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New Round of Talks Gives Hope for Peace in Thailand’s South

June 19, 2013

After nearly a decade of deadly conflict in Thailand’s Deep South, Thai officials and insurgent groups met in Kuala Lumpur last week for the third round of peace talks in hopes of finding common ground to end the violence. While both sides agreed to reduce violence during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, which starts next month, few concrete solutions emerged.

Conflict in Southern Thailand

Since 2004, Thailand’s southern border provinces of Yala, Narathiwat, and Pattani have faced the resurgence of an indigenous ethno-nationalist conflict whose origins date to the early 20th century. Photo/Chander Vandergrift

The Thai government has been requesting a cessation or reduction of violence since discussions began on March 28, 2013, but judging from the ongoing violence on the ground, and the apparent inability by the self-proclaimed separatist leaders to influence the militants on the ground, this upcoming Ramadan is likely to be a significant test for the Barisan Revolusi Nacional (BRN) separatist movement.

Since 2004, Thailand’s southern border provinces of Yala, Narathiwat, and Pattani have faced the resurgence of an indigenous ethno-nationalist conflict whose origins date to the early 20th century. In the span of nine years, bomb attacks, assassinations, and other violent incidents have left more than 5,600 dead and nearly 10,000 injured.

On Feb. 28, 2013, in Kuala Lumpur, the Thai government and representatives of the BRN separatist movement announced they had signed a “General Consensus on the Peace Dialogue Process” – effectively, a prelude to formal peace negotiations through which both sides committed to engage in dialogue facilitated by Malaysia. This development was a significant step forward, with the agreement representing the first formal public engagement between the government and a rebel group in the history of the southern conflict. It was also the first-ever tacit acknowledgement on the part of the national government that the southern conflict, and the prospect of a negotiated solution to the conflict, is inherently political. The two sides have met three times since signing the February agreement – for the first time on March 28, again on April 29, and most recently on June 13.

In recent months, communities in the Deep South that had previously viewed peace initiatives as the exclusive domain of the government and insurgent groups have become increasingly bold in their call for opportunities to voice their views and expectations for future peace. Overall support for the peace dialogue nationwide has been very positive to date. In a survey conducted by the National Institute of Development Administration in March, 65 percent of respondents nationally said they believed that peace talks will lead to an end to the southern unrest. Additionally, the most recent poll by Deep South Watch indicates that the percentage of respondents in the region who express confidence in the peace talks has been gradually increasing from 67 percent in March to 74 percent in June.

While overall support of the process appears to be high, support for specific demands is less positive. Sixty-five percent of southern respondents said that they found it difficult to accept the BRN demands on Thai authorities, and 35 percent said the government should be more cautious in negotiating with the BRN to prevent the group from taking advantage of the Thai side.

Continual violence on the ground suggests that peace will not come easily, as the current generation of militants has yet to find a good enough reason to endorse this dialogue process. Moreover, other long-standing separatist groups, including other BRN factions, claim that the exiled movements have yet to build consensus about the talks, much less who should lead this process and represent the Malay community of the Deep South. Nevertheless, the most important thing here is that they are willing to talk to the Thai state. This is unprecedented. Should they want to build traction for their peace process, the Thai government needs to get better at understanding that there is a generation gap between the old rebels that they are talking to and the current generation of fighters, as well as a trust gap among the long-standing groups.

For the time being, there is also a split among the local civil society organizations (CSOs). Long-standing CSOs, many of whom work closely with Thai state agencies on development and reform issues, have been accused of being too quick to endorse the talks and not asking the needed tough questions. Youth and student-led organizations, as well as the Ulema Council of Fatoni, who are highly trusted among local residents, have refused to endorse the talks and accused the government of reaching out to the wrong negotiating partner, namely BRN’s lead negotiator Hassan Taib.

While it is still very early to predict the direction the talks will take, The Asia Foundation’s recently launched study, “Contested Corners of Asia: The Case of Southern Thailand,” highlights that in order for the conflict to be solved, a political solution will need to be negotiated. International support to peace processes is well-documented in many conflicts, including Mindanao and Aceh, and indeed the international aid community has attempted to provide support and technical assistance even prior to the start of this peace process. The Mindanao and Aceh cases specifically highlight the role international actors can play at providing technical assistance, acting as observers during peace negotiations, or monitoring the implementation of peace agreements.

Likewise, Thais are generally supportive of international assistance and observation of the process, with 67 percent supporting the engagement of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as an observer and 72 percent supporting the inclusion of the Organization of the Islamic Conference.

These talks indicate that a potential transition process could be underway in the future. While this could present new opportunities, it will also entail new challenges. However, for the two million people living in the conflict-affected South, let’s hope this is the beginning of the end of a bitter conflict.

Don Pathan is a member of the research team for The Asia Foundation’s new groundbreaking study, “The Contested Corners of Asia: The Case of Southern Thailand,” and a member of the Patani Forum and a security analyst based in Yala, and a frequent contributor to The Nation. Pauline Tweedie is The Asia Foundation’s deputy country representative in Thailand and a co-author of the same study. She can be reached at pauline.tweedie@asiafoundation.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation.
 

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