The ethnic Malay separatist insurgency continues to haunt Thailand. In the latest incident on April 2, 2019, a Government paramilitary base in Panare District was attacked in Pattani Province, though there were no casualties.
On March 9-10, 2019, militants carried out at least 13 bomb explosions in two provinces: nine explosions were reported from Pak Payoon District in Phatthalung Province, while four explosions were reported from Mueang District in Satun Province. No causality was reported in any of these incidents. Earlier on December 26-27, 2018, eight explosions were recorded in Songkhla Province, again without casualty.
Significantly, Phatthalung and Satun Provinces have been relatively peaceful and had not witnessed any noticeable insurgent violence earlier. However, according to an adviser to Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwan, insurgents from southern provinces were starting to spread to the upper southern provinces.
The Malay separatist insurgency is primarily concentrated in three provinces – Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala – of south Thailand, with occasional spill over to the neighbouring Songkhla Province, and has resulted in the death of more than 6,938 people (primarily in these three provinces) since 2004. Around 13,540 people have been injured in this violence. 2018 recorded 218 fatalities in militant violence, in addition to 235 fatalities in 2017. There were 307 fatalities in 2016.
The separatist movement sparked off in the 1960’s resulting from a long-standing antipathy and resistance of ethnic Malays concentrated in the southern provinces towards attempts made to import Thai governance structures, as a part of Bangkok’s general pushfor integration. An immediate reason for the ignition of armed violence was the imposition of a curriculum to be taught in the Thai language in Islamic schools in the Malay dominated region. The violence carried on till 1998, after which it waned, only to reappear around 2004, as the Government failed to capitalize on declining militancy to win over the local population. Since the inception of insurgency, the Malay-Muslim insurgency has based its narrative on Malay nationalism, and self-determination and resistance towards perceived ‘Thai colonialism’, rather than on an Islamist narrative. The ethnic Malay insurgent organisations have also rejected overtures by trans-national groups such as Al-Qaeda and Jemmah Islamiyah.
Despite the presence of varied militant organisations operational in South Thailand, Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), formed in 1960 by Ustaz Haji Abdul Karim Hassan, commands the maximum influence in the region.
Not surprisingly, the Thai Government has asked the Malaysian Government, the facilitator for negotiations with militants operating in the region and the Thai authorities, to bring BRN to the negotiating table. Reports in December 2018 had indicated that Malaysian negotiator Abdul Rahim Noor had stated that he would give an ultimatum to BRN leaders to join the peace talks or to leave Malaysia, where the BRN higher leadership is believed to be hiding. BRN has, however, rejected negotiations. Moreover, BRN appointed Kho Zari as its ‘secretary general’, replacing Dulloh Waemanor, who seemed inclined to accept the Malaysian encouragement to join peace talks.
Peace talks are currently ongoing between Thai authorities and Majlis Amanah Rakyat (MARA) Patani, an umbrella group made up of a number separatist formations who no longer control the violence in the region. BRN was earlier part of the umbrella group, but has not taken part in talks since October 2016.
Thailand’s Military Junta’s approach to peace talks has been to convince the militants to surrender, rather than reach a political settlement, and this has provoked BRN not to engage in the negotiations.
Increasing pressure has goaded BRN to escalate as well as to spread the arc of violence. To mark its 59th year of formation, BRN released a video on March 6, 2019, in which it pledged to carry on the insurgency. In the video, BRN also reiterated its demand for the involvement of the international community, a demand that is unacceptable to the military junta.
Even if an agreement with MARA Patani is reached, it is unlikely to have any impact on levels of violence, since BRN, the deadliest among active insurgent outfits, remains outside the purview of any settlement. The execution of coordinated bombing attacks indicates that its organisational capabilities remain significant.
For any reconciliation process to be successful and to establish a sustained peace, the main perpetrator of violence, in this case, BRN would have to be brought to negotiation table or militarily degraded. If neither outcome is attainable, violence in South Thailand will remain unabated, even as the risk of occasional spillovers into adjacent provinces cannot also be ruled out.