Notes from the Field

The Right Kind of Development: Building Peace in Thailand and Beyond

June 12, 2013

The Asia Foundation’s new study, “The Contested Corners of Asia,” highlights the growing importance of conflicts that occur within rather than between countries. In recent years, subnational conflicts between national governments and local rebel groups have killed more people than all other forms of conflict in Asia. Typically located in remote border areas far from the capital city, and often intensified by ethnic or religious differences, these confrontations often continue for many decades.

Conflict in Southern Thailand

Subnational conflicts arise largely because people in one part of a country feel aggrieved at how they are treated by the national government. Where the benefits of development are spread unevenly, grievances at inequalities can grow even during periods of fast economic growth. Chandler Vandergrift

The research highlights that subnational conflicts do not necessarily diminish as countries develop. They affect middle-income countries such as Thailand as well as poorer countries like Laos or Nepal. This creates a dilemma for international development agencies. While some organizations are now focusing resources on peacebuilding, mainstream development approaches continue to focus on economic growth, infrastructure, and improved public services. There is evidence in this study that these traditional development efforts may not be helping to solve these long-lasting violent disputes and may in fact contribute to regional inequalities that fuel the subnational conflict. In fact, the new study finds that supporting sustainable peace requires a different approach to development.

Our findings show that subnational conflicts arise largely because people in one part of a country feel aggrieved at how they are treated by the national government. Where the benefits of development are spread unevenly, grievances at inequalities can grow even during periods of fast economic growth. Lack of access to political decision-making and limited recognition of minority cultures or religion are often main causes of tensions that lead to violence. The long-running conflict in Southern Thailand presents an example of this.

Thailand’s southernmost provinces near the border with Malaysia have a long history of both violent and peaceful resistance against a highly centralized state. A series of dramatic incidents in 2004, including coordinated raids on army posts and the deaths of dozens of protesters, spurred a violent insurrection that to date has taken over 5,000 lives.

The conflict pits self-appointed representatives of a minority group against the Thai government. The majority of people in the area are Malay by culture and Muslim by faith, and while their population is greater in the region, they make up only a small minority (1-2%) at the national level. While our study found that most people in the area do not support the use of violence and wish to remain part of Thailand, widespread resentment persists.

Some moderations of government policy over time, such as relaxing assimilation policies and allowing independent local schools, have failed to address people’s concerns. Although the South has benefitted from rapid economic growth and development along with the rest of Thailand in recent decades, the rewards have been spread unevenly and inequalities have increased. Many people in the area feel that they are effectively second-class citizens.

As is so often the case, the spread of democracy has had a mixed impact. With no special mechanisms to ensure minority representation and weak local government, the conflict-affected area is insignificant at the national level. Fractious party politics have also fuelled ground-level tensions.

The Thai government has on several occasions tried to open negotiations to end the conflict. In early 2013, preliminary talks between government and rebel representatives chaired by Malaysia attracted widespread media attention and showed that both sides are interested in finding a peaceful solution. Yet neither side has brought any concrete offers to the table so far and a negotiated agreement or even a meaningful ceasefire remains some way off. The next round of talks, scheduled for June 13, is unlikely to significantly change the situation.

Our research shows that development organizations working to address these conflicts need to prioritize goals that are distinct from mainstream development approaches. Effective approaches will require an understanding of states from a political perspective and of how subnational tensions can be inadvertently exacerbated by a lack of concern for peripheral groups. Statistics need to be disaggregated to show the differences between regions and groups within countries, while overall objectives need to consider how conflict-prone areas are governed as well as simply supporting overall national development objectives.

As the peacebuilding agendas of international development organizations tend to focus on fragile states, typically playing a nominal role in subnational conflict areas, they should know that they will only make a lasting impact by supporting domestic institutions, rather than by acting alone. They also need to remain neutral while at the same time securing government approval to operate. In this complex setting, their staff must understand rapidly changing political dynamics and build strong relationships with local organizations.

In Southern Thailand, small amounts of international assistance – rather than the multi-million dollar aid projects often funded in other countries – have backed valuable domestic initiatives. Research shows that international aid agencies have gradually learned how to engage over time, strengthening Thai organizations, offering technical experience, or facilitating new approaches rather than simply transferring resources.

For example, UNICEF has promoted local efforts to explore language policies in schools, recognizing the minority Malay dialect as well as Thai. The Asia Foundation has backed high-level debate on decentralization options for the Deep South, while other agencies have supported peaceful local activism and research that present non-violent ways to address common grievances. International experience can also support more direct peacebuilding efforts, explaining pitfalls that have held up negotiations elsewhere. Supporting initiatives such as public information campaigns, debate on how former combatants’ needs can be incorporated into peace agendas, and civil society engagement in debate over what institutional transformations will help cement peace, can also support government aims.

In Thailand and other subnational conflict areas, agencies that forsake a traditional development agenda and instead aim to support domestic efforts to tackle the root causes of violence can play a useful supporting role in promoting peace. From the perspective of governments trying to cope with conflict, rather than being a threat to sovereignty, they offer many opportunities to explore policy options. They also present civil society groups with ways to seek peaceful routes to transforming national or local institutions.

The debate over what follows the 2015 Millennium Development Goals needs to stress tackling inequalities. If a goal is enduring peace, then it is crucial to avoid well-intentioned but short-sighted development approaches that aim to only help nations reach global targets but may also unwittingly stoke subnational unrest. Support for both statebuilding and democracy needs special measures to integrate the needs of minorities and countries’ peripheral areas. At a time when development approaches are being reconsidered globally, a closer look at subnational conflicts provides important lessons about how to support lasting peace.

Dr. Adam Burke is co-author of “The Contested Corners of Asia: The Case of Southern Thailand” and is researcher and advisor for the Policy Practice. He can be reached at adam.burke@thepolicypractice.com. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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