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Thailand: Malay-Muslim Insurgency and the Dangers of Intractability
Thailand: Malay-Muslim Insurgency and the Dangers of Intractability
A muslim women looks through the window of a train next to an armed security personnel before departing a station in the troubled Yala province in the southern Thailand, on 28 February 2011. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
Report 270 / Asia

Southern Thailand: Dialogue in Doubt

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.

Executive Summary

The south Thailand insurgency has grown less lethal over the past year, but there are worrying indications militants may have expanded operations beyond the traditional conflict zone of the four southernmost provinces. Malay-Muslim rebels have been fighting against Thai rule for more than a decade in what they see as a national-liberation struggle. An official dialogue process between Bangkok and separatist leaders that began in 2013 was doomed by divisions on both sides. Since the 22 May 2014 coup in Bangkok, the junta has focused on preserving bureaucratic and military prerogatives. Although it has vowed to pursue talks, the junta rejects pluralism and political debate, promoting “Thainess” and “unity” concepts that are unlikely to reduce tensions in the south. Resolution of the conflict demands a new relationship between the state and society in the region, which will most likely require greater political decentralisation. All sides should now work to prepare infrastructure for future talks, including dedicated dialogue teams, communications procedures and means for popular participation.

Map of Thailand’s Southernmost Provinces CRISIS GROUP

In February 2013, the Yingluck Shinawatra government initiated a dialogue process, facilitated by Malaysia, with representatives of Barisan Revolusi Nasional Melayu Patani (Patani-Malay National Revolutionary Front, BRN), the principal insurgent group. After three plenary meetings, and before advancing to confidence-building measures, this “Kuala Lumpur Process” collapsed, undermined by rifts on both sides of the table, but though rushed and bungled, it changed the conflict’s dynamics. A Thai government had acknowledged the political nature of the insurgency and committed to dialogue. BRN was compelled to depart from its habitual reticence and articulate a political platform.

The dialogue also highlighted deficiencies that the protagonists must address if any new process is to succeed. For the militants, these include a lack of capacity within the political wing and internal discord on the merit of talks. The Thai side also lacks experience in negotiations of this kind, and its internal divisions are arguably deeper than those on the militant side. The military’s public scepticism about the Kuala Lumpur Process highlighted the fundamental problem of the institution’s independence from elected authority.

After the May 2014 coup, this became moot. The ruling National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) restructured the bureaucracy responsible for the region. Enhanced counter-insurgency measures contributed to a significant drop in violent incidents and casualties. In spite of this achievement, the security picture is mixed. Late 2013 witnessed coordinated bomb attacks outside the traditional conflict zone and disquieting evidence of possible militant operations in Phuket. On 10 April 2015, a car bomb on the tourist island of Koh Samui showed some of the hallmarks of militant attacks, and all known suspects in the incident are Malay Muslims. These bombings could indicate a new phase of the conflict, though questions remain about the motivation behind them.

The military government has formally committed to dialogue, but after a year in office, there is no evidence of progress. Officials insist that they are quietly making secret overtures to potential militant interlocutors. The junta’s centralisation of power and its sworn obligation to preserve the kingdom’s unity cast doubt, however, on its readiness to compromise. Some militant groups in exile have joined together to pursue dialogue under the banner of the Patani Consultative Council (Majilis Syura Patani, MARA Patani) but BRN hardliners remain uncommitted. Without the movement’s full participation, any dialogue process would be forlorn.

Given the current adverse environment for conducting substantive talks, the actors should concentrate for now on establishing a durable framework and institutions that can carry such negotiations forward when that environment becomes more favourable. Once initiated, official dialogue should first focus on modest goals such as agreement on acceptable designations for all parties and communication protocols between delegations and with the media. Agreement on procedural issues would represent genuine progress in what will be a long process.

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.