How Militarization and Cycles of Violence Fuel Separatism in Southern Thailand

Muslims in Thailand’s four southern provinces have lived under emergency rule, first imposed by the civilian government of Thaksin Shinawatra, since 2005. (Image Source: udeyismail)

In the early hours of 3 August, rebels encircled a small Thai military outpost in Narathiwat province on the land border with Malaysia, before launching pipe bombs and opening fire with M-16 and AK-47 assault rifles. After a 15-minute gun battle, one Thai soldier was dead while four others had been injured before the insurgents fled across the Kolok River. Authorities suggested the attack may have been revenge for the killing of a suspected rebel by government troops in Pattani the previous day.

The night-time assault was one of a series of incidents of localized violence in the past few months, which typify the sporadic nature of the insurgency in Thailand’s Deep South. Muslim rebel groups in Thailand’s four Malay-speaking southern provinces have fought for independence for decades, with their motivation rooted in the conquest of the region by the Kingdom of Siam in 1785, and the 1909 Anglo-Siamese Treaty which first marked the border between Thailand and neighbouring Malaysia.

Violence is far from the scale of past years, with the last surge coming in the mid-2000s when then-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra ordered a military crackdown. An ongoing ‘‘State of Emergency’’ and intermittent peace talks with rebel factions have since kept the conflict under controlthough the current dialogue process, between the government and the Barisan Revolusi Nasional, stopped at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, placing this uneasy partial stalemate at risk.   

Pattern of insurgent attacks

Amidst the pandemic, violence has remained at a low level, with fighters linked to Barisan Revolusi Nasional and a collection of smaller factions engaging in shootings and bombings, usually targeting security forces. It is often the case that one incidentsuch as a military raid, or rebel ambush—will spark a wave of retaliatory violence before the conflict recedes only to later re-emerge somewhere else in the affected regions of Narathiwat, Pattani, Songkhla, and Yala, triggering another response.

A series of connected incidents in recent months evidence this trend. On 21 June, the military shot dead two suspected insurgents holed up in a hotel at a beach resort in the Yaring district of Pattani. Authorities said the men were tracked down after their involvement in an ambush in April that had killed three civilians as they traversed a highway in a nearby district. A motive for that incident was not uncovered, though police suspected it was in retaliation for the shooting of a rebel days earlier.

Guerilla-style attacks by Barisan Revolusi Nasional rebels have continued amid the COVID-19 pandemic, often targeting police and army forces on rural roads. (Image Source: udeyismail)

On 5 July, another stand-off between soldiers and rebels triggered a similar chain of incidents. Eight suspects being pursued by soldiers besieged the Ma’had Subulussalam Islamic School in Pattani, and two were shot dead after a 17-hour gunfight. The military maintains that it offered rebels the chance to surrender. The six fighters that fled and evaded capture were linked by police to a mine explosion the next day in nearby Songkhla province, which killed one soldier and left another three wounded.

Other incidents tagged on rebels in the Deep South are more random, targeting vital infrastructure. In August, a cargo train sustained minor damage in a bombing in Narathiwat, while in the past, cash machines and electricity pylons have also been targeted, causing economic disruption in the region.

Local violence and peace efforts

It is unclear to what extent orders are given by the Barisan Revolusi Nasional leadership. Although it represents most fighters on the ground, thought to number in the low-to-mid hundreds, separatists based in the south operate more like cells: ideologically coherent with but logistically separate from the main organization. Past talks between Bangkok and the umbrella Mara Patani group launched in 2013 ultimately failed because the senior negotiators could not control fighters on the ground, with rebels operating autonomously in local contexts and maintaining their campaign of armed assaults.

Barisan Revolusi Nasional would likely exert more influence over rebels than Mara Patani managed, if peace talks resume or if a ceasefire is signed. Yet the extent to which attacks would stop is unclear as rebels in Southern Thailand do not form an organized and well-trained force with a hierarchy and command structure, for example like the militarized Muslim separatist groups in the Philippines that now govern an autonomous region following a peace deal. Such an agreement in Southern Thailand, where attacks are small-scale and rebels do not hold territory for bargaining, is difficult to envisage.  

