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Thailand Struggles to Break Out of The Cycle of Unrest
Thailand Struggles to Break Out of The Cycle of Unrest
Behind the Insurgent Attack in Southern Thailand
Behind the Insurgent Attack in Southern Thailand
Op-Ed / Asia

Thailand Struggles to Break Out of The Cycle of Unrest

Originally published in Nikkei Asian Review

The approval of the Thai military regime's draft constitution on Aug. 7 marks a triumphant comeback for "Thai-style democracy," a term that dates back to the military dictatorship of the 1950s, but which has become a euphemism for the supremacy of unelected officials, carefully selected by and from the national elite to ensure that the will of the people does not get out of hand.

Although touted by the regime as a milestone on its roadmap to democracy, a bulwark against corruption, and a cure for almost a decade of political turmoil, the new constitution is more likely to deepen Thailand's political divisions. Some 61% of voters voted in favor, but turnout was just 59%. This means that only a third of eligible voters cast ballots in favor of the draft. Nervertheless, the result is a victory for the ruling National Council for Peace and Order and its allies, and a defeat for representative politics.

Under the new constitution, Thailand's 20th since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932, the 250-member senate will be appointed by the NCPO, and the lower house will be largely ornamental, a fig leaf for continued military rule, scrutinized and disciplined by powerful, unelected watchdog agencies. The Constitutional Court, which has reliably ruled against challenges to the status quo since 2006, will have unprecedented powers to intervene in the legislative and executive branches. The upshot is that power will remain with the military, specifically the army's Queen's Guard faction -- known as the "Eastern Tigers"-- that staged the last coup and dominates the NCPO.

The referendum process was flawed. The regime prohibited any open debate about the issues, and passed a law that made campaigning against the draft punishable by up to 10 years in prison -- more than 100 "no" vote campaigners were arrested in the run-up to the poll. Meanwhile, the government bureaucracy supported the regime's "yes" campaign. Voters were exposed almost exclusively to information provided by the Constitution Drafting Committee and the Election Commission, which glossed over controversial provisions and portrayed the draft as a means to stability.

Thailand is preparing for the looming royal succession. King Bhumibol Adulyadej is the world's longest-reigning monarch, but he is now 88 and ailing. The aura of the king is as intangible as it is ubiquitous, and his passing will fundamentally change the power equation in Thailand. But the generals under Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha, who is now out of uniform but very much still of the military, have designed a system to suppress dissent rather than accommodate change.

Vicious cycles

Even in the short term, this new constitution offers little hope of delivering the kingdom from the cycle of public unrest and military and judicial coups of the past decade. First, it does not address the fundamental political problem that has driven conflict since the 1970s: a lack of a social consensus on what constitutes a legitimate political order. The story of modern Thai politics is that of conflict and accommodation between the paternalistic, hierarchical order inherited from the absolute monarchy, embodied in the durable alliance of palace, bureaucracy and military, and recurring demands for inclusion and equality from below, exemplified in the expansion of electoral politics. The new constitution shifts the weight of power to appointed officials, reflecting the elite's contempt for elected representatives.

Second, Thai constitutionalism cannot resolve the conflict between elected and unelected authority because the military does not consent to constitutional constraints. With few exceptions, Thai constitutions have not served to create impartial institutions and a level playing field, but instead have consolidated the power of those who commissioned them. And they are not sacrosanct. Those who wield power tear up constitutions as soon as they become inconvenient, as the recurrence of coups d'etat, and the failure of courts to hold coup makers to account, attest. As a result, Thailand has averaged a new constitution roughly every four years since 1932.

The closest precedent for the system envisioned by the 20th constitution may be the semi-democracy under Prime Minister General Prem Tinsulanonda (1980-1988), now chief of the Privy Council, which advises the king. It was marked by an unelected prime minister, unstable coalitions and an appointed senate that functioned as the bureaucratic-military party. While many Thais are nostalgic for this era, which coincided with a period of explosive economic growth, some tend to overlook the fact it was also a period of lively parliamentary politics and rampant corruption. From 1979-2001, there were 25 governing coalitions and 43 cabinets. Corruption scandals brought down all four coalition governments between 1988 and 1997.

Those who voted in favor of the new constitution in the belief it would deliver stability, curb corruption and pave the way to a swift general election are likely to be disappointed.

Thai-style democracy, which concentrates power in the hands of unaccountable elites and treats citizens as beneficiaries of noblesse oblige, is not going to bring reconciliation to Thailand. It will not institute the desperately needed reforms in education and economic policy that will lift the country out of the middle-income trap and address its tremendous income inequality. And it will not provide the conditions for the free, open and inclusive dialogue needed to achieve a new consensus on political legitimacy, in which all Thais are equal under the nation's highest law.

Members of a bomb squad inspect the site of an attack by suspected Muslim militants in Yala province on 6 November 2019. AFP/Tuwaedaniya Meringing
Q&A / Asia

Behind the Insurgent Attack in Southern Thailand

On 5 November, insurgents in southern Thailand staged their deadliest attack in years, killing fifteen people. Crisis Group’s South East Asia Senior Analyst, Matt Wheeler, explains what happened and what it means for the stagnant peace-dialogue process.

What happened, and why is it significant?

On the night of 5 November, at least twenty gunmen attacked a security checkpoint in Lam Phaya sub-district in Yala, Thailand’s southernmost province, killing fifteen people and wounding four others. Many of those killed were Village Defence Volunteers, civilians whom the interior ministry pays to perform part-time security duties in villages across the insurgency-plagued region. Also among the victims were a former sub-district chief, a police adviser to the defence volunteers, the sub-district physician and civilian bystanders; the dead include both Muslims and Buddhists. Militants bombed a nearby power pylon, felled trees and scattered nails to delay security forces and rescuers responding to the attack. The assailants fled, taking with them small arms captured from the victims.

