The Thai government and a Muslim rebel group have jointly signed an agreement to begin formal peace talks concerning the conflict in the Deep South of Thailand. Violence in the southern Thai provinces of Yala, Narathiwat and Pattani has been sporadic since the early 1900s, but the insurgency flared dramatically again in 2004. Since then, there have been almost daily attacks in those southern provinces with more than 5,000 people killed. The announcement of the peace talks yesterday came ahead of a meeting in Kuala Lumpur between Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak.
Who has signed up to the talks?
The violence in the Deep South of Thailand involves a number of different groups of insurgents and so far only one group, the National Revolution Front (known in Malay as Barisan Revolusi Nasional or BRN) has signed up for talks. However, this is being viewed as a significant step because, for the first time, the Thai state is formally recognizing one of the insurgent groups and is publicly announcing its intention to listen to their demands. It’s thought that secret talks have taken place in the past, but this public announcement of peace talks is a potential watershed moment in the history of the conflict. It isn’t clear how much influence the BRN has over other insurgent groups operating in the troubled provinces in the south of Thailand, but BRN are viewed as the most dominant of those rebel groups. Peace talks have been mooted before, but this is the first time in the history of the conflict that a formal agreement has been made in writing between a rebel group and the Thai state.
What is the role of Malaysia?
Some of the Muslim insurgents in the south of Thailand don’t view themselves as Thais. Most speak Malay and have more in common culturally and religiously with the country that borders Thailand to the south. Many in the region also hold dual Thai/Malaysian nationality and this has made it easier for those carrying out attacks to move between the two countries and avoid arrest. It is significant that Malaysia is acting as the facilitator of the talks and will also host the peace dialogues which are scheduled to commence in the next few weeks. Malaysia also has a good reputation in such circumstances. Last year, Kuala Lumpur was instrumental in establishing a framework for a peace agreement between the Philippines and its largest Muslim rebel group.
What are the prospects for an end to the violence?
The violence in the Deep South of Thailand won’t be resolved overnight. The prospect of peace talks is an encouraging sign, but there is no single organised rebel group behind the violence. Instead, there are an array of factions with varying aims. Not all of these factions have a formal leadership structure, so it seems unlikely that all of these disparate and elusive groups can be represented at the negotiating table. Despite that, the fact that the Thai government and BRN are prepared to try a different approach to the problem may encourage more insurgents to join peace talks in the future.