Insurgents in Thailand’s deep south conducted a significant attack during the holy month of Ramadan. A roadside bomb was planted on a dirt road and exploded on June 19 when security forces were on patrol. Six Thai soldiers were killed and four others injured. Violence in the deep south typically increase during Ramadan, which ended on June 24.
The attack represents another obstacle to the peace dialogue between the Thai military government and MARA Patani. The MARA Patani group is an umbrella organization that brings six insurgent movements together. What underscored the June 17 attack was that it highlighted the continued resilience of Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) in provoking the military, who has typically failed to recognize the root causes of the conflict.
Notwithstanding any progress made in the peace dialogue, there are reasons to believe that if BRN is not a party to the dialogue and the root causes of the conflict are not addressed, the potential for conflict settlement is slim.
First, BRN has repeatedly denounced the current peace dialogue. It rejected MARA Patani as a legitimate party to the dialogue process. With continued violence despite the ongoing dialogue, BRN is signaling to Bangkok that it controls a vast majority of insurgents on the ground and hence, it should be the right party to the dialogue. In a statement made in April 2017, BRN announced that it was willing to negotiate directly with the Thai military government.
In order for BRN to come to the negotiating table, it demanded mediation by a neutral third party and the participation of international observers. Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha rejected these demands, citing that the dialogue was an “internal matter,” which required no international mediation or observation.
By not accepting BRN’s demands, the Thai military government is effectively cancelling out the possibility of including BRN in the dialogue. Any conflict settlement arising from the dialogue will not be sustainable if the main insurgent force is not included in the process, as Srisompob Jitpiromsri pointed out, “in the long term, if the government wants lasting peace in the region they must include BRN in any negotiations.”
Second, the act of not including BRN in the dialogue might nevertheless be the Thai military government’s strategy. According to Thailand-based security analyst, Don Pathan, the Thai military government is talking only to MARA Patani so as to buy time. If BRN is not in the dialogue, violence would most certainly continue. It is calculating that the Malay-Muslim would grow tired of the violence over time and turn their backs on BRN. Meanwhile, the Thai military government is directly wooing the villagers and maintaining military operations to curb insurgent activities.
For example, the Thai military government has continued a project with the World Bank that began in 2013. The project aims to enhance the capacity of local authorities to undertake development activities and strengthen civil society organizations so that they could engage in dialogue on policy issues related to a peaceful resolution of the conflict. At the same time, it will maintain military operations in the region unless MARA Patani demonstrates it has control over ground insurgents.
Since most analysts opined that MARA Patani had little control over ground insurgents, military operations would most likely be maintained indefinitely. But it can trigger BRN to continue the attacks especially if it is not part of the dialogue process. On the other hand, continued violence could provide further justification for maintaining military operations. In a sense, it is possible that the Thai military government is not looking for a complete ceasefire so long as violence does not escalate to an undesirable level.
Overall, the Thai military government seems more interested in counterinsurgency than in conflict settlement. The current approach bears similarities to previous governments’ counterinsurgency strategies. For instance, under General Prem Tinsulanonda’s approach to combating communists in the late 1970s, funds were poured into rural development schemes in the northeast, while the military battled the communist bases and offered amnesty in the event of surrenders. Likewise, in his approach to dealing with insurgency in the deep south, General Prem also offered a general amnesty and implemented an economic development plan for the south.
Viewed in this light, it is likely that the Thai military government’s eventual goal is to offer amnesty to the insurgents rather than seeking a conflict settlement for the benefit of two sides. It is hoping to use the peace dialogue and development programs as means to gain legitimacy in the eyes of the Malay-Muslim villagers at the expense of BRN. After all, a key goal of any counterinsurgency strategy is to win over “hearts and minds” of the population.
Third, as the Thai military government focuses on counterinsurgency, it inevitably fails to recognize that the root causes of the conflict are political and require political solutions. Since the eventual goal is to offer amnesty, there will be no room for any political concessions to the insurgents. The aim is to resolve the conflict on its own terms, without affecting the unitary state of Thailand. The principle of a unitary state has been deeply entrenched in Thailand since the late 19th century. Any political concession such as autonomy for the Malay-Muslims would be seen as “treasonous.”
The Thai military government will definitely not risk a legitimacy deficit for itself, especially in the current transition period after King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s passing. The Thai military’s successful justification for political control has thus far been dependent on the charisma and popularity of King Bhumibol. With the late King’s passing, the Thai military’s role in national politics is shaky. As such, the Thai military government would not offer any political concessions that could put its legitimacy in the eyes of the Buddhist Thais at jeopardy.
Navigating the Challenges
Immense challenges definitely lie ahead for the peace dialogue in southern Thailand. However, if the peace dialogue is to have any chance of succeeding, the Thai military government must take serious effort to hold discussions with BRN and accept that the root causes of the conflict are political. Conflicts that are political in nature require political solutions. So as not to suffer a legitimacy deficit, the Thai military government could explore political options that are compatible with the unitary Thai state, such as a special administrative structure.
Eugene Mark is a Senior Analyst from Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. He has a deep interest in Thailand’s political and security affairs.