Matthew Wheeler is a South East Asia Analyst with the International Crisis Group.
The insurgency in southernmost Thailand entered a new phase with the 28 February announcement of a peace dialogue between the National Security Council (NSC) and the main militant organisation, Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN, National Revolutionary Front). That phase may have come to an end with the announcement by Thai authorities on 8 August that BRN has suspended (though not called off) its participation in the talks.
The dialogue process is the most determined and public effort yet by Bangkok to peacefully resolve the conflict in which more than 5700 people have been killed and more than 10,200 injured since the beginning of 2004. The talks are unprecedented, but many observers have argued that the process is poorly conceived and compromised by former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's widely reported behind-the-scenes role in instigating the dialogue.
Scepticism about the peace dialogue is not new. As Crisis Group's December 2012 report on the conflict noted, resolution of the southern insurgency is hostage to the protracted national-level struggle revolving around the contest between Thaksin, deposed in a 2006 coup d’état, and his opponents in the military and bureaucracy. This conflict means that the state is divided. Military leaders, in particular, are uncomfortable with the dialogue process, which they see as a door to international intervention and eventual partition. Uncertainty and disunity in Bangkok are a disincentive for militants to engage seriously in talks. There are also persistent questions about whether BRN's exiled leaders can speak for the militant movement or control armed militants in Thailand.
The dialogue process – in particular, an effort to produce a ceasefire over the holy month of Ramadan – has brought many of these issues into relief. But the process also underscores three novel developments.
First, the Bangkok government is publicly committed to talks with rebels. By recognising the political aims of the militant movement, Bangkok has changed the official frame for understanding the conflict and, in principle, committed itself to a political solution achieved through a dialogue process.
Second, militant representatives with direct ties to both senior BRN leadership and Thailand-based insurgents came to the table in this process, and BRN for the first time issued specific demands.
Third, Malaysia, arguably the only entity with any leverage over the militants, is working in partnership with Bangkok to facilitate the process. NSC Director Lt General Paradorn Pattanathabut signed the 28 February 'General Consensus on Peace Dialogue Process' for the Thai side, and Ustaz Hasan Taib, an Indonesian-trained cleric, signed on behalf of BRN. Malaysian Special Branch Police pressured Hassan Taib to participate in the signing ceremony, which did not have the blessing of BRN's senior leaders. After the agreement was announced, BRN assigned a hard-line leader of its youth wing, Abdul Karim Khalib, to its delegation in advance of the first meeting of the Joint Working Group-Peace Dialogue Process on 28 April. With Malaysia serving as facilitator, the two sides have met three times.
The process has been rocky from the start. In a video released on the eve of the first meeting, Hassan demanded that: Malaysia serve as mediator rather than facilitator; BRN represent Thailand's Malays in the process; observers from ASEAN, the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation and non-government organisations observe the dialogue; release of detainees and revocation of arrest warrants on security cases; and that Bangkok recognise BRN as a liberation movement.
At the most recent meeting on 13 June, Hassan agreed that BRN would endeavour to reduce violence during Ramadan. According to a source familiar with the talks, Malaysia proposed the Ramadan Peace Initiative and it is not clear that either of the contending sides was fully committed.
On 24 June, Hassan posted a video on YouTube (the fourth such BRN video) stating seven conditions for BRN to implement a ceasefire, including the withdrawal of non-local security units from the southernmost provinces and a halt to Thai raids and arrests (these were sweeping demands, but not the showstopper presented in the Thai media; for example, the army has long planned to rotate non-local units out of the area and assign security responsibilities to the locally raised 15th Division).
With no positive response from Bangkok, Hassan backed out of a press conference scheduled for 9 July to announce the 'ceasefire'. But BRN relented in the face of Thai assurances and Malaysian pressure. On 12 July, Malaysia announced a 'common understanding' that the two sides would attempt to reduce violence for 40 days, including Ramadan, from 10 July to 18 August. The language of the common understanding is non-binding but states that the prospective reduction in violence aims 'to demonstrate the sincerity, commitment and seriousness of both sides in finding solutions' through the peace dialogue.
Several shootings, which authorities ascribed to personal conflicts, occurred over the five days following the 12 July announcement, but there were no bombings or ambushes, unambiguous hallmarks of militant operations. By mid-July, however, violence intensified.
Many in the Deep South believe that the escalation of violence during Ramadan may be traced in part to actions by security forces that impelled militants to respond. On 17 July, a small (1 kg) bomb attack injured two rangers in Cho Airong District, Narathiwat, in what may have been a signal of militant displeasure that security forces had not curtailed their patrols. Two days later, troops killed a suspect in that bombing while attempting to arrest him, prompting BRN to file a letter of protest with Malaysia alleging violation of the common understanding. Several Malay Muslims were shot and killed over the following ten days. Many local people believe that state-backed forces opposing dialogue carried out some of those killings.
Attacks accelerated further during the first week of August, consistent with a pattern of heightened violence during the final days of Ramadan. Much of the violence, such as the 5 August assassination of dialogue proponent Imam Yakob Raimanee of the Pattani Central Mosque, is clearly aimed at sabotaging the talks.
On 6 August, a new video appeared of three masked, armed men declaring that BRN was suspending participation in the dialogue because Thailand had not responded to its five initial demands and seven ceasefire conditions. Thai officials are treating BRN's latest statement as a setback rather than a deathblow for the process. Deputy Prime Minister Pracha Promnok reiterated that the Government remains committed to talks.
Proponents of the dialogue process recognise that it is imperfect, beset by a lack of technical expertise and rifts on both sides of the table. But they see the talks as the beginning of a long process and the best available path forward. They are encouraged by Bangkok's engagement with Malaysia as a partner, which is a departure from its habitual posture of mistrust. Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's government has demonstrated determination to sustain the process, demoting or removing high-ranking dialogue sceptics in a recent cabinet reshuffle.
This determination is laudable, and it will be tested in the days and weeks ahead. There is a risk that failed talks may strengthen the hand of those who believe that force can resolve the problem.
Crisis Group has long contended that the Thai Government should pursue dialogue and political decentralisation as means to resolve the insurgency, and both approaches are codified in Thailand's current national security policy for the region. Whatever its shortcomings, the process has given further impetus to consideration of special administrative arrangements, which are now openly and irrevocably central to the discussion of how to end the violence. But a negotiated settlement is remote and will, for the foreseeable future, face the constraints imposed by Bangkok's festering discord. It remains to be seen if powerful conservative forces within the Thai state can tolerate the kinds of administrative changes most likely to help resolve the conflict.