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Rising Violence in Thailand’s ‘Deep South’ Exposes Cracks in the Junta’s Strategy

Thai bomb squad officers examine the wreckage of a car after an explosion outside a hotel in Pattani province, southern Thailand, Aug. 24, 2016 (AP photo by Sumeth Panpetch).

Michael Hart
Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2017

World Politics Review

Amid a recent spate of attacks, and with peace talks floundering, the long-running separatist insurgency in southern Thailand is showing worrying signs of escalation. On May 9, twin explosions at a busy supermarket in the southern province of Pattani injured 61 people, before a roadside bomb planted by militants killed six Thai soldiers in the same province on June 19.

Peace talks between Thailand’s ruling military junta, which seized power after toppling the democratically elected government in a 2014 coup, and a loose organization of rebel groups have been ongoing for more than two years. However, little progress has been made, as the most powerful militant group—known as Barisan Revolusi Nasional, or BRN—have been excluded from the dialogue.

Violence has spiked since the junta turned down the BRN’s request in April for talks mediated by a third party and overseen by international observers. Without a more inclusive strategy, Thailand’s government risks providing space for the insurgency to take a dangerous new turn and spread beyond the southern provinces, as the scorned separatists may opt for more audacious attacks to publicize their struggle and gain leverage over Bangkok.

For decades, ethnic Malay Muslim separatists have fought for independence in Thailand’s four southernmost provinces of Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat and Songkhla—often referred to collectively as the country’s “deep south.” The provinces share a border with Muslim-majority Malaysia, from which they were split following the Anglo-Siamese Treaty of 1909. The region largely failed to assimilate with the rest of predominantly Buddhist Thailand, and by the late-1950s, a fleeting political independence campaign had been displaced by armed insurgency.

The current wave of violence erupted in 2004 and has been waged by an array of secretive rebel groups operating out of rural areas, with little known about their organizational structure or leadership. More than 6,800 people have been killed in the past 14 years, as militants have deployed a range of tactics including bombings, shootings and assassinations, targeting both civilians and state security forces. More recently, the BRN has risen to enough prominence to control the majority of militants on the ground.

Successive Thai governments have responded to the separatist dispute with force, militarizing the situation in southern Thailand. The government of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra launched a brutal crackdown to quell the uprising in 2004; the current regime has deployed more than 60,000 soldiers to the southern provinces and set up hundreds of security checkpoints.

Immediately following the 2014 coup, the secretary-general of the junta, which calls itself the National Council for Peace and Order, said achieving peace in the south was an “urgent national priority” and that it favored political dialogue over military offensives. Peace talks resumed the following year with the Mara Patani, a loose umbrella organization representing several rebel groups.

The militants’ call for international mediation against the junta’s insistence on ensuring the conflict remains an “internal matter” is the main stumbling block in peace talks.

Yet two years later, the BRN remains excluded from any dialogue after the government rejected their offer in April to participate in talks overseen by international observers. The general-turned-prime minister who leads the junta, Prayuth Chan-ocha, stated, “can we not fix these problems ourselves?”

But in light of the recent attacks, it is clear the government is struggling to find a resolution. The BRN has demonstrated its continued ability to strike high-profile targets throughout the deep south, making the peace talks meaningless and revealing the junta’s inability to stem the violence by negotiating with the Mara Patani alone. In addition to the BRN’s absence from the process, there are two more fundamental reasons why the government’s strategy to tackle the southern insurgency is failing.

First, the junta has demonstrated little will to address the root causes of violence—the grievances of southern Thailand’s Malay population—while barely considering alternative political solutions to the long-running conflict. The same accusations could also be leveled at previous Thai governments, including democratically elected ones. Political concessions such as allowing greater autonomy for the deep south appear to be firmly off the table.

Second, the junta’s preoccupation with tightening its grip on power has distracted it from resolving the dispute in the deep south. Last year, the generals’ primary focus was on securing victory in a constitutional referendum designed to safeguard the military’s role in Thai politics. The new military-drafted constitution was approved by 61 percent of the population, but those in the south voted overwhelmingly against it. That hardly mattered, since the southern insurgency is politically useful for the junta. It serves as a political tool for enhancing its legitimacy, as the generals are able to push a narrative of securitization and argue that military governance is essential to maintain order.

But the May bombing of a supermarket in the south showed the militants’ ability to target civilians on a large scale, exposing cracks in the junta’s strategy of limiting the violence while half-heartedly pursuing talks. If the separatists believe their cause is being ignored, they may try and expand their operations outside the southern provinces and target Thailand’s lucrative tourism industry, which is worth some $46 billion a year to the Thai economy and accounts for 11 percent of GDP. There’s already precedent for that, following a wave of bombings of popular tourist resorts in August 2016 that were blamed on southern insurgents.

If violence spreads beyond the deep south, the junta may be forced to change its strategy. It would have two main options: launch a harder military crackdown in the south, even though that would surely increase tensions and spark retaliatory attacks; or pursue a more inclusive peace process, negotiating with the BRN in return for a halt to violence. But the militants’ call for international mediation against the junta’s insistence on ensuring the conflict remains an “internal matter” is still the main stumbling block.

Without a negotiated political settlement that includes compromise from both sides, the violence in southern Thailand is unlikely to end. The junta appears opposed to granting any form of autonomy for the four southern provinces, blocking the path to a resolution. Instead, the best hope for peace may be a return to a democratically elected government in Bangkok after elections scheduled for next year. Yet given Thailand’s turbulent recent political history of coups and increasingly divisive politics, a change of government brings no guarantees.

It is unclear which way this long-running insurgency, fought by militants known for their unpredictability, is heading. Southern Thailand could follow a situation akin to Myanmar’s Rakhine state, where instability has remained a localized and internal affair. Or it could go the way of other, more recent examples elsewhere in Southeast Asia, where slow-burning insurgencies have rapidly mutated and escalated. In the southern Philippines, Islamist militant groups that have fought for greater autonomy for decades have gone from being a purely separatist movement to aligning with the self-proclaimed Islamic State and its wider narrative of transnational jihadi terrorism.

Although such a scenario looks unlikely in southern Thailand, events can change quickly. That potential danger should be even greater incentive for the junta to pay more attention to the grievances in the south in the hope of finding a negotiated solution.

Michael Hart is a freelance writer and researcher focusing on civil conflict and the politics of East Asia. He has written for The Diplomat, Eurasia Review and Geopolitical Monitor, among other publications.