Negotiations aimed at ending the 14-year insurgency in Southern Thailand have again stalled, with the refusal this week of the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) guerrillas to enter peace talks with the Thai government. The withdrawal of the BRN, who is the strongest of seven separatist groups fighting for a self-governing Islamic caliphate, make it unlikely that peace talks will go ahead this year. Further hampering these talks is the assertion by MARA Patani Plus, the umbrella body representing other insurgent factions, that it will not engage in this discussion until after the election of the democratic Thai government, expected to occur in February 2019. The stalling of peace talks occurs against the backdrop of continued violence in the form of bombings, shootings and murders, which have killed more than 7,000 people and left 12,000 injured after violence reignited in the states of Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat and Songkhla in 2004.
In an October press conference, Thailand’s Royal Army Chief General Apirat Kongsompong affirmed the need for dialogue between the parties, citing the negotiation process as “delicate,” but lauding the efforts of the Thai and Malaysian prime ministers in brokering the talks. However, the latest developments leave the peace process floundering, with retired General Udomchai Thammasaroraj, the new head of Thailand’s negotiation team, telling the Bangkok Post that BRN participation in discussions is crucial due to them being “very actively involved in the southern violence.”
With civilians accounted for around 90% of those killed, peace talks are critical to the goal of bringing security to the region. While both parties have been open to this talk for quite some time, there have been limited concessions from either side which would pave the road for peace. Negotiators acting on behalf of the Thai government are refusing to accept a ceasefire, citing the futility of previous ceasefire attempts that they say resulted in insurgent violence.
Conflict in Thailand’s Deep South is not new. Despite the region being conquered by the Kingdom of Siam in 1785, it was largely left to self-govern until the 1930s when its government began to enforce its own policies in the states via a process of forced assimilation to Thai values. Angered at having Thai Buddhist culture enforced on their way of life, an Islamic insurgency began in 1948, with the goal of having an independent state where the population could live with dignity under their own value system. Tensions escalated throughout the 20th century when a number of insurgent groups formed, all favouring the use of their strength and weapons to achieve their goals. This exploded in 2004 – brutality became widespread and commonplace throughout the southern states.
For their part, the Thai government has been accused of being indiscriminate and heavy-handed in their efforts to stop insurgents, generating only sympathy for them among citizens. A state of emergency, which has been in place in the region since 2001, has allowed arrest and detention of suspected insurgents to occur without following ordinary legal protocols. This has done little to quell violence, occurring all over Thailand, consisting of practically daily shootings, murders and bombings.
What is clear is that the hard-line strategies of successive Thai governments to bring an end to all of this has not worked. In order to end the frequent and indiscriminate violence, meaningful concessions will need to come from both sides and a prolonged ceasefire is a vital start. Religious and cultural tolerance from both the government and the insurgents coupled with these concessions is the only way to end violence and bring peace and prosperity to the region.