Features | Politics | Southeast Asia

Thailand’s Little-Known Peace Process

Can a Malaysia-facilitated initiative finally bring an end to conflict in Southern Thailand?

By James Bean for
Thailand’s Little-Known Peace Process
Credit: Muhammadsoray Deng 2012

Last month Thai authorities installed a replica bronze cannon outside the most famous mosque in Southern Thailand, the Krue Se mosque in the town of Patani. For Muslims from Thailand’s southernmost provinces, the original Phaya Tani cannon forged some 400 years ago and now sitting outside the Defence Ministry in Bangkok is a symbol of a golden era when the Malay Kingdom of Patani was able to manufacture and export cannons, a proud symbol of economic independence.

The war between the Patani resistance movement and the Royal Thai Government is one of Southeast Asia’s longest running and most lethal small wars. The conflict traces its roots to the annexation of southern Thailand in the lead up to the 1909 Anglo-Siamese Treaty. The aggressive assimilationist policies Thailand then deployed throughout the 20th century were viscerally opposed by surges of militant resistance, matched by heavy-handed counter-insurgency. This tragic trajectory has metastasized into the current chapter of violence, which started in 2004 with an attack on Krue Se mosque by the Thai army and has resulted in the deaths of nearly 6,000 people.

Less than nine days after the replica cannon was installed on June 2 this year militants sabotaged it. “If it was the real cannon there is no way that amount of explosive would have snapped the cannon,” remarked one retired resistance fighter.

The Thai government’s insensitive symbolic gesture is emblematic of the conflict in southern Thailand, and came as no surprise to a local population already accustomed to ineffective efforts to pacify them. In December 2004, the same year in which the Royal Thai Army launched an assault on Krue Se mosque killing 32 men armed only with knives and a single gun, nearly 50 light military aircraft dropped 100 million paper origami birds across Thailand’s southernmost provinces as a gesture of peace and solidarity – much to the mystification of the local population. What makes the Phaya Tani cannon incident unique is that it occurred during a little-known peace process that got underway in February this year between the Thai government and “people with different opinions and ideologies than the state” – this phrase is how the resistance movement is formally described in the consensus document that marked the start of the current peace talks.

Southern Thailand has experienced successive attempts at dialogue. The most recent was initiated by former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra last year with the help of incumbent Malaysian Prime Minister, Najib Razak. After an inauspicious start described by one leading political commentator as “not a voluntary and spontaneous process”, formal and informal dialogue sessions showed remarkable promise, which appeared to culminate in the announcement of a suspension of hostilities on July 12 by the Malaysian facilitator, Ahmad Zamzamin Hashim.

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Dubbed the “Ramadhan Peace Initiative”, this ambitious initiative in fact faces three hurdles. First, the parties have neither prepared a detailed implementation plan nor laid the groundwork for any monitoring of a suspension in military operations. Second, the Malaysian facilitation team appears to be exerting too much pressure on the “rebel” delegation led by the National Revolutionary Front (Barisan Revolusi Nasional, BRN). And third, the process needs to be more inclusive of other stakeholders – particularly other armed groups and elements of civil society in the majority Malay-speaking south. All of these dynamics have the potential to scuttle any hope of finding a durable settlement; alternatively, if handled with finesse and fortitude, they could carry this unlikely peace process across the line.

Malaysia’s strategic presence in Thailand’s southernmost provinces, a region the rebels refer to as “Patani”, makes it both an unlikely and compelling third party to resolve the conflict. Since the Second World War Malaysia has had to contend with a disorderly border, a communist threat that treated the region as its own Ho Chi Minh trail, and palpable ethno-religious solidarity between Malays in the north of peninsula Malaysia and Patani-Malays hailing from southern Thailand. Unlike their Thai counterparts, the Malaysian government has a fine-grained appreciation of the complexity of the issues, the key identities in play, and the tactical capability of the various armed and unarmed elements of Patani’s resistance movement. This inside knowledge puts the Malaysian government, especially its facilitation team, in a unique position to encourage and incentivize the resistance movement to remain engaged in dialogue aimed at a peace accord in southern Thailand. The seminal announcement by Malaysian facilitator Ahmad Zamzamin on July 12 outlining the terms of a “common understanding towards a violence-free month of Ramadhan 2013” came on the heels of an audacious counter-proposal by BRN (via YouTube) in late June to suspend military operations over this period in the face of the Thai delegation’s shrill demands for a reduction in violence.

