Thailand’s Quiet Crisis: ‘The Southern Problem’

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Thailand’s Quiet Crisis: ‘The Southern Problem’

While Prayut focuses on solidifying control over Bangkok, the insurgency in the south has gained strength.

Thailand’s Quiet Crisis: ‘The Southern Problem’

In this image made from video, smoke rises from an exploded vehicle outside a popular shopping center in Pattani province, southern Thailand, May 9, 2017.

Credit: AP Photo

When General Prayut Chan-o-cha overthrew Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and took her title for himself in a 2014 coup d’état, he inherited a quiet crisis that had already bedeviled a decade of Thai governments: an insurgency in southern Thailand, where Thai Malay rebels have long waged a campaign for autonomy in the neglected Muslim-majority provinces of Narathiwat, Pattani, and Yala. Nonetheless, the Royal Thai Army’s former commander-in-chief has dedicated himself to securing political dominance over the heart of central Thailand, pooling his resources in the Thai capital of Bangkok.

“The real question,” posited Dr. Greg Raymond, a research fellow at the Strategic and Defense Studies Center, part of Australian National University, “has been whether Thailand’s domestic politics has distracted the military government from a greater focus on solving the southern problem.”

In Bangkok, Prayut has curbed freedom of speech, dissolved political parties, and jailed critics in an often-effective bid to muzzle the opposition. In southern Thailand, however, his government has enjoyed less success. Thai Malay rebels continue to deploy car bombs and kill soldiers. Militants attacked a marketplace just a week before Prayut’s June 5 reselection as prime minister. This pattern indicates that peace will likely prove as elusive for the Thai strongman as for any of his civilian predecessors.

“The lack of substantive progress in conflict resolution in the deep south during the Prayut government is not primarily because of its focus on maintaining control in Bangkok,” argued Rungrawee Chalermsripinyorat, a Thai analyst who has studied the insurgency for over a decade. “It is more about the approach that the military government has taken in resolving this conflict.”

The extent to which Prayut’s hyperfocus on political challenges has affected his response to the conflict in Southern Thailand remains a matter of debate. Instead, analysts highlight his grip on the capital as another example of Thai leaders concentrating power in Bangkok at the expense of regional autonomy. For his part, Prayut has opposed granting southern Thailand any form of self-determination since well before his coup. While he has asked for Malaysia to facilitate peace talks with the Thai Malay rebels, his long-held hostility to decentralization will likely lead to an impasse at the negotiating table.

“The distraction argument that some have mentioned is not significant at all,” said Jason Johnson, a Bangkok-based analyst. “Dramatically more significant is that Prayut has led a government highly influenced by individuals and groups reluctant to allow more democratic governance, including some kind of democratically elected regional government in the Malay-speaking part of the south.”

Despite the size of the political gap between Prayut and the insurgents in southern Thailand, he has attempted to negotiate a peace treaty with Mara Patani, an umbrella organization comprising a small subsection of Thai Malay rebels. In early June, a Malaysian-appointed facilitator met officials in southern Thailand to organize the next steps of the peace process. Many observers of the region’s conflict have described a political settlement as the most realistic way of stopping the insurgency, for the Thai Army seems no closer to defeating the Thai Malay rebels today than it was in the early 2000s.

“It is fair to say that the peace process has been recognized as one of the main mechanisms for conflict resolution in the deep south, as Prayut decided to resume the Kuala Lumpur-facilitated peace dialogue initiated during the Yingluck government,” Chalermsripinyorat told The Diplomat, noting the Thai Army’s emphasis on negotiations. “In my view, a serious and sustained commitment to the peace process is likely to be the most effective means of resolving the conflict in the deep south.”

Thai authorities face several hurdles at the negotiating table and on the battlefield. Mara Patani suspended peace talks in February, angry at a Thai delegate’s failure to attend a meeting. Another obstacle soon followed: the resignation of a top Mara Patani negotiator. Meanwhile, Mara Patani exercises limited control over the insurgency at best, raising questions about the ultimate value of a peace treaty with the group. Thai officials are struggling to convince the secretive leadership of the National Revolutionary Front (BRN), the largest collective of Thai Malay rebels, to join the faltering peace process.

“Few people see the current government’s old-school approaches as sustainable, and this is widely recognized in the Thai military even though no soldier would ever admit this publicly,” Johnson told The Diplomat. “The military will continue to apply the same counterinsurgency strategies that it has been using. There will be little — if any — change under this new government.”

For now, the BRN enjoys the advantage within southern Thailand, launching attacks across the region in May and June as part of an annual Ramadan offensive. Nonetheless, Prayut has managed a key success: keeping the conflict out of the headlines and below the international community’s radar.

“After the 2014 coup, the junta wanted to keep the deep south out of the news and off the international agenda with respect to Thailand,” Matthew Wheeler, a senior analyst for Southeast Asia at the International Crisis Group, told The Diplomat. “The decreasing levels of violence indicate that the military has had a degree of success in this effort. Another factor was that the junta paid lip service to dialogue with Patani Malay militants through the Mara Patani process.”

Continuing peace talks with Mara Patani allows Prayut to claim that he remains committed to peace without having to make the political sacrifices that could bring the BRN to the negotiating table. As vicious as the insurgency has become, it receives little coverage outside Malaysia and Thailand.

“The military is very committed to the traditional model of Thai governance over a unitary state, not interested in decentralization — let alone self-determination — in the provinces, and has limited faith in the power of the insurgent parties it negotiates with to control the violence,” said Raymond. “The military greatly fears the internationalization of negotiations, leading to the secession of the inhabitants.”

Given the outcry that China, India, and Myanmar have provoked with how they treat their own Muslim minority groups, Thai authorities have likely become more wary of pursuing any form of conflict resolution that could draw the attention of human rights groups, news agencies, or world powers and the international community as a whole. Nonetheless, the Thai Army has so far failed to end the insurgency, and Prayut may need to make substantial concessions to achieve peace at the negotiating table.

“The surest way to undermine the insurgency is to get serious about devolving political power to regions and provinces,” said Wheeler, pointing to Thai Malay rebels’ demands.

Prayut has so far shown no appetite for overhauling the Thai Army’s response to the conflict. Neither have the BRN’s appeals to the international community, carried in a video released this March, gained much traction. In stark contrast to Bangkok’s fast-paced politics, little appears to have changed for residents of southern Thailand, where the prospects for regional autonomy seem as dim as ever.

“The Thai military could do a lot to win over the Muslim south by doing more to reinforce the power of the Muslim population to govern its own affairs in terms of administration, education, language, and so forth,” observed Raymond, “but there is relatively little willingness to do this at present.”

Austin Bodetti studies the intersection of Islam, culture, and politics in Africa and Asia. He has conducted fieldwork in Bosnia, Indonesia, Iraq, Myanmar, Nicaragua, Oman, South Sudan, Thailand, and Uganda. His writing has appeared in The Daily Beast, USA Today, Vox, and Wired.