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Sep 1, 2016 | 09:30 GMT

10 mins read

A New Phase in Thailand's Age-Old Insurgency

A New Phase in Thailand's Age-Old Insurgency
(LILLIAN SUWANRUMPHA/AFP/Getty Images)
Forecast Highlights

  • Renewed peace talks between the Thai junta and southern separatists will be thwarted by military disinterest and the fractured militant landscape.
  • Southern violence will once again take a back seat to the Thai junta's preoccupation with ending the cyclical political unrest in Bangkok.
  • A continuation of the status quo will raise the risk of additional attacks outside the deep south.

One of Asia's most opaque and intractable insurgencies may be expanding. Over the past week, Thai police have begun asserting that southern rebels were responsible for a string of bombings and arson attacks that occurred on Aug. 11-12, the birthday of Thailand's venerated queen and the country's Mother's Day. Separatist militants from the southernmost provinces, a Malay-speaking, predominantly Muslim region known historically as Patani, have been waging an insurrection against the state for more than two centuries. Though the insurgency has killed thousands of people — more than 6,000 since 2004, when violence resurged after a two-decade lull — it has generally been confined to the deep south. The recent attacks, however, targeted tourist hot spots across eight Thai provinces far north of where the separatists typically operate.

The military government, which has staked its legitimacy in part on restoring law and order to the country, continues to downplay any links tying the separatists to the attacks. Nonetheless, the prospect of a broadened southern insurgency appears to have gotten Bangkok's attention: Last week, the government announced that it would resume peace talks with southern rebel groups in September. Although the current junta is better positioned to push the peace process forward than previous governments have been, the negotiations — and the military's efforts to quash the insurgency — will encounter the same challenges as ever. And if the militants are expanding their target set to try to force the junta's hand, then the recent attacks may herald a new and precarious phase in the conflict.

A Familiar Pattern

So far, the evidence surrounding the Mother's Day bombings seems to point south. Police are pursuing arrest warrants for at least 20 suspects with ties to the southern insurgency, including at least three people suspected of carrying out past attacks in the region. The tactics used in the attacks match those often seen in the deep south, and a coordinated attack farther north is well within the separatists' capabilities. Even so, the link between the Mother's Day attacks and the southern insurgency has not been confirmed, and other groups may have been responsible. Radical anti-government groups, for instance, have turned to violence routinely over the past decade, though they typically use different methods than the southern rebels do. Alternatively, as the junta leaders posited, a political group could have hired southern militants to discredit the Thai government.

But the junta's skepticism fits a familiar pattern. In 2006, three months after a coup that ousted former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a series of bombings across Bangkok on New Year's Eve killed three people and injured 38 others. The military government then in power initially blamed pro-Thaksin figures, even as investigators highlighted forensic links to the southern separatists. After a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device went off on the tourist island of Koh Samui in 2015, the military likewise dismissed connections to the separatists, but suspects from the deep south were eventually arrested and prosecuted. The government's denial serves a variety of cultural, economic and political ends, restoring the superficial harmony prized in Thai culture, protecting the vital tourism industry and enabling the military to sustain public confidence in its ability to impose order in the south and beyond. It also reflects the degree to which politics, crime and violence are often intertwined in Thailand, making any number of explanations for each attack plausible.

An Opportunity Presents Itself

Much as the government has cause to deny the insurgents' involvement, the separatists have reason to expand their activities. It has been 12 years since the semi-dormant insurgency roared back to life. Since the 2014 coup that ousted the government led by Thaksin's sister, Yingluck, more than 49 people have been killed each month in the insurgency, and the rebels have been gradually increasing the use of large improvised explosive devices. Still, the sustained violence has yet to pressure the junta into any major concessions. Despite its initial promises to prioritize the insurgency after taking power in May 2014, the junta has been preoccupied with other concerns, such as securing its own power in Bangkok and neutralizing Thaksin's supporters. So long as the insurgency remained mostly contained in the southern border provinces, the junta's attention was likely to be focused elsewhere. But this attitude has already cost the peace process. In April, the junta replaced its lead negotiator a week before informal talks were set to resume in Malaysia, derailing negotiations before they even began.

Now, however, the separatists may see an opportunity to goad the junta back to the negotiating table. An Aug. 7 charter referendum cemented the military's role in government for the foreseeable future, putting to rest the cyclical political unrest in Bangkok (or so the Thai establishment hopes) and freeing the junta to worry about other matters. A younger faction of the southern insurgency, meanwhile, reportedly believes that the violence — which has slowly declined since 2009 — must escalate before the government will take the group seriously in negotiations. Since tourism is one of the few thriving sectors of the Thai economy, targeting holiday hot spots could be a cogent way for the rebels to get their point across.

