Bangkok Turmoil and Thailand’s Deep South
Image Credit: REUTERS/Surapan Boonthanom

Bangkok Turmoil and Thailand’s Deep South


Exactly one year ago, hopes were high as the Thai government under the leadership of Yingluck Shinawatra made a historic move to end a conflict that had already claimed more than 5300 lives since its brutal resurgence in 2004. With the blessings of her deposed and now exiled brother Thaksin, who had previously approached Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak for cooperation, Shinawatra initiated a formal peace dialogue with the Barisan Rovolusi Nasional (BRN), one of the main insurgent groups that operate in the three violence-ridden provinces of Thailand’s Deep South.

Despite being lauded and supported by many local religious leaders, civil society groups, and scholars working towards a peaceful bottom-up resolution to the conflict, the dialogue soon ran into challenges, lasting only three rounds. A lack of command and commitment by the representatives of both sides, the uncertain and contested role of Malaysia, and the Army’s entrenched interests and stronger role have all contributed to undermine the dialogue.

One possible way out would be to upgrade the dialogue to a negotiation process focusing on the practical aspects of some form of political autonomy for the Southern provinces, which would increase the prospects of ending one of Asia’s oldest conflicts. But this is unlikely given the current political instability in Bangkok and the uncertain future of Prime Minister Yingluck and her government, now bereft of popular support and legitimacy.

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Weak Command and Commitment

Plaguing the peace process at the outset was the lack of leadership unity, legitimacy, and genuine commitment on both sides. It is widely believed among Thai security officials, especially the Army’s top brass, that the senior BRN leaders who joined the talks no longer have command over the young militants operating on the ground and that the dialogue was consequently doomed from the outset. The Army raid on militant camps in July, even while the dialogue was in process, further reflected the military’s snubbing of the BRN-Thai government official agreement to refrain from violence during Ramadan.

Repeated incidents and misunderstandings also indicated that the BRN negotiating team led by Hassan Taib was not willing to continue the peace talks. BRN’s five extreme demands, issued just before the second round, included government recognition of the independence and sovereignty of Patani Malay. This was hardly going to be acceptable to the central government and the Thai establishment. Hassan’s eccentric behavior of pressing several demands on YouTube without prior consultation with his Thai counterpart further complicated the position of the Thai negotiating team leader, National Security Council director Lt. General Paradon Pattanathabut.

Despite the BRN’s threat to pull out after its demands met with no response, constant violence on the ground and heavy criticism from security officials and politicians, the peace dialogue survived only to meet with a call for an indefinite suspension from the Thai side after the anti-government mass protests broke out in Bangkok in late November. According to Paradon, Bangkok wanted to wait until the situation in the capital calmed down. Unfortunately, the street movement evolved into prolonged mass protests and Yingluck’s focus remains on the day-to-day struggle to keep her government in power.

A further complication emerged on the insurgents’ side, now bereft of command. In his last YouTube appearance on December 1, Hassan urged the Thai side to accept the BRN’s five demands as a precondition for continuing the talks, but also indicated he was no longer the chief representative. His disappearance and silence since then have raised speculation and rumors about Malaysia’s role and possible strife inside the militant organization.

Malaysia Facilitates and Divides

The 2013 peace initiative looked promising especially because of Malaysia’s assistance as a facilitator. Thailand’s southern neighbor was known to be the hideout for most key militant commanders, and Bangkok thus expected Kuala Lumpur to have significant leverage over them. Rather than constructive facilitator, however, the external role of Malaysia has been at the center of dissension, further accentuating the lines of division between a complex set of militant outfits.

For example, in early October, one BRN faction led by spiritual leader Sapae-ing Basor, generally seen as having more clout than Taib, claimed that the unexpected peace initiative lacked its approval and expressed its opposition to the external role of Malaysia. This group maintains a deep mistrust of Malaysia, which in 1998 had turned in some of the group’s militants to Thailand. Basor has thus made his participation contingent on guarantees of immunity for him and his followers.

Malaysia’s role is also heavily criticized by Wan Kadir Che Man, the former leader of the now defunct insurgent Bersatu group, who participated in the pre-peace initiative meeting with Thaksin in Malaysia. Wan Kadir claims that the militants’ real leaders, hailing from different groups, were invited to the event but sidelined by the Malaysian authorities, which preventing them from engaging with the former Thai prime minister. Thaksin thus ended up talking to insurgents who do not control operations on the ground and who are thus unable to translate any official agreement into reality. Wan Kadir further accuses both governments of lacking a serious commitment to achieving peace and of being merely interested in fostering their respective public images.

Sources later revealed to a Deep South Watch blogger that despite the disagreement of the Dewan Penilian Party, the BRN’s ruling council, Hassan had been forced to collaborate with Malaysia in order to secure the safe haven for all Patani insurgents living on the other side of the border. Other sources suggested that the rather moderate Hassan might now be under the custody of DPP in an attempt to replace him in future talks with a new hard-core representative. If this holds true, then Bangkok will likely face an even tougher task to look for peace.

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