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Government, Rebels Must End Pernicious Impasse
Government, Rebels Must End Pernicious Impasse
Report 241 / Asia

Thailand: The Evolving Conflict in the South

After a decade of violence, the capabilities of Malay-Muslim insurgents in Thailand’s Deep South are outpacing the counter-measures of successive governments in Bangkok that have been mired in complacency and protracted national-level political disputes.

Executive Summary

After a decade of separatist violence in Thailand’s Malay/
Muslim-majority southern provinces, insurgent capabilities are outpacing state counter-measures that are mired in complacency and political conflict. While Bangkok claims to make a virtue of patience, more sophisticated and brutal insurgent attacks increase the death toll. Successive governments have opted to muddle through South East Asia’s most violent internal conflict, their responses hostage to outmoded conceptions of the state, bureaucratic turf battles and a bitter national-level political struggle. In 2012, a new security policy for the region acknowledged for the first time the conflict’s political nature and identified decentralisation and dialogue with militants as components of a resolution. But fulfilling this policy demands that Thai leaders depoliticise the South issue, engage with civil society, build a consensus on devolving political power and accelerate efforts toward dialogue. Dialogue and decentralisation may be difficult for Bangkok to implement, but the necessary changes could become even more challenging over time.

The intractable power struggle between supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, deposed in a 2006 coup d’état, and his opponents in the army, bureaucracy and palace has overshadowed the conflict in the South. Yet, the region remains another arena for political games­man­ship. Civilian officials there and in Bangkok have been hamstrung by the need to respect military prerogatives and have searched in vain for a formula that can tamp down the violence without committing to political reforms. Deployment of some 60,000 security forces, special security laws and billions of dollars have not achieved any appreciable decline in casualties or curbed the movement.

For the past two years, violence has largely persisted below a threshold that might have generated public pressure for new approaches. Periodically, though, spectacular attacks thrust the conflict into national consciousness. A number of these have taken place in 2012, including the 31 March coordinated car-bombs in Yala and Hat Yai. Media broadcast of closed-circuit television (CCTV) video showing an audacious daylight strike that killed four soldiers in July in Mayo District, Pattani Province, confronted the public with brutal images that challenged official assurances that the government was on the right track. As overt political turmoil in Bangkok receded, the Deep South again became a hot topic for editors, bureaucrats and politicians, but this renewed attention has not yet prompted fresh thinking or new will to tackle the problem.

The Yingluck Shinawatra administration, which came to office in August 2011, placed its hopes for progress on Police Colonel Thawee Sodsong, a Thaksin loyalist chosen to lead the reinvigorated Southern Border Provinces Administrative Centre (SBPAC). Through determination and unstinting cash hand-outs, Thawee won a degree of personal approval within in the region. But the 31 March bombings coincided with first reports of Thaksin’s fumbled attempt to start a peace process with exiled militant leaders and allegations that the two events were linked. With Thaksin denying he talked with rebel leaders and violence and recriminations mounting, the dialogue process appeared to be back at square one. Faced with continued insurgent violence, the cabinet approved a high-level “war room” to coordinate the work of seventeen ministries with responsibilities in the Deep South. This did not blunt the bureaucratic impulse to tinker with organisational charts, however, as security officials called for re-sub­or­di­na­tion of the civilian SBPAC to the military-dominated Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC).

The contours of a political resolution to the conflict in southern Thailand have long been in the public domain, but Bangkok has been unable to commit to a comprehensive and decisive approach. A promising three-year policy issued by the National Security Council in early 2012 recognises a political dimension of the violence and codifies decentralisation and dialogue as official strategy, but its implementation is likely to be impeded by political and bureaucratic infighting. The government should reverse the militarisation of the Deep South, lift the draconian security laws and end the security forces’ impunity, all of which help stimulate the insurgency. Thai leaders should also forge a broad national consensus for bold action to resolve the conflict, including decentralisation of political power, earnest engagement with civil society and sustained efforts to cultivate a peace dialogue with the insurgency. Talking to its representatives, changing the way the Deep South is governed, delivering justice, and recognising the region’s unique culture are all elements of a comprehensive approach to reducing the violence.

As Bangkok dithers, the insurgents are growing bolder and more capable. They are conducting attacks that are attracting, if not deliberately seeking, more attention. Thailand has been fortunate that the militants have considered it in their strategic interest to contain the fight within their proclaimed territory, but the violence has evolved at a pace that is starting to challenge the ability of the government to respond on its own terms. Without more creative thinking and deft action, Bangkok risks losing the initiative.

Bangkok/Brussels, 11 December 2012

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.