Ethnic Malay Muslim militants have been fighting the state for decades in the Muslim-majority south of Thailand, which otherwise is mostly Buddhist.

Ethnic Malay Muslim militants have been fighting the state for decades in the Muslim-majority south of Thailand, which otherwise is mostly Buddhist. The militants seek independence and an end to what they see as Thai colonialism. Their insurgency is rooted in ethnic Malay nationalist resistance to Thai rule that followed the extension of Siamese sovereignty over the Patani sultanate at the beginning of the twentieth century. Violence has largely been confined to the country’s three southernmost provinces, Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala, as well as the four south-eastern districts of Songkhla province. Muslims account for roughly 85 per cent of the population in these areas. The insurgent movement is distinguished by its secrecy and reluctance to assert an organisational identity. Insurgents tend to identify simply as juwae (fighters) rather than as members of a particular militant group. It remains a parochial nationalist insurgency – distinct from transnational jihadist movements – in which Islam is foremost a marker of Malay cultural identity.

The 5 November attack is remarkable for two reasons. First, it was the deadliest since late 2001, when the longstanding insurgency reignited after a lull in the 1990s. Although insurgent ambushes, bombings and assassinations have claimed more than 7,000 lives since then, militants have never before killed so many in a single raid. Secondly, it took place amid a decline in the pace and intensity of militant violence over the past several years. From a high of 892 fatalities in 2007, the death toll fell to 218 in 2018, the lowest since 2004. It remains to be seen whether the 5 November attack was an aberration or sign of renewed insurgent potency.

What signal are militants sending with this attack?

Any effort to assign particular motives to the Lam Phaya attackers is speculative at this stage. The strongest insurgent group, Barisan Revolusi Nasional Melayu-Patani (Patani Malay National Revolutionary Front, or BRN) is highly secretive and rarely accessible to the media. It never claims responsibility for its actions. The attack may best be understood as a demonstration by militants of their ability to conduct operations and inflict losses, in spite of the decline in violence in recent years. It also highlights that, whatever the government may say, the insurgent campaign is far from over. Apart from the high death toll, the raid was wholly typical of attacks that have been routine in the region since 2004: coordinated use of small arms and improvised explosive devices; diversionary attacks; theft of weapons; and hit-and-run tactics.

A more immediate possible motive may be retribution for the 25 August death in army custody of an insurgent suspect, Abdulloh Isomuso. Abdulloh was detained for interrogation on 20 July and fell into a coma the following day. The case is emblematic of the persistent human rights abuses that feed Malay Muslim grievances and the failure of authorities to hold officials to account.

Another possibility is that militants are seeking leverage in advance of prospective dialogue with Thai authorities. BRN would not want to enter talks with the government perceiving it as a spent force.

What is the state of play in the peace-dialogue process?

The official peace-dialogue process that brings together the Thai government and the Patani Consultative Council (Majlis Syura Patani, better known as MARA Patani), an umbrella group of Malay nationalist organisations in exile, is moribund. Talks have been stalled since April 2018, and MARA Patani formally suspended its participation in February 2019 until after the Thai general election the following month. After the suspension, the head of the separatist delegation, Shukree Haree, resigned, questioning Thailand’s sincerity in conducting dialogue. Shukree has not been replaced. General Udomchai Thammasarorat, former chief of the Thai dialogue delegation, did not meet with MARA Patani during his year-long tenure, which ended on 1 October. His successor, former National Security Council director-general Wanlop Rugsanaoh, has given no indication that dialogue will soon resume. The process is beset by Thai concerns that MARA Patani does not represent fighters inside Thailand and militant suspicions that Thai authorities are using the dialogue primarily as a public relations exercise.

Malaysia, which shares a border with Thailand and is home to many exiled Patani Malay militants, serves as facilitator of the dialogue.

Malaysia, which shares a border with Thailand and is home to many exiled Patani Malay militants, serves as facilitator of the dialogue. Although militant leaders and Thai officials alike agree that Kuala Lumpur must be involved, at least some in each cohort question whether Malaysia can be an impartial mediator. Many militants in exile resent the reported Malaysian pressure on BRN to join the MARA Patani process. For their part, some Thai officials suspect that Malaysia’s sympathies lie with the militants, given that so many are in exile there.

BRN’s refusal to participate has badly impaired the Thailand-MARA Patani dialogue. Though there are individual BRN members in MARA Patani, the mainstream of BRN has refused to join. The group is not opposed to talks in principle, but it adheres to a 2013 list of five conditions for participation in peace talks, among which are mediation by a disinterested third party and inclusion of international observers. Thailand, however, rejects these conditions.

Senior Thai officials have also discounted the possibility of political autonomy or decentralisation in southernmost Thailand, with some insisting on a resolution tantamount to BRN’s capitulation. Since the coup that brought a military junta to power in 2014, the Thai government has further centralised authority. The formal return of parliamentary rule in June 2019 has done little to change the complexion of the government, which remains dominated by junta figures who regard decentralisation as a slippery slope toward partition and a threat to national sovereignty.

How can the peace process be revived?

The existing dialogue process appears to have reached a dead end, but Thai authorities are quietly seeking back channels to militants outside MARA Patani. This development is encouraging, given that resolution of the conflict in southernmost Thailand will inevitably require the participation of BRN’s majority faction. But a meaningful, substantive dialogue will require a reboot of the process on terms acceptable to both sides. Such an approach must grapple with the need for an impartial mediator, while still according a role to Kuala Lumpur, and clarify which entities on each side can offer credible guarantees. Only then will it be possible to begin the arduous work of achieving a political compromise that can bring an end to the violence.

Map of Thailand

CRISISGROUP