Lifting the Emergency Decree

The ‘‘State of Emergency’’ in the region, which was been in place for 16 years and was extended on 20 September for another three months, acts as a container for the violence. It was first imposed by the civilian administration of Thaksin Shinawatra in July 2005, and his policy of militarizing the south has been maintained by a succession of both elected and military governments, after coups in 2006 and 2014. There has been no change under the current quasi-civilian regime of Prayuth Chan-ocha.

Previous talks, held with the Mara Patani rebel grouping from 2013, failed to make progress as separarist attacks undermined the Malaysia-hosted peace process. (Image Source: Prachatai)

While the Emergency Decree has avoided a major escalation or the northerly spread of the conflict, it has raised local tensions, and made communities in the Malay-speaking south fearful of suspicion by association. The law permits authorities in the south to detain suspected rebels for up to 30 days without charge, and among the triggers of rebel attacks are allegations of torture and mistreatment of detainees at the hands of the military. Cases have been documented by human rights groups but the Thai military denies using illegal methods or extracting forced confessions during interrogations.

For many Muslims in the south, emergency rule—which treats them differently to other citizens of Buddhist-majority Thailand—has been counter-productive and should be lifted to aid peace efforts. The military views it the other way around. Last month, spokesman Col. Kiattisak Neewong told the Bangkok Post that as the area is ‘‘under the influence of insurgent groups’’ and sees regular attacks, ‘‘special laws’’ are needed to ‘‘keep peace and order’’ before the emergency measure can be lifted.

Political dialogue stalled

Efforts to secure peace at the negotiating table are halted. Face-to-face meetings between the Thai government and Barisan Revolusi Nasional negotiating panels, in a Malaysia-facilitated process, have not taken place since two rounds of talks in Kuala Lumpur in January and March 2020. Limited virtual discussions have been held, but not since February 2021, with the COVID-19 pandemic—resurgent in both Thailand and Malaysia in recent months—preventing crucial in-person dialogue from resuming. Momentum must be regained if the core issue—the future status of the four southern provinces—is to be resolved. Despite an erosion of trust in the Deep South and cycles of violence at the local level, the insurgency remains small enough for talks to gain the upper hand. Further delay only brings risk.

A version of this article is also published on Geopolitical Monitor.

In Thailand’s Deep South, COVID-19 Leaves Peace Talks with the BRN On Hold

Talks in 2020 were the first formal negotiations to have taken place between the BRN and the Thai Government, led by former military Junta chief Prayut Chan-ocha. (Image: UN Women)

One year ago, Thai negotiators had just engaged in direct peace talks with Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) rebels for the first time. That meeting, held on 20 January 2020, was considered a breakthrough in efforts to resolve separatist violence in Southern Thailand, marking the first time Bangkok had engaged in formal dialogue with the group in control of most fighters on the ground, thought to number 400. The initial talks, mediated by Malaysia, were followed by a second round in Kuala Lumpur from 2–3 March.

Both parties hailed early progress, with the Thai panel led by Gen. Wanlop Rugsanaoh labelling the talks as ‘‘constructive’’, while the BRN delegation, led by Anas Abdulrahman, indicated it would participate in future negotiations. Then the COVID-19 pandemic struck, stalling momentum. No talks have been held since. Yet it did have an initial positive effect: on 3 April, the BRN announced it would ‘‘cease hostilities’’ on humanitarian grounds to ease the situation for health workers tackling the virus in the Deep South.

Although that ceasefire was broken within a month, a local monitoring group found violence declined significantly in 2020, until a spike in roadside bombings and ambushes toward the end of the year. The uptick in violence creates a new imperative to resume talks but travel restrictions remain in place, amid a recent surge in COVID-19 cases in Thailand and Malaysia, preventing dialogue panels from meeting in person. The pandemic, having scuppered renewed talks, now risks an erosion of trust at a crucial time.

