Author: Anders Engvall, Stockholm School of Economics
On 28 February in Kula Lumpur, Thailand’s government signed an agreement to initiate peace talks between the Thai National Security Council and Barisan Revolusi Nasional-Coordinate (BRN-C), one of the major separatist groups in southern Thailand.
The talks are a step toward ending the long-running conflict, but there is still no ceasefire agreement, and a political settlement is far away.
The conflict has claimed the lives of more than 5,000 people and injured an additional 10,000 since 2004, according to the Deep South Watch at Prince of Songkhla Univeristy in Pattani. While there was a rapid escalation of violence during the initial phase of the conflict and after the military coup in 2006, violence has remained at a steady level for the past five years. Separatist violence is currently concentrated in three Malay-Muslim provinces — Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat — as well as four districts in neighbouring Songkhla. This historically rebellious region has seen waves of uprisings against Thai rule since it became part of the country through the 1909 Anglo–Siamese treaty. The 1970s and 1980s in particular saw an extended separatist campaign of guerrilla warfare that was defeated through military suppression and amnesty programs.
In the latest wave of separatist struggle, BRN-C has emerged as the main insurgent group. The group relies on fighters organised in autonomous cells acting in their own communities, making it difficult for security agencies to separate friend from foe. The separatists are largely factionalised, and a number of additional groups are active in the south, primarily the Pattani United Liberation Organisation (PULO) and Gerakan Mujahideen Islam Pattani.
Thai authorities have used a two-pronged approach against the separatist groups, focusing on the suppression of militant cells and the use of development policies to improve the economic situation, which it hopes will slow recruitment into the separatist movement. The government has deployed 60,000 security forces in the south, made up of equal numbers of military, police and paramilitary, along with 100,000 troops from state-supported militias. The government has also given the army considerable influence by placing the region under emergency laws that grant the army wide-ranging authority and immunity from prosecution.
The announcement in Kuala Lumpur followed soon after Thai forces claimed their largest military victory since the start of the conflict. On 13 February, 16 insurgents were killed in an attack on a Thai marine base, with no loss of life among the marines. The official version of the event is disputed by insurgency commanders, who suggest that the 16 militants were victims of extrajudicial killings. While it is unlikely that we will ever get the full details of the incident, it did enable the Thai government to approach the talks from a new, advantageous, position.
The key impact of the events in Kuala Lumpur can be seen in the signals sent by the three parties. The Thai government for the first time publicly acknowledged that it is facing an organised separatist insurgency that requires a political settlement rather than violent suppression. This is a major step after years of insisting that the conflict is driven by drug gangs and ordinary criminals that can be handled by strict law enforcement.
The agreement also saw Malaysia acknowledge its role in finding a solution. The Malaysian government played a key role in initiating the talks, despite a somewhat difficult start. The Thai government put significant pressure on Malaysia to bring the insurgents to the table, rejecting Malaysia’s initial proposals to commence dialogue with leaders without influence on the ground, primarily a PULO splinter group. Malaysian authorities ultimately convinced BRN-C leaders to begin discussions after taking them into custody. Malaysia was also motivated by the need to appease voters in Kelatan in the run-up to the elections. The northeastern states of Malaysia are strongholds of opposition parties, where voters sympathetic to the plight of the Malay-Muslims in southern Thailand could be swayed by a political settlement to the conflict. It remains to be seen if Malaysia’s commitment to a Thai peace process lasts after the election.
Given that the BRN-C’s agreement to begin talks was secured through force, it remains to be seen how sincere their leaders are about finding a solution through dialogue. It is also unclear whether they will be able to control the radicalised new generation of militants. Another key challenge is the need to bring other insurgent groups to the table. Earlier efforts to use dialogue as a means of finding a political settlement have been held back by the factionalised nature of the insurgency movement and frequent infighting.
Any settlement will have to include greater self-determination for the Malay-Muslims and some measure of autonomy. This will imply less influence for the Thai security agencies in an area where the army has long held ultimate control. It remains to be seen how much space for negotiation key actors within the palace and army will grant the government. There is an obvious risk that these conservative guardians of national unity will obstruct a settlement that would give autonomy to the Malay-Muslim south.
Anders Engvall is a Research Fellow at the Stockholm School of Economics.