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.

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How Marawi Pushed ASEAN Nations to Join Forces to Tackle Terrorism

Bombing of Marawi City
ISIS-linked militants laid siege to the southern Philippine city of Marawi for five months last year, sparking Southeast Asia’s leaders into action (Image Source: Mark Jhomel)

Despite parts of Southeast Asia experiencing the scourge of Islamist terrorism for decades, the ten member-states of ASEAN have in the past struggled to co-operate to tackle the jihadist threat. After a spate of attacks in the 2000s carried out by Jemaah Islamiyah in Indonesia and Abu Sayyaf bandits in the southern Philippines, the regional bloc made determined efforts to forge a region-wide response.

These well-intentioned moves to implement a multilateral counter-terrorism framework ended up amounting to little more than a set of non-binding protocols and agreements outlining desired outcomes and suggesting best practices for member-states to follow, rather than ushering in a new era of enhanced security co-operation between countries in the region.

Last year’s five-month siege of Marawi by ISIS-aligned militants however, proved to be a game-changer. The militants’ brazen attempt to take over a mid-sized city of more than 200,000 people and forge a Southeast Asian ISIS province centred on the Philippines’ war-ravaged southern island of Mindanao reignited the lingering threat, finally sparking the region’s authorities into action.

Southeast Asia has long been afflicted by the presence of local, regional and transnational terrorist groups. Mindanao has been the site of an intractable armed Islamist insurgency since the early-1970s, which started off as a separatist movement but later spawned radical groups such as Abu Sayyaf and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF). Meanwhile Indonesia suffered a string of attacks at the hands of homegrown militant group Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) in the 1990s and 2000s, supported by Al-Qaeda cells operational within the country. The presence of these groups also caused significant alarm in neighbouring Malaysia and Singapore, whilst sparking fears in the wider region.

Terror groups were able to establish a home in the Southeast Asia’s maritime states, taking advantage of porous sea borders and areas of weak state presence to set up training camps and bases from which to plan and launch attacks. This was especially true for remote parts of the Indonesian archipelago and in the lawless chain of Philippine islands which divides the Sulu and Celebes seas. In 2002 more than 200 people were killed in suicide attacks by JI targeting nightclubs on the Indonesian resort island of Bali, before Abu Sayyaf bombed a packed passenger ferry in Manila Bay in 2004, killing 116 civilians.

These high-profile attacks in the post-9/11 era prompted ASEAN to introduce a raft of measures intended to combat terrorism. The most important of these was the 2007 ASEAN Convention on Counter-Terrorism (ACCT), designed to ‘‘provide for the framework for regional co-operation to counter, prevent and supress terrorism in all its forms’’ and ‘‘deepen co-operation among law enforcement agencies’’. However, the convention was not ratified by all ten member-states until 2013, and remained merely a set of guidelines with no enforcement or compliance mechanism. Several other region-wide agreements including the 2009 ASEAN Comprehensive Plan of Action on Counter-Terrorism (CPACT) have only had a marginal influence.

The impact of these counter-terrorism measures has been limited for several reasons. ASEAN’s strict adherence to consensus-based decision-making and the principle of non-interference has faced criticism, whilst the bloc’s use of vague language and its lack of enforcement capabilities have prevented the introduction of concrete region-wide measures to tackle terrorism. The grouping has often been described as a forum for discussion rather than a powerful body willing to push its members into taking firm action.

The varied threat level across ASEAN and the differing military and financial capabilities of its ten member-states has also hindered co-operation. For example, the threat from Islamist terrorism may be high in countries such as the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore, whilst their armed forces are also relatively well-resourced. In comparison, countries such as Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam face a far lower threat, and may not be prepared or equipped to contribute resources to the fight. The past reluctance of ASEAN nations to share intelligence or permit foreign troops to operate across national boundaries has also blocked greater co-operation in the field of counter-terrorism.

The heightened regional terrorism threat featured high-up on the agenda at the November 2017 ASEAN Summit held in Manila (Image Source: Presidential Communications Operations Office)

Historically, ASEAN’s ten member-states have displayed a preference for strengthening domestic legislation and signing bilateral level agreements to tackle terrorism, seeing the threats as national rather than regional or global in nature, and therefore not requiring a multilateral response.