Failure of Mara Patani talks

Past efforts to end the insurgency have made little progress. Separatists have fought for autonomy or independence for the four Muslim-majority provinces of Narathiwat, Pattani, Songkhla and Yala, which border Malaysia, for decades. Many residents in the Malay-speaking south, where Islam is the dominant religion and cultural reference point, reject full assimilation into Buddhist-majority Thailand, which has exercised sovereignty over the region since the 1909 Anglo-Siamese Treaty marked the modern border.

In 2013, Bangkok initiated talks with Mara Patani, a political organization representing a loose coalition of rebel forces. The dialogue fell flat as the BRN continued its attacks, undermining the process. Adding to a string of local shootings and ambushes, the BRN at times launched more audacious attacks aimed at disrupting talks. In May 2017, rebels bombed a shopping centre in Pattani, wounding 56 people, while a November 2019 raid on a security checkpoint in Yala left 15 armed civilian defence volunteers dead. The inability of Mara Patani to prevent such attacks forced the government to enter dialogue with the BRN.

Previous negotiations, held with the Mara Patani umbrella grouping since 2013, failed to make progress as BRN attacks in the south undermined the dialogue process. (Image: Prachatai)

The first informal talks between the two sides took place in Berlin in late 2019, with back-channel talks also rumored to have taken place in Indonesia, ahead of the historic two rounds of formal negotiations held in Kuala Lumpur in early 2020. Both parties expressed cautious optimism last March. The Thai panel said early talks had gone well but called for ‘‘time, continuity and support’’ and a ‘‘reduction of violence in order to create a conducive atmosphere’’ ahead of future meetings. Yet after the onset of COVID-19, there have been no further rounds of talks and the fleeting peace process has been stopped in its tracks.

BRN restraint amid COVID-19

Despite talks being placed on hold, the BRN’s COVID-19 ceasefire reflected the goodwill brought about by the peace process. It held for four weeks last April, until a military raid in Pattani sparked retaliatory rebel attacks. Yet large-scale attacks last year were rare, with the pandemic generally resulting in lower levels of violence. Monitoring group Deep South Watch recorded 252 incidents, causing 96 deaths, from January–October 2020, compared to 350 incidents and 148 deaths in the same period in 2019. The last few months however, have seen an uptick in violence, indicating a gradual return to low-level warfare.

Rebel activity likely reduced last year because of travel restrictions and enhanced border controls put in place to combat COVID-19, preventing insurgents from crossing the Malaysian border to evade arrest by Thai forces after launching attacks. The military commander in the south, Lt.-Gen. Kriangkrai Srirak, said recently that his troops hoped to restrict rebel movements further by installing barbed-wire fencing and bright lights along the 595km border. Yet he also said ‘‘suppression and law enforcement’’ alone will not end the conflict, voicing his support for talks and the need to obtain the trust of the Muslim community.

A third round of talks in 2021?

If a third round of talks is able to be convened later in the year, there is plenty for both sides to discuss. Local journalist Kavi Chongkittavorn reported in the Bangkok Post in October that the peace negotiating panels of the government and the BRN had been in touch with each other virtually to discuss ‘‘issues of contention’’ during the previous meetings. The issue of immunity from prosecution for BRN insurgents, in the event that they agree to lay down their arms, is likely to top the agenda at any upcoming talks.

It has also been reported that leaders of Provincial Islamic Committees from the south have submitted their own proposal, covering social and religious issues. The proposal called for the creation of a Family and Inheritance Court and Community Police Force, and consultation with local Islamic committees over the appointment of provincial governors and judicial officials. It also advocated for its right to administer the Hajj pilgrimage and called for the use of Malay language on all public signs and government offices.

