Separatism in the southern provinces: Thailand’s insurgency problem

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Prime Minister Prayut’s government faces fresh challenges from the separatist movement in the southern provinces.

By Oliver Ward

The decades-old Muslim separatist insurgency that has racked the Southern Thai provinces has taken a worrying turn. In recent years, a new wave of young radicals emerged. The new generation of militants embarked on a campaign of terror through the use of cars as powerful explosive devices.

On August 16th, seven Muslim separatist extremists in the southern province of Songkhla stole six vehicles from a used-car dealership. They shot dead a 19-year-old employee in the process. They later packed two of the vehicles with explosives and detonated them outside police officers living quarters.

Police Lieutenant-General Sakorn Thongmanee blamed “a new, younger generation, kind of group” for the incident. The Thai authorities were not familiar with the suspects; they could not match their faces with any insurgents in their files.

There have been four similar incidents in the past 16 months

In May this year, a car bomb exploded in a crowded area and injured many onlookers. In August 2016, insurgents used an ambulance as an explosive at the Southern View Hotel and in February 2016, they injured seven police officers in Pattani with the detonation of a Honda Jazz.

The insurgency in the southern provinces has steadily escalated since 2004 and caused the deaths of over 6,600 people.

The root of the problem is historical

The three southern Thai provinces of Yala, Narathiwat, and Pattani originally formed an independent kingdom named the Pattani Kingdom. In the late eighteenth century, they were absorbed into the Thai kingdom of Siam.

By the 1960s, a separatist movement had developed demanding an independent state for the Thai-Muslims of the south. Today, Muslims make up just 6% of the whole Thai population, but 90% of the population in these three southern provinces. Separatist groups in these provinces are still calling for the creation of an independent state.

The divided nature of the insurgents impedes peace negotiations

Although the groups all want independence, the division between the militant insurgents and the established older generation mean that making peace with both groups is difficult. The government is in talks with the older MARA Patani group, but it is the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) who holds authority over the extremists responsible for the bloody terror attacks taking place across the south.

The BRN walked away from negotiations at the end of 2013. It demanded the release of all its members detained on treason charges and called for the involvement of a third party to facilitate the peace talks. The government refused to yield to these demands, and peace talks broke down.

The government still adamantly refuses to involve a third party. They also refuse to consider the partition of the Thai kingdom. However, without using a third-party mediator, the BRN is unwilling to return to the negotiating table.

Instead of advancing the peace talks, the government appears content to do nothing

The government seems far happier to silence the press and leave the situation in the south unreported and muted than to involve a third-party mediator in the negotiations and resume peace talks with the BRN.

Prayut’s reluctance to accept a third-party mediator in the discussions is a liability for the Thai population. The Muslim insurgents openly target civilians, as the Thai military forces become more entwined with civilian bodies.

In the south of the country, Prayut has positioned his forces within local wats (temples). This decision blurred the lines between the general Thai Buddhist population and the Thai military, leaving the whole Buddhist public open to savage attacks from the separatist insurgents.

Prayut’s lack of inclination to help bring peace to the region angered Buddhists living in the south who feel their lives are in danger. Yada Chuaychamnak, a Thai Buddhist living in Pattani,  said, “the coup government is still dogmatic and projects useless policy for the south.”

Will Prayut bring peace to the region?

In August 2017, the government and MARA Patani discussed the possibility of establishing a “safety zone”. However, the issue depends on the BRN’s cooperation and participation. Without their agreement, peace will be unachievable for Prayut’s government.

The BRN has agreed to the proposal of a safety zone, in an indication that the BRN is prepared to soften its position and may come back to the negotiating table. However, it remains committed to the involvement of a third party. Without this concession from the government, peace will remain out of reach for the foreseeable future.

Until Prayut softens his position and coaxes the BRN back into negotiations, the insurgency in the south will continue to escalate unchecked. With the new generation of separatists adopting novel methods of carrying out attacks, it is the Thai government’s responsibility to protect the population. The longer Prayut refuses to concede to the presence of a third party in peace talks, the more blood he will have on his hands as the insurgent’s savagery continues to spiral out of control.