By Kathleen Rustici
The Thai government and a rebel Muslim group signed an agreement on February 28 in Kuala Lumpur that agrees to talks on a peace process to end a nine-year-old conflict in southern Thailand. The agreement was signed between Lieutenant General Paradorn Pattanathabutr, chief of Thailand’s National Security Council, and Hassan Taib, a little-known representative of the insurgent group Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN).
The signing coincided with a visit to Malaysia by Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, where she met with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and they agreed to cooperation on numerous issues, such as resolving the conflict.
Thailand’s three southernmost provinces are the epicenter of the conflict. Malaysia remains a key player due to its cultural linkages and cross-border ties, and can potentially play a mediating role in the conflict’s resolution. In Bangkok, deep political fractures continue to plague the government’s capacity to respond while insurgent groups in the southern provinces remain diffuse and elusive, with legitimate actors hard to identify. The recent agreements in Kuala Lumpur would be just the first step in a long process, but they could be a step in the right direction.
Q1: What is the conflict in Thailand?
A1: Thailand’s three southernmost provinces, Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat, were originally an independent sultanate that Thailand annexed in 1902. The population is approximately 80 percent Muslim and speaks Malay while the overwhelming majority of Thailand is Buddhist and speaks Thai. A low level separatist, insurgent movement has existed for decades though the current increase in violence began on January 4, 2004, when unidentified gunmen raided an army depot, taking over 400 weapons. Since then, over 5,500 people have been killed. Insurgents use arson, targeted killings, bombings, and raids on targets perceived as symbols of the Thai state, including teachers, both Muslim and Buddhist, government employees, security forces, or those perceived as sympathizers. The overwhelming majority of casualties are Malay-Muslims.
Heavy handed responses in 2004 by Thai security forces, such as the arrest of hundreds of protestors in Tak Bai which resulted in 78 deaths due to suffocation in holding trucks, and a raid on the Krue Se Mosque, fueled the conflict and distrust of Thai authorities among Malay-Muslims.
Q2: Who is involved in the conflict?
A2: The two oldest insurgent groups that remain active are BRN, which was founded in 1963, and PULO, which was founded in 1968. However, numerous subgroups and organizations have splintered off of these groups during the years of conflict. These groups’ leaders have rarely come forward with public demands or specific goals, and insurgent cells are believed to be fairly autonomous. There is also a growing divide between the younger generation that is currently fighting and the older insurgent leaders, indicating that the leadership does not necessarily have the top-down command & control necessary to enforce agreed terms.
The Thai government has deployed numerous security and government agencies in the region, including police, military, paramilitary rangers, and umbrella government organizations, which seek to coordinate governance and economic development in the area. Malaysia remains crucial - insurgents historically used its northern provinces as a means to evade Thai authorities and traffic funds, while Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur share varying levels of cooperation on arrests and counterinsurgency.
Q3: What is the significance of the agreement?
A3: Thai officials have reached out to insurgent groups in the past but this is the first time the government has signed a formal agreement or given the groups formal recognition, which is significant. The agreements set up talks which officials said could begin as soon as in two weeks. These talks could provide a chance at least BRN for to specify its concerns and desires and allow the Thai government to spell out whether it is willing to grant the provinces limited autonomy as the rebel groups demand. However, BRN is just one of many groups, and analysts are concerned that many insurgents currently do not affiliate with a single group or leader. The ability of BRN leaders to control its own combatants is unclear, much less where it stands with other groups. Hassan Taib is relatively unknown. The International Crisis Group reported in December that he met with former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, Yingluck’s brother, in April 2012, though Hassan was then affiliated with PULO. Thaksin, who was overthrown in a 2006 coup and widely criticized for his handling of the Thai South, reached out to insurgent leaders last year in a secret meeting, potentially paving the way for the agreement. It is unclear if Hassan has the standing to meaningfully represent BRN. Two bombings in Narathiwat immediately following the agreement could indicate that forces on the ground are not supporting it. Furthermore, Thai security forces and government administrations are frequently at odds with each other—disagreements over policy and implementation methods are daily news. Thus, the ability for both sides to fully implement any deal remains murky.
Q4: How can both sides move forward to foster peace and stability?
A4: In official government statements and media, the Thai government has long stated that the conflict is about economic development or criminal elements endemic to the region, and pursues policies that try to “win hearts and minds.” However, the problem is fundamentally about the Malay-Muslim identity being at odds with the ethos of the Thai state. Thailand does not officially use the Malay language, such as in legal documents or schools, or give much official recognition to Malay identity and culture. The government is extremely sensitive to any proposal that would award some level of autonomy to the region, while insurgent groups have not clarified what it would specifically take for them to disarm. The conflict is at a stalemate; since 2009, the level of violence has plateaued. The time may not be ripe for fully resolving the conflict as neither side sees itself as losing. However, addressing smaller issues, such as amnesties, the impunity of the security forces, or reducing armed forces in specific areas could build trust and mitigate the current level of violence.
Q5: What does this mean for stability in the region?
A5: With Malaysia’s recent success in helping mediate the conflict with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in the Philippines, Kuala Lumpur could potentially prove to be a valuable player in conflict resolution in the Thai south. Thailand is coming out of nearly a decade of political turmoil that left the government divided and unable or unwilling to tackle major challenges. Yingluck seems to be pushing for Thailand to get its house in order while also trying to maintain an uneasy peace between various political factions in Bangkok.
It is unclear if anyone, in the government or among the insurgents, has the political power to foster a peace agreement and the situation on the ground could get worse before it gets better. However, the current effort should not be wholly discounted. Bangkok is finally looking to its south and realizing the current situation is untenable for both the country and those who live in the daily violence.
Kathleen Rustici is a research associate with the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS)
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