What Does the Thailand Army Chief’s Trip to Indonesia’s Aceh Mean?

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What Does the Thailand Army Chief’s Trip to Indonesia’s Aceh Mean?

A closer look at the significance of a recent visit that has generated much speculation.

This week, Thailand’s army chief paid a visit to Indonesia’s Aceh province. While the trip was scheduled and tied to the signing of an intelligence-sharing agreement, the rare publicized visit to Aceh by a Thai military official nonetheless generated speculation about the broader significance of the development.

Although Thailand and Indonesia have bilateral diplomatic ties dating back to 1950, their security ties have been slower to develop relatively speaking. Both sides only inked a memorandum of understanding on defense cooperation back in 2015, and despite previous instances where shared interests may have been at play, be it illegal fishing or suspected links between militants in the Indonesian province of Aceh and the insurgency in Malay-Muslim majority southern provinces in predominantly Buddhist Thailand, concrete collaboration has actually seen little progress.

This week, the security aspect of the relationship was in the headlines again with the visit of Thai army chief Apirat Kongsompong to Aceh. Apirat paid a trip to the Indonesian province earlier this week, and most of the headlines regarding the interaction focused on the signing of an intelligence-sharing agreement on Tuesday, reportedly focused on cooperation in tracking fugitives across borders as well as exchange of visits and training.

But beyond the inking of the agreement itself, there was also interest in the fact that the signing had occurred in Aceh, where Indonesia had reached a settlement with insurgents in 2005. Apirat’s own comments ahead of the visit, reported by The Bangkok Post, suggested that his trip to Aceh, reportedly the first of its kind by a sitting Thai army chief, was intended to build on discussions he had previously had with his Indonesian counterpart about addressing the insurgency that Buddhist-majority Thailand is fighting in its Muslim-majority south. That in and of itself was not necessarily out of the ordinary: as mentioned before, there have been previous reports of links between insurgents in southern Thailand and militants in Aceh as well as a lack of progress on collaboration in this vein.

Yet beyond Apirat’s discussions with Andika, he also held other engagements as well which grabbed headlines. For instance, The Associated Press reported that Apirat met with former leaders of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) which had waged a decades-long struggle for autonomy as well as Aceh’s effective head of state Wali Nanggroe to exchange views that could be applied in dealing with the southern Thailand insurgency.

While Apirat’s engagements may be notable, they are also not entirely surprising. One can easily see such consultations being tacked on as part of an effort by both sides to signal that they do acknowledge the past links between Aceh and southern Thailand and are moving forward with some degree of collaboration for the future. More generally, it is also worth noting that developments related to the Aceh model also holds significance beyond just the Indonesia-Thailand relationship: indeed, just a few weeks ago, there were commemorations tied to the 15th anniversary of the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that was one of the developments that helped spark the events that led to the conclusion of a peace deal in Helsinki in 2005.

But suggesting that Apirat’s trip means Thailand is learning lessons from Indonesia’s experience in Aceh or is looking to change its approach to the southern Thailand insurgency seems premature. Autonomy has long been an option for Thailand to address its southern insurgency, and the reasons why it has not been pursued have less to do with a lack of knowledge of other country cases and more to do with internal dynamics in Thailand itself, including a traditionally security-centric approach to addressing the challenge and fear of broader concerns for the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Moreover, thus far, we have seen few signs of a dramatic change in the Thai government’s approach to the southern Thailand insurgency.

Of course, one should not discount the possibility of a major shift in Thailand’s handling of its southern insurgency. And, if anything, the Aceh case is an illustration of the ability of sudden events to reshape events despite previous suggestions of stasis despite the initial positions and interests of all sides. Nonetheless, given what we know publicly so far as well as what we have seen to date, there seems to be much less than meets the eye with respect to Apirat’s Aceh voyage.