More Than Words Needed on Southern Thailand

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More Than Words Needed on Southern Thailand

Although a welcome development, the latest agreement to hold peace talks is hardly sufficient for ending the conflict.

Last week, the Thai government reached a historic agreement to hold peace talks with a major rebel group to resolve an insurgency in southern Thailand that has claimed over 5,000 lives in under a decade. But while few would dispute that the agreement signed in Malaysia is a welcome step, finding a truly lasting solution to Southeast Asia’s deadliest ongoing conflict will require overcoming significant obstacles as well as far bolder steps from Bangkok.     

The insurgency raging in Thailand’s three southernmost provinces is rooted in Malay-Muslim nationalist resistance to Thai rule that began in 1902. But the current wave, which spiked in 2004, is powered by a generation of radicalized Malay-Muslim youths, many of whom felt discriminated and exploited by the Buddhist-dominated Thai state. They have waged a shadowy campaign to establish an independent Islamic state, carrying out shootings, bombings and beheadings in autonomous cells against Bangkok which has vacillated between clumsy heavy-handedness and ineffectual reconciliation.

While the talks may be a welcome reprieve from the usual bloodshed in southern Thailand, one should not get too excited about their prospects just yet. Bangkok has pursued secret talks with insurgent representatives for years with aid from various parties (including Malaysia), but they have all failed principally because the purported separatist leaders had no actual control of the fighters on the ground. 

This time appears to be no different. The figure who signed the agreement with the Thai government was Hassan Taib, identified in press accounts as a senior rebel leader. But according to Don Pathan, a renowned expert on southern Thailand, insurgent sources say Hassan “does not have any major influence with the militants on the ground,” and that the Thai government simply had to settle for him because other more influential leaders would not come to the negotiating table. The several bombings that occurred just days after the talks took place seemed to confirm this point. Malaysian and Thai government officials were themselves quite cautious about managing expectations, with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak saying that it was “merely the starting point of a long process”.

Disunity also pervades the government side. Fierce political rivalries run through the various agencies involved in southern Thailand, undermining their effectiveness. And while Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra appears to be invested in the peace effort, the army still retains significant power as both the self-proclaimed guardian of the Thai state and the guarantor of civilian leaders’ political survival. According to the International Crisis Group, senior military officials have not only previously dismissed constructive ideas like autonomy for the south, but have actively tried to usurp power from civilian bodies.

It is unclear whether the military fully supports the government’s olive branch. Some leaders have been skeptical of talks mediated by outsiders because they might confer legitimacy to the insurgents, violate Thailand’s sovereignty and undermine the ongoing counterinsurgency effort. Such unease was evident in the statement of the Fourth Army commander in southern Thailand, Udomchai Thammasarorat, who said “the military has nothing to do with today’s decision” before proceeding to point to all the other alternate routes the military had opened for dialogue including giving insurgents the opportunity to surrender and make their case in the Thai justice system.

It will also probably take a while to heal the wounds of the past, overcome previous stereotypes and narrow the trust deficit. There are still segments of Thai government and society who continue to believe that the insurgency is merely a product of distorted religion or wayward youths rather than historical grievances and discrimination. And some insurgents were radicalized by brutal human rights violations committed by the security forces years ago which continues to drive them today. To take just one recent example, a number of insurgents killed in a failed February 13th raid of a marine base were involved in the notorious Tak Bai incident of October 25, 2004, where hundreds of Malay-Muslim men were bound and stuffed into hot trucks by Thai security forces and at least 85 of their compatriots suffocated to death. 

Regular Malay-Muslim civilians in southern Thailand also harbor bitter memories, which may explain why many of them support or at least sympathize with the insurgents. Their culture and religion continues to be marginalized, they are underemployed and underrepresented in government, and they are at the mercy of security forces that are prone to abuse and operate with impunity. The heavy-handed years of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra may be especially hard to forget, as he exacerbated the insurgency by dissolving an important local council in the south and granting the security forces wide-ranging powers. “The Thai government has a huge amount to do to shake up the lack of trust,”says Sunai Phasuk of Human Rights Watch Asia, a longtime observer of the insurgency.

The bold steps Bangkok should take to bridge this divide are clear. First, it needs to tone down its overly-militarized counterinsurgency approach by revising some of its security laws to ensure personnel are held accountable and that they can be trusted by civilians. Second, it must address key Malay-Muslim grievances. While a few steps have already been taken like launching television and radio programs in Malay, other initiatives should include allowing the use of Malay in schools as well as using Malay signs in public places. Third, some form of autonomy must be instituted for the southern provinces, with adequate input from local civil society organizations. Fourth, the government should pursue dialogue with the insurgents that matter.

All this is easier said than done. Civilian leaders may not have the courage to rein in the military, or the political capital to do so if southern Thailand is subordinated to other important issues in the country’s fractious politics, as it has been in the past. It may be difficult for Bangkok to acquiesce to some form of autonomy without questioning the unity and legitimacy of the Thai state. And even if the government does pursue these steps in good faith, it remains to be seen whether the insurgents that matter can transform themselves from fighters into negotiators who eventually lay down their arms.

Nevertheless, with the southern Thailand insurgency raging on and the death toll climbing, the government needs to follow up its recent agreement with bold steps toward a sustainable solution. Given the decades of conflict and deep mistrust, its actions will truly speak much louder than its words.