The proposal for a “temporary break” in military operations by both sides was greeted with some hope amongst mid-level combatants, but by July 13 this had all changed. The stumbling block was a failure to align the parties’ commitments and find common ground. One ulama (Muslin legal scholar) told The Diplomat that, “I was really surprised when I saw Malaysia making an announcement to stop attacks over Ramadhan without any resistance movement representatives or government officials present. We’ve already seen several attacks since the start of Ramadhan…I think this is a design to make people here accuse resistance fighters of not respecting the talks.”

Anecdotally, many Patani-Malays noticed an increased troop presence and uptick in operations during this period. This was justified by Thai security authorities on the basis of a need to provide maximum security against attacks during Ramadhan – laws would be strictly enforced to limit the freedom of insurgents in carrying out attacks, particularly on unarmed targets and important government offices.

Local residents of Thailand’s southernmost provinces fully expected to be disappointed with the Ramadhan Peace Initiative, and they have been. Since the beginning of Ramadhan there have been several attacks bearing the signature hallmarks of both state and non-state armed groups. One former combatant observed that Patani-Malays in his community welcomed a suspension over Ramadhan and understood that the government “needs some kind of proof” that the rebel delegation can control military units in the field. As to whether the suspension in hostilities would “hold”, he laughed and said, “I don’t think the attacks will stop” adding that, “The Siamese will continue to talk regardless of whether there are attacks…in a way this is a ruse….But, [wanting peace] is not a weakness…this road is a pathway towards the light for the Siamese; failure is darkness”.

With criticism aimed at Malaysia’s coercive approach to BRN mushrooming in the media and amongst academic circles, the Malaysian facilitation team can draw lessons from this episode. What is becoming clear is the need for the rebel delegation led by BRN to be given the space and freedom to consult beyond its principals, and thereby benefit from interactions that emphasize lessons learnt from regional peace processes such as those in Aceh (Indonesia) and Mindanao (Philippines). For this to happen, Malaysia needs to encourage the rebel delegation both inside and outside Malaysia to interact with Patani-based civil society, international non-government organizations, and resource-persons with experience in technical aspects of peacemaking in the region and beyond.

The anomaly here is that in what is a phenomenally open peace process – one in which the Thai and rebel delegations broadcast their views and demands through the press and social media platforms – the Malaysian facilitation team appears unwilling to open the process up to observers from the international community and civil society from Thailand. Modern peace processes, such as that between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the government of the Philippines, which successfully reached a framework agreement with Malaysian facilitation last year, tend to draw on a wide range of experts to help the conflict parties better understand how to reach an accord that will last. The MILF peace process also benefited from the support and advice of civil society on the ground in Mindanao.

There are more ominous signs emerging that the parties’ lack of sensitivity to other voices and stakeholders is starting to have the opposite desired outcome. One prominent armed group that has largely remained in exile since the 1990s, the Patani United Liberation Organization (PULO), appears to be remobilizing, albeit quietly. PULO split in 2010 following the death of its leader in exile, Tengku Bira Kotanila, in Damascus, Syria. This led to an internal fracture that was partly the result of outside interference. The present sidelining of various PULO factions from the Malaysia-facilitated dialogue inevitably creates the potential for spoilers to sabotage the ongoing process. What we are starting to see are the telltale signs of a revitalization of a hitherto dormant armed group in Thailand. And while PULO’s strength, capability, and access to materiel are hard to quantify, there is no doubt that it has assets both inside and outside of Thailand.

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The Malaysia-led peace process has had almost everyone and everything going against it, from the turbulence of the national political discourse, the suspicion and intrigue surrounding Thailand’s exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a hostile and discouraging national and international press, and initial disbelief amongst large swathes of civil society. Even individuals claiming to represent Al Qaeda have weighed in recently to heap scorn upon Thaksin. Despite all of this, the talks have already shown more promise than all previous attempts.

The openness of the current process is reflected by the clamor and interest amongst civil society groups, local political interests, and issue-based advocacy groups to become involved at the ground level. A blossoming public discourse has emerged that, whether consciously or not, reciprocates the courage being exhibited in Malaysia by the parties. It is now the task of the Malaysian facilitator to find meaningful ways to incorporate these stakeholders’ and local voices at the community-level into the process, and in doing so, recover from this most recent setback.

Both parties have much preparatory work ahead of them. But if the Malaysian facilitation team can adopt a constructive and open-minded posture towards the inclusion of other stakeholders, the stumbles of the Ramadhan Peace Initiative can be overcome and constructive dialogue will resume.

James Bean is a PhD candidate with The Australian National University’s School of International, Political, and Strategic Studies. Email: [email protected]