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Southern Thailand: Moving Towards Political Solutions?
Southern Thailand: Moving Towards Political Solutions?
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 181 / Asia

Southern Thailand: Moving Towards Political Solutions?

On taking office, Thai Prime Min­­ister Abhisit Vejjajiva pledged to reclaim policy on the southern insurgency from the military.

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Executive Summary

On taking office, Thai Prime Min­­ister Abhisit Vejjajiva pledged to reclaim policy on the southern insurgency from the military. But a year of distracting fights between supporters of the establishment and an ousted populist leader has meant little progress in resolving violence in the South. Despite glimpses of new thinking in Bangkok, the weakness of the government and its reliance on the military for political support have meant the top brass still dominates policymaking in the predominantly Malay Muslim South. Harsh and counterproductive laws remain in force and there are no effective checks on abuses by the security forces. Alternative policies have not been seriously explored and, after a temporary reduction in violence in 2008, the attacks are rising again. It is time for the government to follow its words with actions if it wants to move forward with a political solution.

Military sweeps from July 2007 curtailed violence in the South, although abusive detention as part of these operations may have backfired and increased resentment among Malay Muslims. While the number of attacks so far in 2009 is still below the peak since the insurgency restarted in 2004, the trend is upward. Incidents have become more brutal and bomb-making techniques more advanced. The insurgency has proved resistant to military suppression. The slaughter of ten men praying in a mosque in June heightened concerns over deepening communal tension and the consequences of government projects to arm civilians. According to a police investigation, the mosque attack was allegedly committed by Buddhists in retaliation for previous killings by suspected insurgents. This slaughter has led to renewed international attention, especially among Thailand’s predominantly Muslim neighbours.

The government had made little progress in its attempts to reassert control over policymaking in the South. It pledged to empower the civilian-led Southern Border Provinces Administrative Centre by allowing it to operate independently from the military’s Internal Security Operations Command. The army has opposed this as well as a plan to lift the emergency decree, which must be renewed every three months. The Abhisit government has extended the decree four times so far under pressure from the military. The decree permits the detention of suspects without charge for up to 30 days and grants officials immunity from prosecution. It is in force alongside martial law in the three southernmost provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat. For nearly six years, no security officials involved in human rights abuses have faced criminal prosecution. Public disclosure of the death of an imam in custody in March 2008 seems to have reduced the occurrence of torture, although it has not stopped. Such impunity denies Malay Muslims justice and acts as a powerful recruiting tool for insurgents.

The huge development budget that the government has been disbursing as part of its political strategy to tackle southern violence has inadvertently created an industry of insecurity. The benefits that officials might have derived from the money are contributing to inertia and obstructing the search for solutions. The government should ensure that projects are implemented transparently and with grassroots participation. Corruption undermines the government’s credibility, while it is already facing an uphill struggle to gain the trust of Malay Muslims. It is also unlikely this economic stimulus would help quell the insurgency, which has been primarily driven by political grievances – such as the disregard for Malay ethnic identity and language – and a sense of injustice.

The Abhisit government has been constantly challenged by supporters of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. It needs the support of the military to suppress anti-government protesters and cement its power. The reliance on the military has undermined the government’s effort to make a shift in southern policies, such as lifting draconian laws and re-asserting civilian control. There is also little political will to carry out political initiatives such as exploring new administrative arrangements for the South. The Thai state’s public stance of rejecting negotiations with insurgents should be reviewed and new structures for the South explored. The foundations of peaceful engagement are already in place, should the government wish to pursue dialogue with insurgent representatives. Negotiations have proven an effective means to ending violence in many separatist conflicts and do not necessarily lead to secession, as the central government has long feared.

Bangkok/Brussels, 8 December 2009

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.