Conditions surrounding the southern Thailand insurgency have rarely been conducive to external attempts to broker a political solution. Though informal talks between Thai authorities and various militant leaders have secretly taken place intermittently since the century-long conflict erupted again a decade ago, regular efforts by regional leaders and international organizations to facilitate formal processes of dialogue have been thwarted by some fundamental features of the insurgency: It is divided among multiple groups lacking clear command structures. Militants demand a level of regional autonomy that Thai leaders resolutely reject. Separatist leaders are suspicious of the Thai leadership's ability to implement any agreement considering the perpetual political chaos in Bangkok and rivalries among the Thai security services. And the separatists have sympathies from a Malay-Muslim majority that resents the Thai state's historical, heavy-handed presence in the deep south, in addition to some degree of support from Malays just across the Thailand-Malaysia border.
This dynamic appeared to be changing in 2013, when then-Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's administration agreed for the first time to sit down in public with separatist leaders in a Malaysia-sponsored dialogue process. Despite some temporary successes, the usual issues soon undermined the Kuala Lumpur talks: The Thai delegation lacked buy-in from needed stakeholders, particularly in the military, and struggled to enforce its own policies. Meanwhile, key National Revolution Front leaders walked away from the talks almost as soon as they began, leaving behind an extreme set of demands from a negotiator who likely lacked the authority to soften them. The talks petered out in December, with Yingluck's government clinging to power amid renewed unrest in the capital.
Since then, violence has surged. May saw the highest number of improvised explosive device attacks since 2004. In multiple locations, militants have demonstrated increasingly sophisticated tactics and capabilities, including coordinated assaults involving diversionary tactics, scores of fighters and IEDs with advanced trigger mechanisms. The majority of attacks target security forces patrolling rural areas, but the militants also target police stations, hospitals, businesses, power and railroad infrastructure and civilians — particularly teachers — who militants see as an extension of the Thai state's attempts to eradicate Patani Malay culture.
Nonetheless, the Thai military, which historically has refused to sit down with the separatists, appears willing to give talks another try.
The Military's Advantages and Limitations
Like all Thai governments since that of Yingluck's brother, self-exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 military coup, the Yingluck administration's failures in the south can be viewed as an extension of the protracted power struggle in Bangkok. Her government lacked control over all the branches of the Thai security apparatus needed to enforce a peace deal in the deep south. The delegation it sent to Kuala Lumpur consisted mostly of Thaksin's allies, denying it support from rivals among the senior ranks of the military. As a result, rebel leaders never believed they were negotiating with Thailand's ultimate arbiters of power. Indeed, an army raid in July that likely was not ordered by the government helped unravel a largely successful Ramadan cease-fire.
In contrast, the Thai military has consolidated control over much of the state since the coup, empowering its ability to enforce its policies. Junta chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha has publicly prioritized the insurgency, appointing himself as the top policymaker for the south and filling key regional positions with loyalists, including Gen. Udomdet Sitabutr, his likely successor as army commander.
Overall, the military's strategy will likely involve a combination of suppression and conciliatory measures, with the latter primarily involving economic assistance. Though an estimated 60,000 troops are stationed in the south, security operations are often left to poorly trained and ill-equipped paramilitary forces. A surge of professional troops in late 2007 proved successful in reducing the violence. The military is also likely to restore its dominant role in the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Center. Founded in 1991, the center improved interagency coordination in the south and was considered a key contributor to the nearly two-decade decline in violence to token levels, before being dismantled by Thaksin in 2002.
The junta's authority will be particularly valuable in overcoming anti-Muslim sentiment among the Thai public — sentiment that has complicated southern policies in the past. In July, Prayuth downplayed the role of religion in the insurgency, possibly as an attempt to prevent a wave of Buddhist militarism among elites like the one that occurred in 2007 when Queen Sirikit essentially called on southern Buddhists to take up arms. In other words, Prayuth has the political clout Yingluck lacked among the Bangkok establishment needed for a give-and-take with militants. Moreover, unlike past governments, the junta will be able to ensure that the new constitution, due out in 2015, will allow for any agreements reached with separatist leaders.