Violence declined in 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but toward the end of the year a rising number of skirmishes between the Thai military and BRN rebels took place. (Image: udeyismail)

Softer, yet highly symbolic societal matters such as these, where the Thai government may be willing to offer concessions, would be an ideal starting point for talks, paving the way for discussion over the more contentious issue of the final political status of the southern provinces. Hardline factions within the BRN are sure to push for a comprehensive autonomous settlement, if not full independence. Yet so far only a ‘‘special administrative zone’’ has been offered within the constitution’s ‘‘one and indivisible kingdom’’.

Making peace amid a pandemic

Any hope that talks could resume in early 2021 have been dashed by rising COVID-19 cases in Thailand, which issued a ‘‘stay at home’’ order on 4 January, and Malaysia, which announced a new lockdown on 12 January and has declared a ‘‘state of emergency’’ to deal with the pandemic. As a result, there is little chance of the Thai government and BRN negotiating panels meeting face-to-face in the coming months.

Yet both parties remain willing to meet when possible, and Malaysia remains committed in its mediation role under new prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin, who assumed office on the same day the peace panels last convened in March 2020. Negotiations with the BRN represent the only realistic way forward, and if talks restart in 2021, the hope is that the south could yet see violence decline for a second year running.  

A version of this article was first published on Geopolitical Monitor.

Southern Thailand’s Fractured Peace Process Reaches a Crossroads

Thailand’s ruling military Junta – led by Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha – began peace talks with the Mara Patani rebel grouping in 2015, yet little progress has been made (Image Source: SSG Teddy Wade)

The shock return to power of political veteran Mahathir Mohamad in Kuala Lumpur last May signalled not only a new dawn for Malaysia, but also fresh hope of a peaceful resolution to a decades-old conflict raging across the border in southern Thailand. The 93-year-old Mahathir, returning for a second stint as Malaysia’s prime minister, has long held an interest in securing peace in Thailand’s troubled Deep South, where separatist Muslim insurgents have fought the military for independence since the 1950s.

After a high-level meeting in Bangkok last October between Mahathir and the head of Thailand’s ruling military Junta, Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha, both sides appointed new peace envoys and initial talks began in January. The early signs were remarkably positive. Thailand, for the first time, voiced a willingness to consider making concessions on autonomy and political decentralization, while indicating a desire to bring the most powerful rebel group, Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), back to the negotiating table.

Yet the fleeting peace process hit an unexpected snag earlier this month, when the head of the Thai negotiating team, retired army general Udomchai Thammasarorat, failed to turn up for a scheduled meeting in the Malaysian capital. The no-show left Malaysian mediator Abdul Rahim Noor ‘shocked’, and drew an angry response from rebel groups. Mara Patani, an umbrella organization representing a series of rebel factions, responded by ruling-out further participation until after Thai national elections are held in late-March, while the rogue BRN vowed to continue its armed struggle for independence.

With support from Malaysia assured, can southern Thailand’s fractured peace process overcome this early setback and – with elections looming – navigate the choppy political waters which may lie ahead?

The roots of southern Thailand’s separatist insurgency

For seven decades, ethnic Malay Muslim separatist rebels have battled Thai security forces to establish an independent homeland in the four southern provinces of Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat and Songkhla. The conflict-stricken region borders Muslim-majority Malaysia to the south, and was formerly part of the Islamic Sultanate of Patani, which was formed in 1516 and bordered the ancient kingdom of Siam to the north, which would later become modern-day Thailand. The region was annexed in the Anglo-Siamese Treaty of 1909 and incorporated into the Buddhist-majority Thai state, governed by Bangkok.

The region retained its local traditions and largely failed to assimilate with the rest of Thailand, leading to disenfranchisement among many residents and sparking tensions over territorial control of the four southern provinces. By the late-1950s, a political independence campaign had been superseded by an emerging armed insurgency. For decades the conflict remained at a low-level until its intensification in 2004. During the past 15 years more than 7,000 people have been killed amid insurgent bombings, shootings and assassinations, while the military has launched repeated crackdowns on rebel activity.

