After four years of fruitless talks, a peace dialogue to end a separatist insurgency in southern Thailand may be set to gain traction.
The new head of Thailand's peace dialogue panel announced on November 29 that the main Malay-Muslim militant organization behind 15 years of insurgency may soon come to the table -- a development that would give a new lease of life to the moribund process. Days later came a report that representatives of this group, Barisan Revolusi Nasional Patani Melayu, known as the BRN, recently met Thai officials in Berlin.
Direct dialogue between Bangkok and the BRN would revitalize efforts to find a resolution to the insurgency, which has cost 7,000 lives. But to tackle the causes of conflict, Thailand and the BRN will have to avoid past mistakes.
The violence in Thailand's Malay-Muslim majority southern provinces is largely geographically contained. The militants rarely stage attacks outside their proclaimed homeland of Patani, comprising the Thai provinces of Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala, and four districts of Songkhla province. Roughly the size of Lebanon, this area is home to 2 million Thai citizens, 80% of whom are Muslim, the rest mostly Buddhist.
Violence has declined for years since peaking in 2007, due in part to more effective security measures, local weariness with the conflict and possibly a slackening of Malay nationalist fervor.
But the insurgency has been counted out in the past, only to reemerge in more ferocious form. Militants can still stage damaging attacks -- on November 5, for instance, a raid in Yala killed 15 people -- and they can strike outside the deep south, as on August 2, when a series of small bombings and arson attacks rattled Bangkok.
The dialogue process in its current format has achieved little since it started in 2015. MARA Patani, a separatist umbrella group formed to talk with the Thai government, does not include the BRN, which means it has no control over its fighters. The BRN chose not to join the process, ensuring the dialogue would be ineffective. Thailand enlisted Malaysia, where many Malay-Muslim militants reside in exile, to facilitate the dialogue, despite both Thai and militant misgivings about its impartiality.
The BRN objected to a process structure that, it believed, mainly served Thai interests as a public relations exercise -- pursuing a "peaceful means" of conflict resolution without engaging in substantive talks.
In the midst of an April 2017 unilateral cease-fire that demonstrated its command and control, the BRN issued a statement with three conditions for its participation in dialogue: impartial mediation, international observers and agreement upfront by both parties on process design. Thailand publicly ignored the statement, but quietly sought a direct channel to the BRN.
Getting a substantive dialogue going requires at least two fundamental changes from earlier rounds of talks that started in 2013. First, both sides must have greater confidence in the structure of the process, which means agreeing in advance on the ground rules for dialogue. Second, in order for the dialogue to address the causes of conflict, rather than being used a delaying tactic, both sides need to change their approach.
Any talks will face formidable hurdles. Declining violence might reduce incentives for Thailand to treat the process as anything more than an intelligence-gathering exercise or a tactic for stringing along the insurgents while it pursues military victory.
Thai officials have regularly rejected the idea of talking with "criminals" and insisted that "win-win" negotiations would contradict Thailand's national sovereignty. Some conservative senior officials regard demands for decentralization as insolence, if not sedition. Few in Thailand believe that the current government, led by generals who staged a coup in 2014, will countenance any change in the political status quo.
The BRN sees itself as a national liberation movement, but its commitment to secrecy, driven by security concerns, undermines its aspiration to speak for Malay Muslims in Thailand. For some in the movement, resistance to Thai rule appears an end in itself, rather than a means to a clear political goal. In 15 years of fighting, the BRN's leaders have not articulated a vision beyond a simple call for independence, such as specifying the form of government they prefer.
Under these circumstances, impartial mediation by a country other than Malaysia or by an international organization could help the parties to find common ground.
Without agreement on how to shape a more productive process, future substantive breakthroughs remain out of reach. But if the BRN comes willingly to the table, and the two parties can agree on a framework for sustained dialogue, it will allow the hard work of identifying shared interests to begin in earnest.
No one should expect quick results. It will take time for proponents of negotiation to convince skeptics on each side that sovereignty and reform can coincide and that compromise is not capitulation. But ensuring that dialogue finally becomes entrenched would be a first step toward ending the deadly, perennial conflict in Thailand's southern provinces.
Matt Wheeler is senior analyst, South East Asia at the International Crisis Group, an independent conflict prevention organization.