That was until jihadists stormed the southern Philippine city of Marawi in May last year. The threat which had lain dormant beneath the surface since the decline of JI in the late 2000s had suddenly re-emerged in a form that was clearly regional in nature as ISIS announced their intention to carve out a Southeast Asian caliphate. Leaders quickly realised the need for closer co-operation to prevent the violence spreading, amid fears of further ISIS-inspired attacks and terrorist infiltration across borders.

Even before the Marawi siege ended in October, regional leaders gathered on several occasions to discuss responses to the evolving threat. Indonesian President Joko Widodo described Marawi as a ‘‘wake-up call’’ regarding the threat posed to Southeast Asia, whilst Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak reaffirmed his country’s commitment to tackle Islamist terror groups in the region. In September, security officials from all ten ASEAN states took part in a specially-convened meeting on the ‘Rise of Radicalization and Violent Extremism’ in the region, whilst terrorism also topped the agenda at November’s 31st ASEAN Summit hosted by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in Manila.

The discussions sparked by the takeover of Marawi first resulted in strengthened bilateral and trilateral measures agreed between the states most affected. In June, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines began conducting naval patrols in the Sulu Sea to restrict the movement of jihadist fighters to-and-from Mindanao. These measures were later bolstered by the addition of co-ordinated air patrols to spot suspicious activity from the skies. Indonesia and the Philippines have also agreed to establish a hotline to alert one another about security threats along their shared maritime frontier.

More recently two multilateral regional counter-terror initiatives have been established, indicating that ASEAN nations now appear more willing to co-operate on a collective basis than in the past.

In mid-November, the Southeast Asian Counter-Terrorism Financing Working Group (SACTFWG) was established to crack down on the funding of terrorist groups linked to ISIS. The new regional grouping will include law enforcement agencies from across Southeast Asia, and will be led by the Philippines’ Anti-Money Laundering Council and Australia’s Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre (AUSTRAC).

Then in a landmark agreement on 25 January six ASEAN members – Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand – signed-up to a new intelligence-sharing pact labelled the ‘Our Eyes’ initiative. The agreement is expected to facilitate the most extensive counter-terrorism co-operation within ASEAN to-date. It will see senior defence officials from the participating nations meet twice a month, and will allow for the development of a new database of suspected militants which can be accessed by law enforcement agencies across the region.

The Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia have been conducting trilateral naval patrols in the Sulu Sea to prevent the movement of terror suspects across borders. In this photo, Philippine troops are seen participating in a training drill alongside US forces (Image Source: US Navy)

At its launch, Malaysia’s Deputy Defence Minister Mohd Johari Baharum said the initiative would be crucial in enabling a collective response to emerging security threats which are ‘‘complex and trans-boundary in nature’’. It is hoped that the four remaining ASEAN states will later join the group, as well as external actors with a stake in the region’s stability such as Australia, India, Japan and the US.

The crisis in Marawi certainly got the region’s leaders thinking about how to better pool resources to tackle the growing threat from Islamist terrorism; but it has not yet resulted in an all-encompassing strategy involving all ten of ASEAN’s member-nations. Such an aim will always be difficult to achieve, due to the huge variation in threat along with the differing capabilities and priorities of ASEAN states.

However, ad-hoc collaborative responses have emerged involving the countries most concerned, on a scale not witnessed previously in the region. Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines have looked to work with other interested parties to find workable and pragmatic multilateral solutions to the most pressing and immediate problems facing the region’s vulnerable maritime states.

With a series of overlapping bilateral, trilateral and multilateral mechanisms now in place, ASEAN integration in the sphere of counter-terrorism has been significantly upgraded. In the post-Marawi era of elevated risk, a set of guidelines which meant little in practice is rapidly being superseded by a more co-ordinated regional strategy, aimed at tackling the most critical threat facing Southeast Asia today.

A version of this article is also published on Asian Correspondent.