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Thailand: Malay-Muslim Insurgency and the Dangers of Intractability
Thailand: Malay-Muslim Insurgency and the Dangers of Intractability
Briefing 113 / Asia

Stalemate in Southern Thailand

The Thai government needs to break the stalemate in the southern insurgency by seriously pursuing political solutions, including addressing past injustices, engaging in dialogue with Malay Muslim militants, and exploring new governance arrangements.

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Overview

The deadly conflict in Thailand’s predominantly Malay Muslim South is at a stalemate. Although military operations might have contributed to the reduction in violence, the government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has made little effort to tackle the political grievances that drive the insurgency. A limited unilateral suspension of hostilities offered by rebels has met no significant response. Draconian laws that grant security forces sweeping powers remain imposed while justice for serious cases of past abuse remains unaddressed and torture of suspects continues. As bloody anti-government protests in Bangkok distracted the nation in early 2010, the death toll in the six-year-long insurgency steadily climbed. The conflict in the Deep South remains on the margins of Thai politics and unresolved. A paradigm shift is needed to acknowledge that assimilation of Malay Muslims has failed and that recognition of their distinct ethno-religious identity is essential. Dialogue with insurgents and reform of governance structures remain two missing components of a comprehensive political solution.

The level of violence in the Deep South has largely been steady for the past three years. Some 30,000 troops are deployed in the insurgency-hit region where Malay Muslim insurgents have continued to attack security forces, government teachers, Buddhists and Muslims perceived to side with the government. Since a significant drop in 2008, the tempo of violence has been around 1,000 attacks per year with 368 deaths recorded in the first ten months of 2010. Military operations alone are unable to end the violence.

While the Abhisit government has recognised that political solutions are necessary to end the conflict, words have not been matched by actions. It has failed to lift the state of emergency in the three southernmost provinces imposed since 2005. Worse still, the draconian law has been extended to control anti-government protestors in other provinces. The government has dismissed a chance to move towards peace dialogues by giving a lukewarm reception to a mid-year limited suspension of hostilities declared unilaterally by two insurgent groups. Although there has been greater space for public discussion on administrative reform than under previous governments, no serious attempt has been made to explore possible models within the principle of a unitary Thai state.

The government is planning to launch a new “political offensive” by implementing a quasi-amnesty policy under the Internal Security Act, hoping it will entice militants to surrender and weaken the movement. The provision allows the authorities, with the consent of a court, to drop criminal charges against suspected militants who, in turn, will be required to undergo up to six months of “training”, a euphemism for reverse indoctrination. It remains to be seen whether the policy will succeed. Human rights advocates are sceptical, fearing suspects could be forced to confess to crimes that they did not commit and calling the training “administrative detention”. Nevertheless, the quasi-amnesty measure alone is unlikely to be a lasting solution as long as larger socio-political grievances remain unaddressed.

Physical abuse and torture of detainees continue, while demands for justice for past abuses remain unanswered. Police dropped charges against a former ranger alleged to be involved in the 2009 Al-Furqan mosque attack. This reinforces perceptions of impunity and the insurgency’s narrative of the unjust rule, while aiding recruitment of those willing to take up arms against the Buddhist Thai state.

Until political stability in Bangkok is restored, the insurgency will remain at the periphery of the government agenda. But the government needs to be better prepared to respond to future gestures by the insurgents and lay the political groundwork for a negotiated settlement. In other separatist conflicts, negotiations have proven an effective means to end violence and do not necessarily lead to secession, as Bangkok has long feared. As part of an effort to scale down the presence of troops, the government should plan to increase the numbers of police officers and civilian defence volunteers as well as enhance their capacity to provide security.

With no military victory in sight for either side, the rebels must also consider new political strategies. Their representatives must propose comprehensive political solutions. Beyond protesting through violence, they should get ready to make concrete demands at a time when an opportunity for talks arises.

Based on research carried out between February and October 2010, including interviews in the Deep South, this briefing provides an update of analysis of the southern insurgency in the second year of the Abhisit administration.

Bangkok/Brussels, 3 November 2010

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.