Regardless of how much authority the Thai military can bring to the negotiating table, it is unlikely to budge on the insurgents' core demand for self-rule, even via a semi-autonomous administrative structure akin to those that have helped quell separatist movements elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Historically, controlling the borderlands to protect the Thai heartland has been a core geopolitical imperative for Thai leaders. Today, the junta's foremost concern remains the possibility of greater unrest in northern and northeast Thailand, and it does not want the other ethnically distinct regions to see violence as a route to greater regional autonomy.
The gulf between the two sides is likely to constrain the negotiations again. Moreover, despite the Thai junta's success in consolidating its power, Thailand's broader political crisis is unlikely to be resolved until the impending royal succession process takes place, and militant leaders will again be wary of lingering uncertainty. Meanwhile, the opaque and decentralized nature of the insurgency will continue to leave any agreement vulnerable to sabotage from fighters left out of the deal.
Nonetheless, the Kuala Lumpur talks demonstrated that while long-term peace will likely remain elusive, smaller gains are possible. Though militants continued attacks during the talks, they followed through on pledges to shift operations away from civilians and economic centers. Although soft target attacks restarted in August 2013, the temporary decline reassured Thai officials that insurgent political wings have some degree of control over their fighters. Past informal agreements have produced similar, even if limited and temporary, successes in either reducing or containing the violence.
Malaysia's Role and Limitations
Another complicating factor is Malaysia, which is viewed somewhat warily by Bangkok and the militants. In the 1960s and 1970s, Bangkok believed that Kuala Lumpur directly supported the insurgency. Since then, Malaysia has cooperated routinely, turning over several senior militant leaders, signing economic and educational initiatives and establishing joint border patrols. Still, Thai officials have remained somewhat suspicious of Malaysia's role, however tacit, in the southern violence.
As a result of the ethnic and religious links between the separatists and the Malaysian public, Kuala Lumpur has faced political limitations on cooperation, particularly after incidents such as the 2004 Tak Bai incident, when 85 detained Muslim protesters suffocated in a Thai military truck. Considering Thailand's historical attempts to push toward the Strait of Malacca, Kuala Lumpur also has a strategic incentive to use the deep south as a buffer zone. Today, senior insurgent leaders are widely believed to use Malaysia for training and planning, and militants often flee across the porous border after attacks. Prime Minister Najib Razak's administration cannot afford to take on the militants too forcefully lest it provoke retaliatory attacks, especially considering its own problem with militants and fears of international jihadist activity on Malaysian soil.
Kuala Lumpur helped broker a landmark peace agreement with rebels in the Philippines in March and has enthusiastically pushed for negotiations in southern Thailand. It is eager to boost its international standing, particularly within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. Like Thailand, it would benefit from a security environment that allows for greater regional infrastructure development and trade ahead of the launch of the ASEAN Economic Community in 2015, as well as tighter control of cross-border smuggling and narcotics networks.
Still, Malaysia has generally been unwilling to provide the sort of cooperation Bangkok needs to crush the insurgency — or at least force a negotiated settlement — particularly the denial of sanctuary to militants. The ideology behind the Thai insurgency is not expansionary, and the historical region of Pattani covers a relatively small slice of northern Malaysia. Thus, so long as the violence does not spread southward or increasingly target Malaysian citizens (as in the July vehicle-based IED attack outside a hotel in Betong, a border town popular among Malay tourists that had largely been spared from the violence), Kuala Lumpur will seek to keep the insurgency at arm's length. It will continue to monitor the militants closely, provide occasional intelligence and use its leverage to bring them to the table. But unless Malaysia is willing to help Thailand force the insurgents to negotiate seriously, it is unlikely to broker a sustainable peace.