The premiers of Thailand and Malaysia have discussed prospects for resuming talks to end a bloody insurgency in southern Thailand. But analyst Zachary Abuza tells DW the move is unlikely to lead to peace anytime soon.
In his first visit to Malaysia since seizing power in a coup, Thai PM Prayuth Chan-ocha met with his Malaysian counterpart Najib Razak on December 1. The military regime in Bangkok indicated that it was willing to restart Malaysia-based negotiations with rebel Muslim groups in southern Thailand in order to put an end to an insurgency which has claimed the lives of thousands. Both leaders agreed that the talks could only resume once all rebel attacks cease and various insurgent groups come to the table, according to AFP.
Malaysia hosted several talks last year between one of the insurgent groups and the Thai government under PM Yingluck Shinawatra. But momentum was lost and then anti-government protests escalated, triggering a political crisis which ultimately ended in a coup led by former General Prayuth.
The insurgency in southern Thailand began in the 1960's when the mostly Muslim population across the southernmost provinces of Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala was denied recognition as a culturally separate ethnic minority. Violence intensified in 2004, following a raid on a Thai army depot blamed on insurgents. Since then, analysts estimate that more than 6,000 people have died in the conflict - the majority of them civilians. More recently, the Thai military-led government decided to distribute thousands of rifles to villagers in a bid to protect the local population from the insurgents.
In a DW interview, Zachary Abuza, an independent researcher on Southeast Asian security, says he believes that while peace talks could possibly resume in January, they will be a long drawn out affair, as neither the government nor the rebels are willing to make meaningful concessions.
DW: What did PM Prayuth Chan-ocha's visit achieve in terms of restarting the peace talks?
Zachary Abuza: The visit was a step in restarting talks, but not necessarily anything that will lead to a durable peace. The meeting was driven by domestic political concerns of both prime ministers, rather than a genuine interest for peace. Malaysian PM Najib is in a bind: less than a 1,000 kilometers from Kuala Lumpur, there is an insurgency that the Thais cannot quell. Much of the countryside is ungoverned space. Malaysians are clearly concerned that many of their own militants may seek refuge. They therefore have an incentive in helping the Thais end the insurgency.
At the same time, they cannot push the insurgents too hard for fear that the insurgents will begin targeting inside of Malaysia. Malaysia has arrested a few small cells and captured bomb and small arms caches. While most would agree that these individuals were simply in Malaysia for sanctuary, there is a palpable fear on the part of Kuala Lumpur of being perceived by the militants as being too pro-Thai and forcing the insurgents to make concessions.
If one adds to the fact that Najib also has to contend with the political opposition, which governs the border state of Kelantan, he has a domestic political reason to resolve the conflict: the longer the insurgency goes on and human rights abuses against the Malay in southern Thailand continues, the more fodder the opposition PAS party has against UMNO. And UMNO and its coalition partners only clung to power in 2013 because of outrageous gerrymandering; they lost the popular vote.
Thai PM Prayuth needs peace too. The coup was thrown to end the country's crippling partisan political divide, provide stability for economic growth, and also to end the insurgency, which is in its 11th year, having left over 6,200 dead and nearly 12,000 wounded. Yet the junta's political agenda is completely regressive and out to disenfranchise the majority of the electorate, gutting democratic institutions and empowering unelected elites. Despite their pledge of reconciliation, their policies are so thoroughly partisan that they are sowing the seeds of the next political crisis. The junta's economic program has done very little to restore investor confidence.
But this meeting was a media event, and something that both Prime Minister Najib and Prime Minister Prayuth can sell to their home audiences. But it will not lead to peace anytime soon.
What are the prospects of a quick resumption of the stalled peace talks?
Talks could possibly resume in January, but they will be a long drawn out affair as right now the conditions for peace are not ripe. The Thai government is unwilling to make meaningful concessions to achieve peace. They want peace on their own terms without making any political concessions.
It is inconceivable in this political environment - when the government is consolidating power and drafting a new constitution that will centralize power and strengthen the hands of un-elected elites - that they will ever give the south meaningful autonomy. They will not recognize the BRN as a liberation organization, as that infers that the Thais are occupying and colonizing land belonging to the ethnic Malay.
The Thais will not end the blanket immunity enjoyed by security forces, which has created a culture of impunity. The Thais will never agree to a general amnesty and the release of all insurgent suspects. The head of the Army, General Udomdej, recently rejected the BRN's five preconditions outright.
The Thai goal is to get the violence down to a low enough level that they can ascribe it to criminality and smuggling rackets, without having made any meaningful concessions. And they have been buoyed by the fact that violence in the past four months has been significantly lower than both the 2014 average since 2009. The Thais believe they can degrade the insurgents without having to actually negotiate with them.
The insurgents, too, have little incentive to negotiate. They are being pushed to the table by the Malaysians, but they have little expectation that the talks will yield anything. They do not see any concessions forthcoming from the junta. Moreover, they still believe that there is more to be gained by prolonging the conflict: 11 years in and their organization is largely intact, they have achieved many short-term goals such as driving many Buddhists if not out of the south, than out of rural communities.