Peace talks started in 2015, a year after the Prayut-commanded military Junta – formally labelled the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) – seized power from the democratically-elected regime of Yingluck Shinawatra in a bloodless coup. Yet negotiations have failed to make meaningful progress. The Junta has initiated dialogue with the Mara Patani umbrella grouping, which represents a network of shadowy rebel units operating in the Deep South. Talks have been restricted because the BRN – the most powerful and influential rebel group, which controls most fighters on the ground – has declined to participate in the peace process due to the government’s refusal to allow international mediation. The Junta views the conflict as an internal and domestic matter which should not be internationalized.

Another, more deeply-ingrained sticking point, concerns the rebels’ demand for independence, while the Junta and all previous Bangkok administrations have maintained a blunt, non-negotiable position, opposed to allowing the south to break away. With secession out of the question, the Junta has also until-recently refused to consider granting autonomy or any kind of political devolution to the south, reflecting the military’s long-term preoccupation with preserving the territorial integrity of the state.

Malaysia’s Mahathir reinvigorates the peace process

Talks remained stalled until the shock election victory of Mahathir in mid-2018. Thailand and Malaysia have long enjoyed strong bilateral ties, while Mahathir’s return – as a respected elder statesman in Southeast Asia with a strong personal interest in regional peace-making – lent fresh impetus to the peace process. Malaysia also has a long-standing interest in helping to resolve the conflict for several vital geo-strategic reasons. Kuala Lumpur feels a sense of duty to ensure an environment of peace and prosperity for ethnic Malay Muslims living in southern Thailand, while also wanting to avoid worsening instability and violence along its northern border, which could result in unmanageable refugee flows. Concerns over the suspected presence of ISIS sympathizers in Malaysia and the potential for weapons to be smuggled via rebels operating in Thailand’s volatile south have also incentivised Malaysia to act.

When Mahathir met Gen. Prayut in late-2018, both leaders were optimistic in tone, and spoke of their shared desire to resolve the conflict. Mahathir pledged to help ‘in whatever way possible to end this violence in the south’, calling for better co-operation on the issue ‘between two friendly neighbours’. Gen. Prayut said although the insurgency is considered a ‘domestic problem’, dialogue would ‘resume immediately with Malaysia as the facilitator’, without giving a specific timeline for fresh negotiations.

After the appointment of representatives for both countries, initial meetings were held at the start of January. Early indications were positive. Malaysian facilitator Abdul Rahim Noor said he was optimistic the conflict could end within two years, while Thai negotiator Udomchai Thammasarorat said Bangkok would consider devolving powers or allowing a ‘special administrative zone’, having taken advice from Mahathir. However, it was stated that independence or separation would remain off the table. On 11 January, Udomchai confirmed ‘low-level’ talks had been held with ‘all groups’ involved in the process.

Thailand’s armed forces seized power in a 2014 coup. The future of the revived army-led peace process is uncertain ahead of elections scheduled for late-March (Image Source: Takeaway)

Yet just weeks later, the peace process stands on the brink of collapse, after Udomchai failed to attend an introductory meeting with Mara Patani representatives scheduled for 4 February in Kuala Lumpur. The move took the Malaysian facilitating team by surprise and drew an angry reaction from the rebel leadership. Udomchai claimed he would only meet Mara Patani chief Sukree Haree one-on-one, and had never agreed to the pre-arranged meeting with a larger rebel delegation. A Mara Patani statement condemned the Thai panel’s ‘unacceptable attitude’ and ‘hidden agenda’, calling for Udomchai to be replaced by someone with ‘more credibility’. Mara Patani has now suspended its participation in talks until after the Thai national election, set for 24 March. The BRN had already rejected involvement and released a video message in early-January, which vowed to ‘fight with all our might’ for independence.

Little over a month in, talks have ended and the revived peace process already stands at a crossroads.

Can the peace process outride upcoming hurdles?

