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Southern Thailand: From conflict to negotiations, and back to conflict?

Southern Thailand: From conflict to negotiations, and back to conflict?
Published 1 May 2014 

The news on Tuesday that General Paradorn Pattanatabut has been replaced by Thawil Pliensri as secretary general of Thailand's National Security Council (NSC) sounded alarm bells for those concerned about a resolution to the violence in southern Thailand. Thawil has been lukewarm about the Malaysian-brokered peace talks over which his predecessor presided.

When most people think about conflict in Thailand, they tend to imagine street protests in Bangkok, airport closures, and crowds of people wearing a particular coloured t-shirt. In my new Lowy Institute Analysis, Southern Thailand: from conflict to negotiations? I examine the lesser known ongoing insurgency in the country's southern border provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat. Most people in this little visited region (less than 400 km from Phuket as the crow flies) are Muslim and speak a variant of Malay as their first language. The area was only formerly incorporated into Siam (now Thailand) in 1909, and has yet to be culturally assimilated into the dominant Buddhist culture. Rebel groups there have been challenging the Bangkok government on and off for decades, and have been fighting a virulent insurgency, in which more than 6000 people have been killed since 2004.

What are they fighting for? [fold]

At its heart, this is not a 'jihadist' struggle (although Islamic rhetoric has been appropriated at times) but a classic, localised ethnoregionalist conflict. The militants reject the legitimacy of the Thai state to govern the area, and have been fighting under the banner of independence. In practice, it is almost impossible to imagine the international community supporting the creation of a tiny new nation wedged between Thailand and Malaysia. Much more realistic would be some form of autonomy, and a recognition by the Thai state of the distinctive character of Patani. This seems blindingly obvious to everyone outside the country, but for Thailand, which remains extremely wedded to inflexible notions of a unitary state, autonomy has proved hard to discuss, let alone to accept.

The Yingluck Shinawatra government was the first Thai administration to publicly endorse a dialogue process aimed at finding a political solution to the conflict in the south. But now that the head of the Thai negotiating team has been replaced, the future of the talks looks uncertain. Paradorn was closely associated with former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a key figure in pushing for the peace talks. Yingluck was forced to restore Thawil to his post after the courts decided that Paradorn's appointment had been made improperly. Thawil is not a Thaksin ally and has made ambiguous comments to the media about the future of the talks, which have been plagued with problems.

Nevertheless, as I argue in Southern Thailand: from conflict to negotiations? the Malaysian talks are the only serious game in town, and Thawil would be unwise to disband them. Let's hope he will build upon and strengthen the Kuala Lumpur process, which offers the best chance yet of resolving this terrible conflict. The people of southern Thailand expect nothing less.

Image courtesy of the author.

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