Thailand has followed a lead established by the Philippines and will enlist Malaysia as a “facilitator” after recognizing that Muslim insurgents in its troubled southern provinces have grievances that are worth addressing.
According to the agreement, the national security chiefs of both countries will tackle the issue together in the hope of identifying exactly who the insurgents are, finding out what they want and then – assuming all goes well – holding talks to end the strife.
More than 5,000 people have died since an undeclared war for autonomy escalated sharply in January 2004 along Thailand’s border with Malaysia, which straddles both Thailand and the Philippines where it has also had a hand in recent peace talks with Muslim groups fighting for their ethnic Moro homeland.
However, compared with the established Filipino groups fighting Manila from Mindanao, insurgents in the three Thai provinces of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat have largely remained in the shadows, shunning publicity and preferring not to claim responsibility for their often devastating attacks on targets ranging from the police and teachers to government and military installations.
The Patani Freedom Fighters, or Pejuang Kemerdekaan Patani, and the National Revolutionary Front-Coordinate (BRN-C), with roots that stretch back to the 1960s, are perhaps the most prominent of a handful of groups linked to the fighting in southern Thailand.
Violence has flared in recent months with attacks over the last three weeks on the Thai military in response to a region-wide crackdown.
Thai authorities have reiterated that any negotiations or potential solutions, including a special administrative zone, must be achieved by rule of law and within the framework of the country’s constitution. But more importantly, Thailand must remain undivided in the event that talks are held to address the Muslim insurgents’ grievances.
“The talks will let us know what they think and want so we can design solutions, but everything will be based on the rule of law and the constitution,” Thai National Security Council chief Paradorn Pattanathabutr told local media. “We need Malaysia's help because some insurgents are not based in Thailand, so Malaysia will facilitate by finding out who is involved and who is ready to talk.”
He added that if Thai authorities could hold negotiations with one group then this would hopefully lead to talks with others, opening the way for a settlement.
Malaysia’s role in the southern Philippines was crucial in securing a peace deal with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). However, this deal altered the nature of the conflict in the southern Philippines, where several groups have fought for a litany of historical, religious and ethnic reasons.
This included an outbreak of fighting between the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the Al-Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf, after which 170 militants were deployed from the Philippines to the Malaysian state of Sabah where they have apparently laid claim to an ancient sultanate.
This back story will no doubt make Malaysia wary of any involvement in the conflict that now plagues southern Thailand.