Driving the two-hour distance between Hat Yai airport and the city of Pattani, in Thailand’s Deep South, the transition could not be starker. From one of the country’s many tourist destinations, one is catapulted into a city seemingly under occupation. Pattani lies only few hundred kilometers from the hustle and bustle of Phuket’s pristine beaches and yet, since 2004, the latest round of a low-level insurgency pitting 3,000 Malay Muslim fighters against the Thai state has claimed more than 6,000 lives, with thousands more injured.
The bone of contention is the political future of the Deep South provinces, namely Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat, along with five districts in Songkla province, which roughly constituted the territory of the Malay Sultanate of Patani founded in 1390. Since its incorporation into Siam – Thailand’s name before the Revolution of 1932 – over a century ago, the majority Malay Muslim population living in the Deep South has refused to be assimilated in the highly centralized Thai state, whose discriminatory policies have triggered a series of rebellions since the 1960s.
Although the insurgents are ostensibly fighting for merdeka, “independence” in the local parlance, “this doesn’t mean that they are not willing to lower their political goal and consider autonomy. So, although the dream is still alive, there are factions ready to compromise because they realize that, realistically, independence is unattainable,” says Rungrawee Chalermsripinyorat, a consultant to international NGOs. Ahmad Bualuang, a former member of the National Reconciliation Commission, agrees: “If you ask people in the streets what they want, they’ll all answer merdeka, but most do not know what that entails. In reality, any just solution to our problem will be accepted.”
On February 28, 2013, the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra surprised everyone by announcing the beginning of a peace dialogue with key political representatives of the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (National Revolutionary Front, or BRN), which is widely believed to represent the main force on the ground. The event took place in Kuala Lumpur under the auspices of Prime Minister Najib Razak, with Malaysia presiding over the process as facilitator.
Since then, the parties have met only three times, with their last meeting taking place in June 2013, after which the dialogue ran aground. However, for all its shortcomings, many observers underscore the importance of this latest effort as it is the first time the Thai state has officially recognized the rebel side as “partners” in a political process. For their part, activists point out that the dialogue has ushered in a new degree of openness within civil society in the Deep South, where people now engage in public discussions on subjects previously considered taboos, including merdeka. All suggest that civilian deaths took a significant dip since the beginning of the Kuala Lumpur process.
The Rebel Side
Right from the start, questions arose about the legitimacy of the rebel representatives at the dialogue. Crucially, some doubted that the BRN’s alleged point man at the table, Mr. Hassan Taib, had any real standing among the insurgents. While others pointed to the 10-day respite in violence during a short-lived Ramadan ceasefire initiative in August 2013 as proof of some degree of command and control exercised by the political representatives at the table over the juwae, or fighters, on the ground, most observers seem to concur that the rebel movement is divided about the dialogue process.
For one, Don Pathan – a veteran analyst of the conflict in the Deep South – thinks that “there is a big gap between the position of the exiled leadership, who is willing to talk to the Thai government, and the BRN leadership – including the fighters – on the ground. The latter harbor a deep mistrust of the Thai side. They tell me: ‘you want to talk to us and then you kill Abdullateh? What kind of behavior is that?’” Mathus Anuvatudom, a researcher at King Prajadhipok’s Institute, disagrees: “The BRN has been ready to explore dialogue as an option for quite some time. However, one can identify three loosely-defined camps within it: one is pro-peace dialogue, the other is for a military solution, and the third adopts a more cautious wait-and-see attitude.”
Whatever the case may be, the end result has turned out to be more of the same: the rebel side lacks a unified leadership, and thus strategy, to engage with the Thai state, if and when it decides to. In the meantime, attacks continue unabated, although – a decade on – it is unclear how anything but a negotiated settlement can usher in a durable peace.
Malaysia shares a 650-kilometer border with Thailand’s Deep South and is home to many exiled rebel leaders, in principle giving the country a stake in the resolution of the conflict. However, neither side seems to trust Najib’s role in the dialogue. “The BRN hates Najib, due to the policy of collaboration between Malaysian and Thai security in the past that led to multiple arrests and executions of the movement’s cadres,” says Kraisak Choonhavan, former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s representative at secret talks with the insurgents from 2008 to 2010. A youth activist in the Deep South concurs: “Malaysia is not neutral: it shares business interests with the Thai government, how can the BRN possibly trust them?”
…and the Thai side
From the Thai government’s side, the matter is more complicated, but for reasons that bear little relation to the insurgency and are, instead, linked to the deepening struggle for Thailand’s future between the old establishment – the Thai monarchy, the Royal Thai Army (RTA), the opposition Democrat Party together with the Bangkok’s upper and middle classes it represents and the Southern Thais – and the power of the ballot box which has voted in the Thaksins and their political allies election after election since 2001.
Historically, the Thai government has deeply resented Malaysia for providing sanctuary to the insurgents, but the attitude changed radically under the Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Jason Johnson, an independent researcher based in Pattani, recalls how “until 2005, Thaksin was criticizing Malaysia almost daily for its support to the separatists, until he suddenly stopped, as he realized he needed Malaysia on board” to deal with the Deep South.
Thaksin’s visit to Malaysia in 2012, in which he reportedly met with a number of representatives of the insurgents in exile, offers ammunition to his many detractors, who dismiss Yingluck’s role in the dialogue as a mere figurehead, behind whom looms the long shadow of her elder brother. Senator for Pattani Anusart Suwanmongkol doesn’t mince his words: “Yingluck has no political experience. She is Thaksin’s puppet and protégé. The whole peace dialogue is just a drama to whitewash Thaksin of the Tak Bai and Krue Se massacre. He wants people to forgive him of his past sins, because his party has not managed to win the past three rounds of elections in the Deep South. So, he rushed into it without any preparation.”
Unsurprisingly, the RTA had no enthusiasm to join a process about which it had not been consulted, as a top army brass in the Deep South concedes, on condition of anonymity. “This is all about Thai politics: if the government tries to make peace, the opposition will shut it down, as they see it as Thaksin making peace. So it’s Thai politics spilling over the peace dialogue in the Deep South.” On the ground, competition between the different power centers within the Thai state translates into a lack of coordination, if not outright rivalry, between the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Centre (SBPAC), the civilian body in charge of running the Deep South, and the security forces under the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC). At the dialogue table, divisions at the top meant that the government was never ready to take the initiative and present a unified position vis-à-vis rebel representatives.
Wither the Dialogue?
Recent developments in Bangkok indicate that the peace dialogue is hanging by a thread. The Constitutional Court is expected to rule today on a case against Yingluck Shinawatra over a possible conflict of interest in her decision to replace National Security Council Chief Thawil Pliensri with Police General – and her then in-law – Priewpan Damapong. If the court rules against her, she and her caretaker cabinet will have to resign, opening the possibility for the Democrat Party to form a new government.
In a recent analysis, Professor Duncan McCargo warns that “a new government of this complexion would be likely to look askance at the current ‘Thaksin-initiated’ peace process and might be tempted to abandon it on partisan political grounds.” He concludes that “any peace process is better than no peace process.” Whoever comes to power next in Bangkok would do well to take note.
Franco Galdini is a freelance journalist and analyst.