Thai Peace Talks More Fig Leaf Than Olive Branch

A police officer stands in front of the wreckage of a bombed car that had been detonated outside a restaurant. Pattani, Thailand, February 27, 2016. (Sumeth Panpetch/AP Photo/)

Representatives of the Thai government and an alliance of separatist rebels held peace talks in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur on September 2. The first formal meeting between the two parties since mid-2013 produced no meaningful agreement. While the government was keen to play up the talks, the reality is that violence in southern Thailand is surging and leaders are unwilling to make adequate concessions to the rebels’ demands.

The current iteration of the insurgency in the three-and-a-half Thai provinces with a Malay majority has been going on since January 2004. But the conflict has simmered for decades, with the government ruling the region as an internal colony, frustrated that the Muslim Malay population constitutes Thailand’s only minority group that has resisted national assimilation.

Since 2004, over 6,700 people have been killed and nearly 12,000 wounded in attacks. There have been over 1,300 successful bombings since 2009 alone. Insurgents routinely assassinate individuals and target critical infrastructure. Nearly 200 schools have been destroyed and 180 teachers killed. Over 40 individuals have been beheaded. An estimated 20% of the Buddhist population in the south has fled and few mixed villages remain.

Despite the presence of between 60,000-70,000 security forces in the region, and a budget of $7.3 billion for the fight between 2004-15, the government has been unable to quell the insurgency. Violence has declined from its peak in 2007, when an average of three to four people a day were being killed, to an average of just under 13 people being killed and 39 wounded a month. Yet recent spikes in activity in areas popular with foreigners represent a concerning change in tactics.

In August, insurgents from the main rebel group, the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), deployed 10 bombs and incendiary devices in tourist towns across the Upper South region, killing and wounding 30. On August 23, they set off two bombs at a hotel in Pattani, killing two and wounding 37. And, following the talks, on September 5, they detonated a bomb in front of an elementary school in Narathiwat province, killing three and wounding seven. Security forces defused two other large truck bombs and an improvised explosive device in the same period. The fact that the BRN claimed responsibility for these attacks is also unprecedented.

The BRN, however, had limited participation in the September 2 meeting. While this is counterproductive, it is in keeping with the inability of the government to learn from the failings of formal talks in February 2013, which also saw little agreement. The BRN then demonstrated a lack of professionalism and seemed in disarray. Immediately after the talks began it issued five additional demands in a YouTube video. The Royal Thai Army, meanwhile, had inflexibly demanded there be a total ceasefire as both a sign of goodwill and proof of command and control.

Although violence against civilians dropped dramatically in the summer of 2013, the targeting of security forces increased, infuriating the army leadership. The army publicly blamed the political stalemate between the government and opposition as the cause of the breakdown in negotiations, but the military had exercised its veto and the civilian government was unable to participate in the negotiations.

A deteriorating political situation in Thailand subsequently culminated in the May 2014 coup d’état that saw the military assume power in Bangkok. Although the army stated that it was committed to restarting peace talks with the southern groups, it made few efforts to do so. Indeed, the military leadership has even used rebel attacks to advance its own gains against the political opposition. In April 2015, insurgents detonated a bomb in an underground parking lot on the island of Koh Samui, seeking to signal the costs of not negotiating. Despite evidence to the contrary, the junta immediately attributed the attack to the Red Shirt supporters of ousted prime ministers Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister Yingluck.

The MARA Pattani alliance that met with the government on September 2 was created in May 2015 as a means of overcoming rivalry among the various separatist groups; a situation that had frustrated past negotiations. The government had insisted that the militants speak with one voice, after BRN had been reluctant to share any space with rivals, whom it considered to be simply trying to leverage political benefits.

During three back channel talks held in mid-2015 to discuss the resumption of formal discussions, MARA laid down three reasonable demands: make the peace process a national priority; provide legal immunity and protection for its negotiators; and provide the group with formal legal recognition. But the junta was reluctant to accept any of these. By October 2015, the BRN publicly denounced the peace process and called the government “insincere.”

The government continued to refuse to meet MARA’s demands in the back channel talks that resumed in February 2016. In April 2016, the junta’s leadership rejected terms of reference for negotiations that had been agreed with MARA. It also fired the general that led the process of developing them. In April 2016, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha publicly stated that any form of autonomy for the Malay populations was unacceptable.

The divisions between the junta and the populations of the Deep South region have been driven deeper by the nationwide referendum on a new constitution held in August. The draft charter strips power from political parties and empowers unelected elites, including appointing a senate with block representation from the military.

Only 56% of the electorate voted in the referendum, and only 61% supported the charter’s adoption, with Red Shirt strongholds in the north and northeast also opposing it. The government blamed the low support in the south on pressure from the insurgent groups, but the Malay population at large were angered that the proposal further precluded any type of political devolution. Moreover, the charter both protects and enshrines the practice of Buddhism, eroding the sense of cultural identity among Muslim populations.

In this context, the fate of the September 2 peace talks was sealed before they even began. The meeting did see the two sides agree to a new terms of reference to restart formal talks and to discuss the establishment of safety zones at future talks, but the military leadership continues to demand that violence ceases before any formal negotiations can resume. Given the BRN’s fundamental mistrust of the government’s commitment to a durable political solution, this is highly unlikely. As the BRN warned: “We want to respond to the talks that have made no progress. The government does not show their sincerity for a real peace.”

The junta’s goal is to degrade the insurgents to the point that it can ascribe low levels of violence to simple criminality, without making concessions to political demands. In addition to rejecting the terms for entering into formal negotiations, it has repeatedly rejected all calls for general amnesties for insurgents, language reforms in southern areas, autonomy on any level, and prosecuting its own security forces for crimes against the separatists. As long as these positions remain, so will Thailand’s violence.

Zachary Abuza is a Professor at the National War College in Washington, DC, where he specializes in Southeast Asian politics and security. He is the author of Forging Peace in Southeast Asia.