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Is there a chance for peace in southern Thailand?

Enno Hinz
July 8, 2022

Decades of armed conflict are still looming over the lives of people in Thailand’s southernmost regions. Experts say that recent peacebuilding efforts between the conflicting parties could give cause for optimism.

Thai soldiers inspect the remains of suspected insurgents
For decades, Malay rebels in southern Thailand have been in a slow burning conflict with the government based in the northImage: Abdullah Wangni/dpa/picture alliance

The recent dialogue between the Thai government and the most influential rebel group in southern Thailand, the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), have shown how fragile and multilayered the process towards peace can be in one of Asia's longest standing armed conflicts.

For the first time in the brutal decades of insurgency, both parties agreed to a Ramadan ceasefire this April, during which unarmed rebels were allowed to visit their families.

Two weeks later, the same calm was overshadowed by a bombing carried out by the Patani United Liberation Organization (PULO), another separatist group in the deep south, which was sidelined from the peace talks.

The conflict parties in the insurgency, which has claimed more than 7,300 lives since 2004, according to Deep South Watch, an NGO, are currently at a crossroads.

While the ceasefire was a silver lining, the deadly PULO bombing makes the question of what measures can secure long-term peace in the region all the more urgent.

The smoldering fight for independence

Thailand's conflict in the south is deeply rooted in historical mistrust.

Duncan McCargo, director of the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies at the University of Copenhagen, told DW that "mistrust is especially intense when these ordinary people are marginalized communities or minorities of which the Malay Muslim population of the border provinces is concerned."

The violence is largely confined to the country's three southernmost provinces, Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala, where Muslims make up about 85% of the population.

Since the early 20th century, the predominantly Buddhist Thailand has pursued an aggressive assimilation policy that the Muslim-Malays reject as a violation of their cultural and religious identity.

A separatist movement that emerged in the 1960s sought to carve out the Muslim-majority region as an independent state. Since then, different ethnic Malay Muslim insurgent groups have formed in a fight for self-determination and autonomy from the Thai state.

A blown up storefront
The aftermath of a bombing in Pattani Province, southern Thailand, in 2018Image: Xinhua/picture alliance

Peace talks break the cycle of violence

A first major breakthrough towards a potential end to the conflictwere peace talks initiated by the government of former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra in 2013.

According to Deep South Watch, the violence and number of casualties has significantly declined since the peace talks started between the Thai government and the Malay insurgents.

After lasting problems on severity and commitment on both sides, and a hiatus due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the new round of negotiations between the Thai government and the BRN this year in Kuala Lumpur brought significant progress.

According to Matthew Wheeler, Security Analyst for International Crisis Group Southeast Asia, the agreement to a ceasefire showed unity on both sides that has been lacking in the past.

"I think it not only represents the reduction in violence but the agreement on general principles of the dialogue process," Wheeler told DW. 

This round of peace dialogues clearly demonstrated both BRN's ability to control its fighters and the Thai army's willingness to go along with it.

Unequal power at the negotiation table

According to Arthit Thongin, a Thai political analyst who has been following the insurgency in his research, the bombing attacks carried out by the PULO militant group also point to the shortcomings of the dialogue process.

While the presence of the BRN at the table represents an advance over earlier processes, the exclusion of other stakeholders like the PULO still reflect the unequal powers between the opposing parties, Thongin said.

"This narrow-mindedness could result in a group of people who further isolate themselves and believe in the military to continue," he told DW. 

The leader of the PULO separatist group claimed it carried out its deadly twin bombing because it was sidelined from peace talks between Thai negotiators and BRN.

The explosion, killing a villager and injuring three members of a police bomb squad, was the first bloodshed since the Ramadan ceasefire.

A blown up building in southern Thailand
Thai soldiers inspect a damaged shop near a bombing site in Sungai Kolok, a town on the Malaysian border, in 2005Image: STR/AP/picture alliance

The powers that be in Bangkok

So far, the dialogues demonstrate that the Thai government still has the upper hand in setting the political agenda in the Deep South. According to McCargo, the centralization of political issues poses another threat to the conflict, as Thailand is still largely administered from Bangkok.

"Provincial governors who have considerable powers are sent from Bangkok, but they are not local people and they do not know the local areas," McCargo said.

They are rotated in with considerable authority over these regions and they do their best to suppress the capacity of local government to determine very much of what goes on in the area and enforce a very standardized national agenda," he added. 

The idea of centralization, however, stands in opposition to the will of the people in the south,according to date from the International Crisis Group. 

"We see evidence of a desire for greater decentralization and for people at local or subregional levels to have a greater say in how they are governed, not just in the deep south, but throughout the country," Wheeler said. 

A young generation torn between two directions

The discrepancy between reality and political will in the deep south reinforces a dilemma that younger people are facing.

According to McCargo, young people are torn between two ways forward, a nationalist (Malay), and a progressive (Thai) agenda

Panitan Wattanayagorn, an adviser to Thailand's National Security Council and special government, said his research suggests that the younger generations of fighters in the south are more willing to die in combat and more likely to have their politics infused with religion.

Such radicalization among the BRN's and PULO's violent factions could pose a challenge for long-term peace, he said. 

McCargo sees the progressive agenda epitomized in the massive student protests that gripped Thailand throughout 2020 and which have been reduced due to the suppression of their leadership by authorities. 

The analyst saidbombings and casualties are not going to change the fundamental calculation which is a calculation about the nature of power in Thailand itself.

"If the people want decentralization, the way of going forward is actually to form an alliance with people in Bangkok who are also finding the same kind of over-centralization, oppression of identity, oppression of people's right to have a voice and participate in the society."

Edited by: Leah Carter