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.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
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.
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.