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Sustaining the Momentum in Southern Thailand’s Peace Dialogue (Crisis Group Asia Briefing N°172)

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The Thai government has restarted talks with the main insurgency in the country’s southernmost provinces. A quiet back channel helped the parties make progress – and reach a Ramadan ceasefire – while the official negotiations hosted by Malaysia paused. The parties should build on these achievements.

What’s new? Peace talks between the Thai government and Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) separatists resumed recently after a two-year hiatus, leading to a commitment from both sides to cease hostilities during the month of Ramadan, and a broader agreement to discuss reduction of violence and political solutions based on public consultations.

Why does it matter? In 2021, casualties associated with the insurgency rose for the first time since 2012. The conflict has killed over 7,300 people since 2004. Failure at negotiations in Malaysia could lead BRN to splinter and its armed wing to repudiate dialogue, triggering more fighting and putting a resolution further from reach.

What should be done? Both parties should strengthen internal consensus on resolving the conflict through dialogue. The Thai government should devote greater resources to its delegation, while BRN needs to narrow the gap between its armed and political wings. As facilitator, Malaysia should respect the conflict parties’ choice of the dialogue’s format and substance.

I. Overview

The official dialogue between the Thai government and Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), which resumed in January after a long hiatus due to COVID-19 precautions, has resulted in the endorsement of General Principles of the Peace Dialogue Process and a shared commitment to reduce violence during the month of Ramadan. Talks started almost two years earlier, when representatives of BRN, the main Malay-Muslim insurgent group, came willingly to the table for the first time. The pandemic then interrupted meetings, but back-channel talks led in November 2021 to a protocol to discuss a reduction in violence, consultations with the public in Thailand’s southernmost provinces and a commitment to political solutions to the conflict, now codified in the General Principles. This progress notwithstanding, the dialogue is still beset by structural problems, disunity on both sides, capacity constraints and mistrust. Both sides should shore up internal consensus that the conflict should be resolved through negotiations rather than force. As facilitator, Malaysia should be flexible regarding the format and substance of talks.

In January, the separatist insurgency in southernmost Thailand entered its nineteenth year. Militants have carried on a violent campaign in defence of their Patani-Malay identity from what they see as Thai colonialism. Their rebellion is characterised by sabotage, assassinations of alleged state collaborators, improvised explosive device attacks and small-scale ambushes on security forces. The number of incidents has declined steadily since the parties started talking in 2013, a trend that accelerated after the 2014 military coup. But casualties started climbing again in 2021. In recent years, Thai security forces have increased pressure on militants through cordon-and-search operations that have driven up the insurgent body count. Some Malay-Muslims have responded by publicly honouring the dead fighters as martyrs, an apparent indication that the grievances and ideology underpinning the insurgency remain potent.

Developments in the talks are publicised only sporadically. Official meetings facilitated by Malaysia are only the most visible manifestation of the process, which is supported by back-channel discussions. The parties reveal only scant information about these parallel informal talks, especially as Malaysia is displeased that they have taken place. But the back channel has proven its utility, from smoothing the way for BRN to return to the negotiation table to generating substantive proposals. Eventually, it produced the November 2021 protocol serving as the framework for the formal dialogue that resumed in January.

This broad framework is promising but faces serious constraints. Ambivalence about talks in both camps hinders the prospect of resolving the conflict through dialogue. BRN has been riven by a split between its armed and political wings, the former merely countenancing talks until the latest round. On the Thai side, some officials fear that BRN aims to internationalise the conflict and provoke foreign intervention. Devising mechanisms for public consultation will also challenge the top-down Thai bureaucracy, which has little tolerance for dissenting views, and a reduction in violence depends on the cooperation of armed forces over which the dialogue panel has little leverage. While the announcement of a cessation of hostilities during Ramadan is welcome, a precipitous ceasefire designed to demonstrate concrete results, but without sufficient trust building and reliable monitoring, could easily backfire.

In spite of these impediments, the resumption of talks between Bangkok and BRN represents good progress, and advocates of dialogue within each party should act to ensure that positive momentum is sustained. BRN, which needs to mend the rift between its armed and political wings, should be provided with the technical resources and space to do so. Senior Thai leaders should more publicly endorse dialogue as a means of ending the conflict, both to build confidence in the process and to reassure domestic sceptics that talks are consistent with protecting national sovereignty. The Thai government should also fund a full-time dialogue secretariat and ensure that security forces adhere to agreements made at the negotiating table. Finally, Malaysia should reassess its facilitation procedures to ensure that they accord with the conflict parties’ preferences, including sustaining direct contact between the sides in informal back channels at their discretion.