To End Southern Insurgency, Thailand Must Confront Hard Realities
On Dec. 1, during Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha’s first visit to Kuala Lumpur, he and his Malaysian counterpart, Prime Minister Najib Razak, agreed on the conditions to restart peace efforts to resolve the deadly southern Thailand insurgency. While the resumption of Malaysia-hosted peace talks between the Thai state and Malay-Muslim rebels is an encouraging sign, the parties are likely to encounter formidable challenges as they attempt to structure a political solution that will lead to a durable peace and end Southeast Asia’s most lethal ongoing conflict.
Since the latest outbreak of the insurgency in Thailand’s Malay-Muslim-majority southernmost provinces in 2004, more than 6,000 people have been killed as shadowy insurgents fight for autonomy from predominantly Buddhist Thailand. A succession of Thai governments has tried to stem the violence over the years, but to no avail. Seemingly undeterred, Prayuth, who assumed the premiership after leading a military coup against former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s government earlier this year, vowed in September to end the insurgency before Thailand enters the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Economic Community at the end of 2015. His Malaysia visit has laid the groundwork for talks to begin.
The road to a political solution, however, is riddled with familiar and formidable obstacles. Getting meaningful talks off the ground itself will be a herculean task. During Chan-o-cha’s visit earlier this month, he and Najib agreed to three principles to govern negotiations: a cease-fire; the representation at the talks of all parties; and a unified set of demands from all parties. But those conditions require engaging the full range of actors not only among the insurgents, but also within the Thai state, which has thus far proven impossible. The decentralized nature of the insurgency, with a network of leaders providing loose guidance to regional commanders who run various cells, makes it difficult to verify if those at the table ever have full control of the movement. Meanwhile, the myriad Thai security agencies that operate in the south—including the army, police, paramilitary rangers and village defense volunteers—are prone to pursuing their own narrow interests rather than those of the state.
The coordination problem has already proved to be an obstacle to meaningful dialogue in the past. The last attempt at negotiations under the government of Yingluck Shinawatra, which began in February 2013 and were facilitated by Malaysia, never really had a chance because the insurgent leaders in the negotiations had little actual sway over the movement and the army was not fully onboard with the government’s approach. If both sides are unable to resolve this issue this time around, the talks may be dead before they even begin.
Even if talks do take off, they will be challenging to sustain. The Thai government has reportedly planned for three phases to achieve peace with the insurgents: talks and promoting trust; agreeing on a code of conduct to end violence; and establishing a roadmap out of the conflict. A cease-fire has also been mooted by Thailand and Malaysia as a way to build initial confidence, which is sorely lacking. Yet the best-laid plans in previous negotiations have been disrupted by changes on the ground, including extrajudicial killings by security forces and attacks by insurgents. History could well repeat itself if either side loses hope in the process or if factions seek to undermine it. There is also a chance that political developments in Bangkok in 2015 or 2016, such as another round of massive street protests or a change in government following expected elections, could distract the Thai state once again from its southern periphery.
Even if talks do stutter on, there is little indication thus far that the Thai government is serious about pairing negotiations with other initiatives that begin to address the real root causes of the conflict, including a legacy of colonization by the Thai state and a culture of impunity among the Thai security forces. For example, the Thai army’s distribution of thousands of assault rifles to village volunteers over the past few months to fight insurgents arguably perpetuates a tit-for-tat cycle of violence, instead of promoting greater accountability and stemming Malay-Muslim discontent about targeted killings, abductions and intimidation by the state. And given the new Thai government’s focus on consolidating its own power and centralizing authority, it seems unlikely that it would be willing to give the south any sort of autonomy—a key insurgent demand.
Other likely insurgent demands, like recognizing the legitimacy of the struggle or some form of amnesty for imprisoned fighters, may also be difficult for the Thai state to meet because elements of it continue to persist in denying the actual nature of the insurgency itself. In particular, there are reportedly still parts of the Thai security establishment that believe the insurgency can be contained through a mixture of economic development and law enforcement, while denying the need to make tough political compromises. And Prayuth himself has said that he views the insurgency as simply violence carried out by a minority of individuals rather than a “movement” of any sort, and that the Thai media should avoid referring to it as such. Without a proper understanding of the insurgency by the Thai state, there is little hope for a sustained solution, irrespective of neighboring Malaysia’s links with insurgent groups or Kuala Lumpur’s experience facilitating the resolution of other conflicts, such as that between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebel group.
Well aware of the difficulties that lie ahead, Thailand’s newly appointed chief negotiator, Gen. Aksara Kerdpol, has gone out of his way to downplay expectations since assuming his post, warning the public recently not to “put pressure” on the government or to “expect anything at the moment.” While this is understandable, the real challenge for the Thai government will be to walk the walk on negotiations rather than just talk the talk. Otherwise, yet another chance to resolve the southern Thailand insurgency could be squandered.
Prashanth Parameswaran is a doctoral candidate in international affairs at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a correspondent for The Diplomat magazine currently based in Washington, D.C. He is also a faculty fellow at the ASEAN Studies Center at American University. You can follow him on Twitter @TheAsianist.