Moreover, now that the military is firmly ensconced in power, the insurgents have good cause to think that conditions may be ripe for a return to negotiations. Peace efforts in southern Thailand have often fallen victim to the protracted political unrest in Bangkok. The Yingluck government, for example, did not control the branches of the Thai security apparatus necessary to enforce a peace deal in the deep south. The delegation that it sent to negotiations in Kuala Lumpur consisted mostly of Thaksin's allies and lacked support from rivals among the senior ranks of the military. As a result, rebel leaders never believed that they were negotiating with Thailand's ultimate arbiters of power.

Poor Prospects for Peace

According to the junta, the next round of peace talks is set to begin Sept. 2 in Kuala Lumpur with Mara Patani, an umbrella group that claims to represent the main insurgent groups. Although the junta's grip on power improves the chances that the government will enforce whatever agreement the talks may yield, several other factors that have thwarted past peace efforts will remain in play. The biggest problem is that the insurgent landscape is divided among multiple groups, each without a clear internal command structure. Consequently, any cease-fire would be vulnerable to sabotage by disaffected factions seeking a share of the patronage spoils at stake in negotiations. In 2013, for instance, a faction of the Patani United Liberation Organization carried out a small bombing in Bangkok after it was excluded from peace talks.

Conflicts between the various groups have derailed previous rounds of peace talks, as has the lack of participation from the strongest insurgent group, the Barisan Revolusi Nasional. During 2013 negotiations, it was never clear whether those meeting with the Thai government had any authority over fighters on the ground. The Barisan Revolusi Nasional is not a very committed member of Mara Patani, which failed to convince the junta that it had any power to reduce violence during informal talks in April. In fact, violence rose over the course of the talks, reaching its highest level since mid-2015 and nearly triple the rate of every month since. Now, the junta is again demanding that Mara Patani prove its authority by establishing a safe zone free from violence during the impending negotiations.

What's more, the junta itself has yet to demonstrate any willingness to make major concessions on autonomy to the southern provinces — for instance, by making room for such compromises in the new charter. Controlling the borderlands to protect the Thai heartland has been a core geopolitical imperative for Thai leaders throughout history. Today, the possibility of greater unrest in northern and northeastern Thailand remains the junta's foremost concern, and it does not want other ethnically distinct regions to see violence as a path to greater regional autonomy. In fact, on Aug. 29, Thai junta leader Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha said the different rebel groups must merge before peace talks begin in earnest — a highly unlikely prospect. The demand is logical, given the challenges that a fractured rebel landscape poses to the peace process, but it also suggests that the junta remains uninterested in pursuing a negotiated solution. At this point, it does not want to legitimize any of the groups on an international stage — as the Philippine government has done with its peace process in Muslim Mindanao — and would rather keep the separatists divided.

Stick Before Carrot?

Long-term peace will likely require some sort of political solution and devolution of powers. But in the short term, the junta will try to replicate successful counterinsurgency campaigns of the 1980s and 1990s by working to weaken the insurgents, selectively applying force and patronage to further divide them, and undertaking efforts to win support from the region's civil society. Before the Mother's Day attacks, the military was reportedly planning to withdraw the majority of its troops from the region and hand off most security operations to poorly armed and trained local paramilitary and police forces. Devolving security to the local level and empowering area elites to protect vulnerable populations is a common counterinsurgency tactic, and the junta wants to avoid the political complications in Bangkok that would come with a spike in dead soldiers.

On the other hand, if it once again faces pressure to pacify the deep south from Buddhist nationalists and protect the tourism industry — as it did multiple times from 2006 to 2012 — the junta may have to change course. In 2007, this dynamic compelled a surge of troops into the border provinces, helping to reduce violence for nearly a year and a half. The junta's announcement that it will establish a new forward command center in the south suggests that it is at least laying the groundwork for an intervention if the violence escalates. After all, if the Mother's Day bombings were intended to force a return to the negotiating table, the junta will be reluctant to comply lest it encourage future attacks.

Regardless, the prospects for any durative peace are grim. Since 2006, the military has managed neither to pressure the insurgents into negotiating on its terms nor to suppress the violence for extended periods of time. The insurgents have deep local support — on both sides of the Malaysian border — that enables them to continue operating even during heavy crackdowns. Therefore, even a concerted military effort to quell the insurgency will likely fall short as long as Malaysia refuses to deny fighters sanctuary or cut off sources of funding and supplies.

All this makes substantial progress on a resolution to the insurgency doubtful in the near-term. Both sides are likely to continue their war of attrition: The military will keep trying to stifle the insurgency to the point that separatist violence can be dismissed as a local crime issue, while the separatists will continue working to drive out Buddhist residents and discourage newcomers. If some insurgents are losing patience with the status quo — and if they are seeing the benefit of attacks outside the deep south as a result — then the enduring conflict will likely enter an even more complicated phase.

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