A bomb blast in the Bannang Sata district of Yala province in Southern Thailand on May 12, just two days before the country’s general election, is a telling tale of how deeply trapped the region is in insurgency and violence. The explosion claimed an army ranger’s life while three ranger volunteers were also wounded.
Scholars and observers of the Southern Thailand conflict have been warning about this for the past several months. In an article written for BenarNews, Zachary Abuza, a noted expert on terrorism and insurgency in Southeast Asia, predicted that the violence in insurgency-hit Southern Thailand was primed to escalate, noting that it registered an upward trend even in 2022.
A month ago, on April 14, attacks took place simultaneously in six places in Narathiwat, Pattani, and Yala provinces, on the last day of Ramadan. The attacks were the latest sign of how the conflict might expand, if not dealt with in time. While the attacks did not lead to any human causalities, they brought to a shattering end the ceasefire agreement that the insurgent group and the Thai government had agreed for the entire Ramadan period.
While the campaign leading up to the May 14 election saw a wide range of issues discussed, the perennial issues of insurgency and separatism – and the challenges they pose to law and order – are of critical importance to the people in Southern Thailand. This is especially true in light of the fact that since its reigniting in 2004, the conflict in Southern Thailand has claimed more than 7,000 lives and injured an estimated 13,500 people.
The roots of the separatist insurgency in southern Thailand can be traced back to 1785, when the Patani Sultanate became a part of the Kingdom of Siam. Later, in 1909, with the signing of the Anglo-Siamese Treaty, the borders between Thailand and Malaysia were fixed in their current location. This left the historical Patani region, which consists of the present-day provinces of Pattani, Narathiwat, and Yala along with four districts in neighboring Songkhla, inside the borders of Siam. These Muslim-majority regions have been the locus of a separatist movement since 1948. Subsequently, numerous ethnic Malay-Muslim insurgent organizations emerged demanding separation from the Thai government. The most prominent ones include BRN (Barisan Revolusi Nasional), RKK (Runda Kumpulan Kecil), GMIP (Pattani Islamic Mujahideen Movement), BIPP (Islamic Liberation Front of Patani), and PULO (Patani United Liberation Organization).
For predominantly Buddhist Thailand, Muslim-Malay claims that the Thai government and society have attempted to violate their cultural and religious identity by pushing a national assimilation agenda, seems a far-fetched narrative, especially in the context of the state of minorities in other Southeast Asian countries, including Malaysia. That said, a feeling of relative deprivation seems justified considering that Southern Thailand remains the most underdeveloped part of Thailand.
While political leaders and interlocutors often deny it, the problem has an ethnic dimension as well. The majority Malay-Muslims of Southern Thailand, Thai Buddhists, and other Thai ethnic groups rarely interact socially due to several inter-societal and inter-community differences. It has been challenging for Malay-Muslims to assimilate into the political and religious culture of the Thai state, and Islamic beliefs and practices diverge from the state’s focus on “nation, religion (i.e. Buddhism), and king.” For the Thai authorities, the Muslim-Malay community has been somewhat impenetrable in a fragile law and order situation – a deadly mix that has worsened the conflict and held back the region’s economic development.
Last year’s increase in bloodshed in Southern Thailand may have been a sign that the rebels were growing impatient with the government’s fruitless efforts to broker a peace deal. Attacks took place following talks between the Thai government and the largest insurgent organization, the BRN, that had been suspended for two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic and resumed in early 2022. However, in a decade of talks not much has been achieved.
The Yingluck Shinawatra government of Thailand suggested and later endorsed a Malaysia-initiated dialogue process in April 2013, to explore possible steps toward a negotiated resolution to the conflict in the South. Under the auspices of the Malaysian government, peace negotiations between the BRN and Thai government representatives have taken place ever since.
The BRN is the largest and likely the most organized of all the insurgent groups in Southern Thailand and has participated in five rounds of peace talks since 2020 with the Thai Gen. Wanlop Rugsanaoh, the head of the Thai side in the peace negotiations. The peace talks led by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, who has been in power since 2014, have so far failed to go beyond negotiating brief ceasefires to address the fundamental Malay grievances.
Despite the upswing in violence in the south, hopes for a settlement of the southern dispute have rekindled lately. Effective January 1, 2023, Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s government appointed Zulkifli Zainal Abidin, former chief of the defense force, to act as a mediator in talks between the Thai government and the BRN. When Anwar visited Thailand on February 9, insurgency and separatism in Southern Thailand were key issues of discussion. Anwar stated that maintaining the status quo in terms of peace was “of paramount consideration” and that Malaysia was committed to doing so. The most recent negotiations between the BRN and the Thai government took place in Kuala Lumpur on February 21 and 22.
The BRN leadership agreed that following the initial round of talks facilitated by Abidin, other Malay-Muslim rebel organizations might join in the negotiations. If that happens, it will mark the first time since 2018 that parties other than the BRN have taken part in the peace talks.
The 2023 Thai General Election
Anti-government campaign rallies over the military and monarchy’s continued presence in Thai governance heated up as the country moved toward the May 14 general election, which saw a victory for the progressive opposition Move Forward Party, which is planning to form a government and end nine years of military and military-backed rule under Prayut. While the issue did not predominate in the campaign, the opposition parties supported by anti-junta groups seem to have a more liberal approach to the separatist conflict and could be more willing to discuss and address the BRN’s political demands, though they will remain constrained by the military’s role in the process.
As the Thai electoral process reaches its zenith in the weeks to come, the tensions that underlie Thailand’s long-standing patterns of unrest are certain to continue. To find a lasting peaceful solution, the Thai government must show its resolve to finalize the Joint Comprehensive Plan Toward Peace, which was agreed in principle between Gen. Wanlop Rugsanaoh and BRN representative Ustaz Anas Abdulrahman in Kuala Lumpur on February 22. The insurgent groups, particularly the BRN, must also get more realistic and come to terms with negotiating a peace pact within the confines of a unitary Thai state’s constitution, which has been a non-negotiable item for successive Thai governments.