International Crisis Group Casts Doubt on Thai Peace Efforts

By Imran Vittachi

2015-07-08
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150708-TH-deepsouth-620.jpg Policemen inspect bodies of suspected insurgents who were killed while attacking a military base in Narathiwat province, southern Thailand, Feb. 13, 2013.
AFP

The Thai government and southern rebels are unlikely to make any major peace-making breakthrough in Thailand’s current political climate, according to a report released Wednesday by an international NGO specializing in conflict resolution.

Talks, should they occur, can still be fruitful if they focus on modest goals aimed at building a durable foundation for a long-term peace process, the International Crisis Group said.

“In its current state, the peace dialogue is going nowhere,” said Matt Wheeler, Southeast Asia analyst for the group.

“The military government’s authoritarianism and centralization of power cast doubt on its ability to make the necessary compromises, while the separatists lack the commitment, political capacity and coherence needed for negotiations to succeed,” Wheeler added in a statement.

The junta in recent months has engaged in back-channel, pre-talk meetings aimed at persuading various southern insurgency groups to return to the negotiation table.

In its 38-page report, titled “Southern Thailand: Dialogue in Doubt,” the Crisis Group argues that both sides need to be realistic and set “modest goals” for opening a dialogue.

“Given the current adverse environment for conducting substantive talks, the actors should concentrate for now on establishing a durable framework and institutions that can carry such negotiations forward when that environment becomes more favorable,” the report says.

Those goals could include establishing acceptable designations for all parties and communication protocols, it said, adding: “Agreement on procedural issues would represent genuine progress in what will be a long process.”

The last round of Malaysia-brokered talks, held under a civilian-led government, stalled in December 2013. Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), one of the main armed separatist groups, insisted then that Bangkok grant sovereignty to the Deep South and recognize the “Patani Malay Nation,” among other demands.

Since 2004 more than 6,000 people have died in the conflict in the predominantly Muslim region that borders Malaysia.

Lowering expectations

The Brussels-based Crisis Group carries out field research into wars around the globe, and works to prevent and resolve conflicts as well as influence peace-making policy, according to its website.

Its latest report on Thailand examines the last round of peace talks, the current situation on both sides, and offers recommendations for getting talks back on track.

The previous round “changed the conflict’s dynamics” because the government of then-Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra acknowledged the insurgency’s political nature and committed itself to a dialogue with the rebels, the reports says.

But it tamps down expectations for a major breakthrough this time around.

“The military government has formally committed to dialogue, but after a year in office, there is no evidence of progress. Officials insist that they are quietly making secret overtures to potential militant interlocutors,” the report says.

According to the Crisis Group, several obstacles are holding up a resumption of talks: lack of unity on both sides; the difficulty of persuading hardcore elements of the BRN to participate; junta-imposed restrictions on civil liberties; and the government’s reluctance to consider devolution of power.

“Although it has vowed to pursue talks, the junta rejects pluralism and political debate, promoting ‘Thainess’ and ‘unity’ concepts that are unlikely to reduce tensions in the south,” the report says. “Resolution of the conflict demands a new relationship between the state and society in the region, which will most likely require greater political decentralization.”

The BRN, on the other hand, remains open to peace talks but isn’t convinced that the junta is serious enough about coming to the table, according to Don Pathan, an expert on the Deep South and founder of the Patani Forum, a group that promotes free speech in the region.

“For the time being, it doesn’t see any real commitment or seriousness from the current Bangkok government and believes that ‘peace process’ is an empty phrase designed for domestic and international consumption,” Pathan wrote in an op-ed piece published in The Nation newspaper on June 27.

Prepared for Failure

Meanwhile, officials closely involved with Thai efforts to bring about a new round of talks have gone on the record in the Bangkok Post, saying the government hoped to strike “a joint declaration for peace talks with insurgent groups in the far South before the end of the year.”

But Gen. Aksara Kerdpol, who heads a governmental team in pre-talk negotiations, earlier this month cushioned the Thai public for the possibility that those efforts could end up going nowhere.

“… Should the talks turn out to be a failure, all security agencies must take collective responsibility,” Aksara told the Bangkok Post in an article published on July 1.

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