Establishing peace in southern Thailand
10 Feb 2023|

The situation in southern Thailand, although unique, rings eerily similar to that of the southern Philippines.

Economic underdevelopment and political grievances plague the two countries’ southern provinces. For decades, the Thai and Philippine governments have been accused of marginalising Muslims. Although a national minority, Muslims represent an overwhelming majority in each country’s south. Long-term, multi-generational dissatisfaction with political representation in both countries has resulted in greater engagement with violence as a means of political expression.

Perhaps the success of the Philippine government in working with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) to create the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) could serve as the blueprint for peace in Thailand.

Since 2004, southern Thailand has experienced sporadic violence by secessionist insurgents hoping to gain autonomy for the Muslim-majority region. They view their Pattani Malay identity as under threat from oppression.

Factions of insurgents raising violence across the region are countered by heavy-handed policies and excessive force from the Thai government. Intermittent peace agreements involving the largest armed group have failed to hold as wafer-thin confidence and splinter groups spoil the process.

The Thai government refuses to view the insurgency as a political threat and therefore puts low priority on the situation. The lack of focus on the issue has resulted in a failure to understand the political nature and root causes of the violence. Instead, the Thai government has deployed troops to the region to put down the insurgents. Its failure to deal effectively with the threat itself has allowed a continuous cycle of violence that has caused more than 7,000 deaths.

The hiatus in peace negotiations brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as the success of the Taliban in Afghanistan, has likely reinvigorated the insurgents’ cause. The first rise in casualties since 2012 occurred in 2021. Over the past few months, multiple explosions have ripped across southern Thailand. The most recent targeted a railway near the Malaysia border, killing three and injuring four.

The Thai government retains the upper hand in negotiations and has refused to budge on its political agenda. With the rise in violence, insurgents in southern Thailand are looking to force the government’s hand, increasing the urgency for peace.

Discussions to date have brought little success. Neither side has demonstrated the commitment or integrity required to achieve a lasting solution. However, consistent meetings and short pauses in the violence provide potential building blocks of confidence.

Throughout this process, Malaysia has helped mediate peace negotiations even though the country’s own political situation has made it difficult for the government in Kuala Lumpur to develop a clear approach.

Since his election in November last year, Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim has faced repeated questions about Malaysia’s efforts to resolve the conflict in southern Thailand. During the first week of December, Thailand’s deputy prime minister, Prawit Wongsuwon, visited Malaysia as Anwar reaffirmed Malaysia’s commitment to brokering peace. He continues to reiterate that Malaysia will more aggressively support the Thai push for a peaceful resolution. A more hands-on approach, combined with Anwar’s experience and the respect both parties have for him, could reinvigorate the peace process.

In the lead-up to the next round of negotiations, the first under Anwar’s leadership, the Thai government and the National Revolutionary Front (known as the BRN) are drafting a ceasefire agreement in the hopes of rejuvenating peace talks. The last ceasefire occurred in 2022 during Ramadan. The BRN is the leading separatist insurgency group in Thailand, and even with the recent increase in violence it insists that it’s committed to finding a solution.

The major difficulty facing any proposed peace plan is finding a compromise on power. The Thai government is set on preserving its regime and its perceived power, while the insurgents want some sort of decentralisation or autonomy.

The Thai government should look towards the Philippines and its peace agreement with the MILF as a potential template for a lasting peace. While there are key differences between the two situations —primarily that the violence in Thailand is on the rise with no decline in sight—if Thailand has any hopes of peaceful mediation, it will need to adapt its approach.

The pandemic has hindered the establishment of the BARMM. Yet there is great hope that decades of conflict in the Philippines can be ended. While many gaps remain, the Philippine government hopes to hold the first elections for the region in 2025.

The Philippine model will help the Thai government balance the efforts of security forces with regional development. Improvements in the Philippines’ economy, public health and education are difficult to deny. Violence has decreased as thousands of MILF fighters have turned in their weapons.

In the next round of peace negotiations, the Thai government needs to show that it takes the situation seriously and is willing to apply the necessary resources. It must seek to understand the grievances of the insurgents, recognising that finding a long-term peaceful solution will help accomplish its main goals of establishing legitimacy for the monarchy and ensuring the regime’s survival. Benchmarks must be set for the cessation of violence and stabilisation of institutions. Transition authorities with the backing of all parties will work towards achieving those benchmarks. Throughout this process, the Thai government must show patience and accept assistance from outside sources.

Malaysia’s proximity and ethnic connections to the conflict make it the suitable party to mediate negotiations. The recent change in Malaysian leadership makes this the perfect opportunity to seek new solutions. The Philippines should join peace negotiations and use its own experience to help Thailand navigate the situation in its southern region.

Insurgents will likely increase their use of violence to improve their bargaining position even as peace negotiations progress, but the Thai government must look seriously at options for a resolution. The longer the conflict lasts, the greater the potential for the violence to spread across beyond Thailand’s border. The Thai government’s willingness to address the situation and work with partner nations will determine the degree of security not only within its own borders but across the region.