The most immediate obstacle facing the peace process is the upcoming Thai election, set for the end of March. The election has been pushed-back repeatedly since the Junta came to power in 2014, and may bring a return to democratic governance for the first time in five years. A return to democracy would leave things in the south uncertain: talks would likely be re-set and the Thai negotiating team would change, while a new government in Bangkok would have more immediate priorities, such as securing their grip on power after half-a-decade of military rule. Malaysia is also due to undergo a leadership transition, with Mahathir having pledged to give-way to successor Anwar Ibrahim within the next few years. This is likely to be a smooth change and would have only a minimal effect on the peace process. However, the charismatic Mahathir, who has invested much time and energy in the process, would be a big loss.

If the Thai Junta does stay in power, it remains to be seen whether autonomy will remain on the table. The Junta has recently, for the first time, demonstrated a willingness to make concessions and devolve power to some degree, but after the election may revert to its previous policy of initiating a low-key and slow-moving peace dialogue while at the same time hoping to see the insurgency fizzle out on the ground. In this sense, the Junta sees the conflict as a low-level nuisance, isolated and confined to the remote southern provinces, rather than as a conflict representing a major threat to national security.

It would certainly suit the next Thai government – whether civilian-led or military-controlled – for the insurgency to die out without the need for talks. Evidence does suggest violence has declined in recent years, with monitoring group Deep South Watch reporting 218 deaths in 2018, down from 235 in 2017 and 892 at the conflict’s peak in 2007. Yet insurgent groups have been resilient enough to persist for decades, while a spate of attacks in early-2019 suggests the security situation may be deteriorating. Insurgent groups certainly retain the ability to inflict harm. On 21 January, rebels shot dead two monks at a Buddhist temple in Narathiwat, while other attacks have targeted school guards and policemen.

Some have even raised concerns over ISIS infiltration, as has been witnessed in other conflict zones in Southeast Asia. In 2017, ISIS-aligned militants laid siege to the southern Philippine city of Marawi for five months, and retain a presence in the country after joining-up with local Muslim insurgent groups. However, there has to-date been no documented evidence of ISIS fighters in southern Thailand, while throughout its history the conflict has remained purely separatist and ethno-nationalist in nature. It is unlikely the BRN or Mara Patani would risk accepting ISIS recruits into their ranks, as adopting a violent jihadist ideology would erode local support among moderate Muslims and encourage a firmer military crackdown in the region, supported by global actors. Aside from lingering fears of ISIS infiltration, the prospect of further civilian suffering and impoverishment due to the insurgency lasting in its existing separatist form may yet serve as a strong enough imperative for both sides to seek a political solution.

Future forecast: is autonomy a realistic solution?

If the peace process survives the expected turbulence of the next few months, the process is likely to re-start with only informal talks and trust-building mechanisms, with Malaysia retaining its traditional role as impartial mediator. Both the Thai government and the rebel leadership must demonstrate a genuine willingness to compromise before formal dialogue can begin. The Junta – or a newly-elected civilian administration – will need to show openness to an autonomous political settlement based on some form of decentralized governance. The rebels – including the BRN and all factions represented by Mara Patani – will need to resolve their differences and negotiate on an alternative outcome to full independence. Independence remains unattainable, no matter the type of government in Bangkok.

Two precedents for such a compromise settlement already exist in Southeast Asia. Separatist rebels in Indonesia’s Aceh province signed a peace accord with Jakarta in 2005, while a 30,000-strong Muslim insurgent organization based on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao signed an autonomous settlement with Manila just last year, which it is hoped will eventually bring an end to decades of war. Both conflicts started out as violent struggles for independence by heavily-armed Muslim insurgents. In both instances, violence has significantly de-escalated after compromise settlements were reached.

The history of peace processes in these regions shows that negotiations in southern Thailand are likely to be fraught, arduous and littered with setbacks. Securing an illusive peace in Thailand’s Deep South will require a sustained, long-term effort marked by patience, resolve and compromise on both sides.

A version of this article is also published on Geopolitical Monitor.