Duncan McCargo
Duncan McCargo
Former Associate Fellow, Asia Programme

Last week the Thai government announced that it was engaging in negotiations to end southern Thailand's longstanding insurgency. It was hailed in the international press as an historic breakthrough but the reality is likely to prove a little more complicated. More than 5,300 people have been killed in the insurgency in Thailand's Muslim-majority southern border provinces since 2004; from 2004 - 2007, this was the world’s most intensive insurgency after Iraq and Afghanistan.

The revelation that the Thai authorities were talking to militant groups was old news. Dialogue has been going on in various forms since at least 2005. Some of the first acknowledged dialogue meetings took place under Malaysian auspices, when former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad convened meetings on the island of Langkawi, in which Thai officials, including the then head of the National Security Council, took part. Mahathir's proposals were ignored by the Thaksin Shinawatra government, at the time preoccupied with a domestic political crisis which culminated in the 2006 military coup. Since then, there have been several other dialogue processes. These have included the 2008 Bogor meetings brokered by the Indonesian government, ongoing initiatives by two European agencies which peaked during the 2009-2011 Abhisit Vejjajiva government, plus moves by the Organization of Islamic Countries, and personal diplomacy initiated by self-exiled former premier Thaksin Shinawatra.

Stumbling blocks

All these attempts at dialogue have been afflicted by the same problems. The first is: who speaks for the Thais? The Thai state is far from a unitary actor: the Southern conflict is under the jurisdiction of several competing groups and agencies. While in theory prime ministers and their cabinet subordinates are in charge of the issue, in practice much of the strategic thinking has been done by the National Security Council (NSC) – something of a paper tiger. At the same time, despite the key role supposedly granted to the civilian Southern Border Provinces Administrative Centre (SBPAC), the Royal Thai Army has often behaved like a colonial overlord in the deep South, and monopolizes much of the special budgetary allocations for the region via ISOC (Internal Security Operations Command) a Cold War-era umbrella agency which was given enhanced standing and resources after the 2006 coup. There is intense distrust between elected politicians and these competing bureaucratic entities; any dialogue process 'owned' by one partner is likely to be quietly disowned by the others.

A second problem is simply: dialogue about what? The conflict is essentially a political problem. The Thai state has a legitimacy deficit, in a region where most people are Muslim and speak a local form of Malay as their first language. But successive Thai governments have tried to deny the political nature of the militant cause, waffling endlessly about drugs, smuggling and criminality, and have been unwilling to talk seriously or consistently about autonomy or other forms of decentralization. Given the serial insincerity of the government side – Thai security officials often see 'dialogue' primarily as a means of identifying and neutralizing militant leaders – why should any militants engage in substantive discussions?

A third problem is: who can speak for the militants? Despite persistent attempts by the Thai authorities to portray the militants as a cohesive top-down organization known as 'BRN-Coordinate', in which a small group of leaders have substantial command and control over local cells, many analysts believe that the juwae (fighters) are very decentralized, have connections and allegiances to a range of groups and older-generation leaders, and cannot readily be corralled into a ceasefire or a shared set of proposals. Successive dialogues have generally involved self-proclaimed separatist leaders based in Malaysia or elsewhere, many of whom are at best tangentially connected to the current juwae.

Something new

What was new about the 27 February announcement? The direct involvement of serving prime ministers from both Thailand and Malaysia is a striking development, suggesting a greater level of executive commitment. For the first time since taking office in 2011, Prime Minister Yingluck appears to be making the South a top priority. A public signing ceremony with NSC chief Lt-General Paradorn Patthanatha-butr, seen as close to Thaksin, was also unprecedented. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak’s statement that further talks would take place this month suggests momentum. Najib has every incentive to push for progress: he badly needs some favourable coverage as he approaches a challenging general election this year.

But in other respects, the new southern Thai dialogue looks ominously like previous attempts. There is little evidence that the Thai military is on board; Army commander General Prayuth Chan-ocha has sounded distinctly sceptical. There is no clear signal that a political solution might be on the table. Perhaps most seriously, there no obvious reason to believe that Hassan Taib, the lone BRN 'leader' who signed the agreement, has the standing, connections or authority to negotiate, let alone to deliver, any sort of settlement. Hassan's failure to bring along any other militants is disappointing.

All talks that might help to reduce fighting are welcome, but the latest Southern Thai peace initiative will need much greater commitment from both sides if serious progress is to be made.