Youth-led protests demanding a new constitution and reforms to Thailand’s monarchy led the country to a perilous juncture in 2020. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2021, Crisis Group urges the EU and its member states to push for the cessation of excessive use of force against protesters, strengthen efforts to monitor the human rights situation and offer support should a reconciliation process materialise.
Anti-govt protests persisted as authorities arrested and charged activists under lèse-majesté law, and violence in deep south rose for second consecutive month, leaving several dead. In capital Bangkok, pro-democracy protest movement continued, with weekly rallies throughout month, calling for release of jailed protest leaders, amendment of lèse-majesté law and reform of monarchy. Protesters 1 March set ablaze police vehicle following march from Victory Monument in Bangkok. Around 1,000 protesters 6 March gathered outside of Criminal Court to reiterate demands; four smaller protests took place same evening. Several hundred protesters 13 March marched from Victory Monument to Government House. Over 1,000 protesters 20 March converged next to Grand Palace and clashed with police, leaving 13 police officers and at least 20 civilians injured. Over 3,000 protesters 24 March rallied peacefully at Bangkok’s Rachaprasong intersection. Court 8 March indicted 18 people for role in pro-democracy protests, using various charges including lèse-majesté, sedition and organising illegal gatherings; at least 72 people charged under lèse-majesté law since Nov. Police 28 March launched raid on protesters encamped outside Government House since 13 March; at least 99 people arrested. Meanwhile, Constitutional Court 11 March ruled that parliament has authority to amend constitution providing referendums are held both to approve reform effort and new constitution once drafted; opposition criticised ruling, citing lack of reference to referendum in constitution; parliament 17 March rejected amendment bill proposing constitution drafting committee that passed second reading in Feb. Violence in deep south rose again for second consecutive month, leaving three dead. In Narathiwat province, gunmen 10 March killed Malay-Muslim defence volunteer in Bacho district; 28 March killed assistant village headman in Bacho district. In Yala province, IED attack 19 March wounded eight defence volunteers in Muang district. In Pattani province, insurgents 19 March ambushed team of rangers patrolling in Thung Yang Daeng district; motorcycle-borne gunmen 20 March killed Malay-Muslim defence volunteer in Khok Pho district. Armed group Barisan Revolusi Nasional 13 March criticised govt’s economic development programs for southernmost provinces as insincere and exploitative. Supreme Court 3 March sentenced six Malay-Muslim men to death for bombings in Pattani in 2016.
Sound public health policies have largely spared Thailand from the coronavirus to date. But a looming economic crisis could shake the foundations of the political order. What is needed is revision of the 2017 constitution to allow for more pluralism and less inequality.
Talks to end the insurgency in Thailand’s southernmost provinces have repeatedly encountered obstacles, including the main rebel organisation’s abstention from the current round. With a new Thai official taking charge, and inviting that group to rejoin, both parties should drop objections that have hindered progress.
Thailand’s Malay-Muslim insurgency appears to some observers a potential seedbed for transnational jihadism, but the separatist fronts do not share ideologies or objectives with ISIS or al-Qaeda. The future is uncertain, and a resolution of the conflict, based on political decentralisation, could help deter prospective jihadist expansion in southernmost Thailand.
The August bombings in seven of Thailand's tourist towns portend a wider conflict, while the peace dialogue process has lost momentum. To get back on track, fragmented militants must end doubtful hopes of victory through violence, and the government must commit to a comprehensive settlement, including decentralisation and respect for the deep south’s Malay-Muslim identity.
Thailand’s military regime promised a return to democracy, but keeps prolonging its power by delaying general elections. Beyond a new constitution, Thailand needs a new social contract to resolve the crippling struggle between elected politicians and an unelected establishment that includes the army, bureaucracy and palace.
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.
I think the reason [for the new talks in Thailand] is that [the Muslim separatists] recognize that the conflict is not going to end on the battlefield for them; it's going to have to end at the negotiating table.
As difficult as the [peace process in Thailand] has been up to this point, the most difficult work remains to be done.
[The Barisan Revolusi Nasional sees its struggle as] nationalist and anti-colonial. Subordinating their struggle to a forlorn agenda imposed by outsiders would be counter-productive, if not suicidal.
The militants [of the National Revolutionary Front] continue to demonstrate that they have the capabilities to launch attacks across the region despite of the security measures by the Thai state.
[The main southern Thai insurgent group BRN] perceive the current (peace) process as one driven by Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur for their own interests.
The bombings [in Thailand] may have been intended to compel the military government to reconsider its approach to the conflict in the deep south.
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.
Crisis Group’s second update to our Watch List 2017 includes entries on Nigeria, Qatar, Thailand and Venezuela. These early-warning publications identify conflict situations in which prompt action by the European Union and its member states would generate stronger prospects for peace.
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.