Insurgencies and local resistance to Buddhist-Thai rule have plagued the predominantly Malay-Muslim provinces of southern Thailand for well over a century. In response, Bangkok has used a mixture of economic development, military action, the restructuring of regional governance, and a series of secret talks with a range of insurgent groups. These attempts to stymie recurring upsurges in ethnic violence have unfortunately met with only limited success.
Perhaps it’s no surprise then that the latest effort to enter into a formal dialogue with one of southern Thailand’s leading separatist groups, the Barisan Rovolusi Nasional (BRN), has also experienced its fair share of troubles. Yet, if the next Thai government succeeds in reviving the now-troubled talks and brings a degree of political stability to the embattled South, then the efforts of the now-deposed Yingluck Shinawatra government may not have been in vain.
Why Dialogue has been Difficult – Again
On February 28, 2013, Thailand’s National Security Council Director Lt General Paradon Pattanathabut and BRN’s representative Hassan Taib agreed to enter into peace talks that were being encouraged by Malaysia. Since then, however, the dialogue between both parties has been less than impressive. In the build-up to round two of the talks, for example, the BRN unexpectedly issued five difficult demands on YouTube. They included changing Malaysia’s role in the talks (from being a mere facilitator to being a full-fledged mediator), and recognizing the BRN as a Patani liberation movement rather than a mere separatist group. These proposals were unsurprisingly and immediately rejected by Bangkok, primarily out of fear that, if met, they could lead to the secession of southern Thailand.
A second impediment to dialogue has been the Thai Army, which remains vehemently opposed to negotiating with groups that it deems to be insurgents, and which has deep concerns that the BRN is no longer in command of its young militants. (Such doubts, by the way, are also held by members of the Thai negotiating team and even the press, who also question the sincerity of the BRN’s call for renewed dialogue with Bangkok.) It’s also likely that the military’s skepticism only increased after a faction of the BRN told a journalist that the peace dialogue did not have its blessing, no doubt because this splinter group continues to have a deep mistrust of Malaysia, which handed over some of its members over to Thailand in 1998.
Towards a Future Peace?
When it comes to the most recent peace process, Malaysia’s involvement has been criticized by Thai politicians, with a prominent member of the Democrat Party accusing Kuala Lumpur of using the process for economic gain and to push for the conversion of the Patani region into a buffer state. But does Malaysia actually represent yet another impediment to peace?
While there are growing calls to bring other states, such as Indonesia, into the talks, it would be dishonest to downplay Malaysia’s long-term efforts to end the crisis. In the past, for example, Kuala Lumpur has persuaded the BRN to modify its demands in the interest of continued dialogue with Bangkok. And let’s not further forget that Malaysia’s efforts to foster greater integration and inter-connectivity between fellow ASEAN members will not be served by the emergence of a newly-independent Patani region on its doorstep. Malaysia is, therefore, not only an essential broker in talks between Bangkok and the BRN, it may also have a say in any attempts to reshape the territorial integrity of Thailand.
Given the above truths, what policymakers in Bangkok need to do at this critical juncture is to convince Army leaders of the merits of negotiating with the BRN. After all, the group has set itself apart from other separatist organizations by signaling that it is interested in moving beyond ‘dialogue’ and towards ‘negotiation’. This is best demonstrated by the BRN’s subsequent reformulation of the five intemperate demands I cited earlier, to include the possibility of greater regional autonomy as part of the bargaining process. The Army’s leaders need to see this significant concession for what it is.
Second, alongside convincing the Thai Army of the merits of talking to the BRN, Thailand’s policymakers need to move beyond their conservative mindset. In practical terms, this means entertaining and discussing the possibility of establishing an autonomous administration zone for the South, which is an option that has been successfully used to resolve many conflicts around the world, and which does not represent an open door to eventual Patani independence.
In closing, it is crucial to remember that there is no peace without leadership and there is no leadership if the leader is not ready to take risks. Whoever replaces Yingluck as the next long-term Prime Minister of Thailand will need to seize the initiative sooner rather than later, and gamble for a lasting peace. To do this, however, this visionary will have to overcome the hesitation of the armed forces and sections of Thailand’s political elite.