Amid another round of peace talks between the Thai government and the Muslim separatists seeking to end the decades-old conflict, here are the factors that have hindered the peace process in southern Thailand (and created economic cost for the country).
Another round of peace talk between the Thai government and the Muslim separatist representatives were held in Malaysia on 19 and 21 December 2016 after the early peace efforts in September this year failed to make progress. The peace talks reportedly focused on ‘safety zones’ — selected districts that will ceasefire and where development efforts will be deployed to improve economic and livelihood of the people in that regions. No major breakthroughs are reported to have come at the talks.
Thailand’s Deep South, once known as the Malay kingdom of Patani Darussalam, consists of Yala, Narathiwat, Pattani provinces, and four districts of Songkhla. The first two share a border with Malaysia and the region is majority Muslim. Rebels there have accused the Thai government of neglecting their rights to language, religion, and other cultural rights. They have been fighting for autonomy for decades in a conflict that has claimed more than 6,500 lives.
The Malay-Muslim insurgency has recently gained international headlines after a series of bomb attacks on tourist attractions which included foreigners among the wounded. Many fear that the rebels may change their strategy to targeting tourists and attacking the capital in order to gain leverage at the negotiating table. The three-day peace talks were part of efforts to build trust between the two sides, seeking to end the decades-old conflict. However, multiple stumbling blocks on both sides could easily undermine the talks and undercut possibilities for lasting peace.
A divided insurgency
Different factions within the insurgency hold divergent views. Hardliners continue to see the peace efforts such as the ‘safety zones’ as a way to divide and weaken their local support. The Barisan Revolusi Nasional, (BRN), the largest and the most lethal rebel group has been quoted in a local newspaper as saying they would not respect the ‘safety zones’ and would continue to carry out operations within the designated ceasefire districts. Younger insurgents are also frustrated with the slow progress and are willing to take a greater risk to confront the government.
However, moderates within the insurgency are willing to adopt a middle ground on the basis of real autonomy. An umbrella organisation, MARA Patani – made up of BRN, the Patani Islamic Liberation Front (BIPP), Patani United Liberation Organization (PULO), and the Islamic Mujahideen Movement of Patani (GMIP) – consists of some moderators that are would like to push forward with the ceasefire. However, because the MARA Patani lacks the support of BRN, their relevance in the peace negotiation with the Thai government is marginal.
Political paralysis in the capital
Unrest in the South often is forced to take a back seat to political power struggles in the capital. In 2013, then-Prime Minister Yingluck began the first official peace talks with the BRN, but the military coup in 2014 brought these to a halt.
The junta made overtures towards the peace process when the officer-turned Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha promised to resume dialogue with the Muslim-majority rebels. However, the coup brought a new set of people into the negotiation and relations have had to be built from scratch. The last talks were held on September 2nd, 2016 year in Kuala Lumpur, but failed to make any breakthroughs.
Mistrust of the military
After years of committing violence in the region, many in the region and insurgency groups want security officers to be legally punished for their violations as a prerequisite to reconciliation. Consequently, many prefer to talk with a democratic government. Thus this peace process is also intertwined with the democratisation of Thailand. Since the military took control of the government in 2014, elections have been delayed repeatedly and are now set to take place at the end of the 2017. However, the date could be delayed again.
The draft constitution which passed in August 2016 makes it especially hard for southern insurgents to trust the military. This new constitution makes the armed forces immune from accountability, and legalises military intervention when the junta deems it necessary. It also rules out any possibility for political and economic development, and obliges the government to promote and protect Buddhism.
Implications of further instability for Thailand
Thailand and its citizens are used to instability: bombings, killings, mass protests, and military coups are hardly unusual. The Thai economy has proven to be very resilient to these upheavals. But frequent bomb attacks and foiled bomb plots remind its people and investors the political risks that the country faces.
The increasing attacks in popular tourist spots could signal a shift in violence from the traditional conflict zone. The tourist industry accounts for over 10 percent of the country’s GDP. Blasts and attacks on civilians often lead to a drop in foreign visits, but the industry has historically bounced back quickly.
However, if the insurgent activities in Phuket and Hua Hin are replicated in other popular tourist locations, the tourism industry is unlikely to remain resilient. The Muslim rebels are incentivized to increase their attacks outside of the south in order to increase their power at the negotiating table. The government was quick to deny the possibility that the wave of blasts in August 2016 had any connection to the Muslim insurgency, fearing this might deter foreign visitors.
That said, the government needs to do more than assuage foreign fears. The military government needs to show commitment to the peace process, employ a political solution that involves all the key parties, and respect the social and cultural rights of the separatists in order to end the conflict. A stall in the peace process will continue to undermine junta’s legitimacy.
Given the political climate at the moment in Thailand, however, it unlikely that junta representatives can ever reach substantial breakthroughs with the Muslim rebels. A fresh round of attacks likely looms as the process drags, as demonstrated by the latest round of bomb attack in Narathiwat on Monday December 12 that injured four police officers, just a few days ahead of the peace talks.