred dozens of pro-democracy students at Thammasat University. 

What can be done to reduce tensions?

The conflict between proponents of popular sovereignty, on one hand, and a hierarchical order underpinned by the monarchy, on the other, is swiftly coming into sharp relief. There is no evident mechanism in Thai society for addressing this conflict, but there are actions that each side can take now to reduce tensions and move toward consensus. First, the protesters should continue to adhere to their pledge of non-violence. Secondly, the government should refrain from using force to disperse peaceful crowds, lift the state of emergency, and protect rights of assembly and free speech. Thirdly, the government should publicly commit to a brisk timetable for amending the constitution and paving the way for a constitutional drafting assembly. 

More daunting is the need for a fresh concord on the monarchy’s changing role. Government officials and royalists insist that public discussion of this role is off limits, but their position is, in light of recent events, anachronistic. The degree of repression necessary to effectively reinstate the prohibition, including online, would tarnish both the government and the monarchy. Given the propensity of the army to abrogate charters, a new constitution alone will not resolve Thailand’s crisis of political legitimacy, but it could be a starting point in the search for a new consensus on how political power should be acquired, exercised and held to account.