South Thailand InsurgencyDecember 11, 2020 in Thailand
On the 14th of November a roadside IED exploded in the Southern Narathawit province of Thailand destroying a vehicle carrying Thai soldiers to a wedding in a nearby village. This non-fatal attack is thought to be part of the South-Thailand Insurgency. One of the first since the COVID outbreak earlier in the year.
The South-Thailand Insurgency is a 70-year battle for independence fought by the, primarily Muslim, Malay Patani region of Thailand. This insurgency is seeking independence from Thailand, for the Patani people, and poses an ongoing threat in the region. Talks between the Thai government and the main belligerent BRN stalled in March 2020 and have not fully resumed since. Given the instability elsewhere in Thailand at the moment it is highly unlikely the Thai government will accept the BRN’s demands for succession, or a decentralization of power, but they are proposing some limited autonomy.
The quest for self-determinism began after the Second World War when the Thai government began a policy of Thaification in the area which had, until 1909, been part of British Malaysia. In the first 30 years of Thai rule the ethnically Malay Muslim area was largely left to rule itself. But in 1948 the Buddhist Thai government began to assimilate the Patani people into Thai culture. At this point the traditionally neglected, and poor, region resisted Thai efforts to override their culture. Instead of creating a more harmonious relationship, the policies alienated them further. This policy of Thaification created an armed resistance movement in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, with the PLO modeled Patani United Liberation Organisation (PULO) being the most famous. However, by the 1990s the Thai government changed focus and instead made an effort to improve the economic situation in the region instead. As the economic reforms improved, support for the insurgency gradually declined.
Despite the improving conditions in the early 2000s a series of harsh policies from then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra reignited the insurgency and helped to create the situation we have today. Over the past 20 years over 7,000 people have been killed as a result of the violence in South Thailand.
The most powerful group involved today is the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN). The BRN’s primary goal is a self-governed state but it is believed they would accept some level of decentralised power. The Thai government had begun negotiations with MARA Patani, another insurgency group, in 2014 but the BRN refused to join talks until certain conditions were met. In January 2020 BRN said these conditions were met, and the Thai government entered into peace talks and set out a framework for future negotiations. Talks continued until March, but after an attack on a government center in Yala on the 17th of March, and the outbreak of COVID 19, talks stalled. Lines of communication remain open however and the government are still looking to return to the negotiation table as the pandemic calms down.
The government are proposing a “special administration zone” for the provinces near the southern border. But these zones will still be subject to Thai law and the Thai constitution. It remains to be seen if the BRN will accept this solution, but given the ongoing pro-democracy protests in Bangkok, and the COVID 19 crisis, it is unlikely the authoritarian government will want to look like they are ceding too much control. The increased public scrutiny on Thailand due to the protests in the capital, will also create extra pressure for the Thai government and may present the BRN with a greater public stage on which to conduct attacks.
The attack on November 14th was one of the first since the COVID 19 outbreak began earlier in the year. Thai military sources cite tightened border controls between Malaysia and Thailand as the main reason for a reduction in attacks. As COVID 19 is currently under control in Thailand, but not in Malaysia, it is highly unlikely that border restrictions will be removed soon. So, it is unclear if the November attack signals a return to violence or if it is an isolated incident. If an increase in attacks does happen it is likely to be on a more limited scale than previously until more freedom of movement is allowed between the two countries.
Currently there appears to be motivation from both sides to resume peace process talks but if there is an increase in violence it will be interesting to see the role that the COVID 19 induced delays have played, and how the Thai government responds while protests are ongoing in the capital.