Furthermore, demographics are clearly on their side: the Thai army now estimates that Muslim Malay now comprise almost 90 percent of the population in Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat, as well as four districts in Songkhla, and Muslims have much larger families than Thais do. The impunity of security forces only fuels resentment towards the Thai government.
What role does Malaysia play in the insurgency in southern Thailand?
Malaysia's role is complicated. The insurgents are ethnic Malays. Much of the leadership lives in Malaysia, and they are rumored to be on the payrolls of Malaysian intelligence; not because Kuala Lumpur necessarily supports their bid for independence, but to maintain a degree of leverage over them. I have no evidence that Malaysia provides the insurgents with any material support. There have been many allegations from the Thai side that Malaysia allows the insurgents to train in the country. There is little evidence of this.
But the issue of dual citizenship is an irritant: The Thais do not recognize it, while the Malaysians do, which allows many to cross over and seek refuge in Malaysia. The insurgents also fundraise in Malaysia. For all these reasons, many in Thailand, especially in the military and security services, do not believe that Malaysia is a disinterested third party.
But Malaysia recognizes the territorial integrity of Thailand and does not publicly support the idea of an independent Pattani and they have rendered suspected insurgents to Thailand in the past. For these reasons, they are not entirely trusted by the insurgents. In short, Malaysia has too many vested interests.
Finally, although the insurgents want the Malaysians to serve as a mediator, the Thais will not countenance anyone - state, international organization, or NGO - to serve as a mediator. That is why their position is limited to being a facilitator; their job is to bring as many insurgent factions as possible to the table.
Why have the peace talks between Bangkok and the rebels stalled?
The Thai government publicly states that the talks stalled because of the political crisis in the country. Yet, this is really not true. The last round of talks were held in June 2013. The "Yellow Shirt" demonstrations against the government of Yingluck didn't start in earnest until November. The peace talks had stalled long before then because the army was against them.
The BRN had issued five demands which the Thai Army completely rejected, but the civilian government was considering some of them. The army was also against the talks because they demanded that the BRN cease all violence, both as a sign of good will and as proof that they had effective command and control over the insurgents on the ground.
Although violence against civilians dropped dramatically in mid 2013, the targeting of security forces actually increased both relatively and absolutely. The BRN viewed the soldiers as legitimate targets because they were an occupying force.
And to be fair, the insurgents were not at all unified. Many in the BRN were against the talks, leaving Hassan Taib - the BRN's negotiator - out to dry. PULO was for the talks, but simply to leverage a something out of nothing, as they actually have few combatants on the ground. Other small factions such as the BIPP and GMIP were neither on board nor included. The insurgents did not look or act unified.
Several talks took place last year between one of the insurgent groups and the Thai government under PM Yingluck Shinawatra
What do you expect to be the next steps in terms of restarting talks with the insurgent groups?
I am really pessimistic about the peace talks. The conditions are not ripe. Neither side has come to the conclusion that there is no longer any more to be gained from fighting. Just the opposite. They are sounding each other out. There is still no unity on the part of the insurgents, certainly there is no consensus on the talks. And on the Thai side, there is no political will to make any concessions that would entice the insurgents to lay down their arms. Because the insurgents are not funded by Malaysia, the Malaysians can only push them so far. The lack of state sponsorship limits their resources and ability to grow, but it does give them independence.
But talks are still good, as than they can help to give more space to civil society in southern Thailand. Though the population of Thailand's Deep South has learned to live with the violence, they do want peace, and they want their voices heard.
I also think the talks are good because they could embolden other regions, such as Issarn to demand political devolution for themselves. It is not just the Malay who are clamoring for more autonomy. But it's important for different regions and groups to start to network and find common ground.
Despite seeking a resumption of peace talks, Thai authorities have recently distributed hundreds of assault rifles to villagers, saying locals need to be able to protect themselves following a slew of insurgent attacks on civilians. Could this move eventually jeopardize peace efforts?
Yes, Thai authorities announced last month that they were distributing 2,700 H&K assault rifles to civilian volunteers. The arming of civilians and paramilitaries may seem counter-productive. And to many it looks like a military solution imposed by a military government. But the government insists that it is doing this so that it can draw down the number of soldiers from the south.
'The culture of impunity remains one of the greatest single irritants to the Malay community in the south,' says Abuza
They plan to increase the number of rangers, police and border patrol police, as well as civilian defense volunteers in 2015. The Thai government believes that with enough security forces, manning an effective network of check points and population controls, it can effectively degrade the insurgency and limit their ability to conduct attacks.
The problem is, of course, that these paramilitaries are not well trained, they are not as well armed, they operate in small units that are often highly vulnerable and they are poorly disciplined. But they are also covered by the blanket immunity that all security forces operating in the south have enjoyed since 2004. There is a lot of concern about vigilantism and extra judicial killings, which are a real problem in the south. Indeed, the culture of impunity remains one of the greatest single irritants to the Malay community in the south.
Zachary Abuza is an independent researcher on Southeast Asian security and the author of “The Conspiracy of Silence: The Insurgency in Southern Thailand,” published by the United States Institute of Peace.