On 18 September, reports surfaced that Sama-ae Thanam, a former leader of the separatist insurgent group Pattani United Liberation Organisation (PULO), has been actively involved with the Bangkok authorities, private entities and the local community in southern Thailand to support several energy projects in the region. The projects will see the construction of twenty 200 megawatt biogas plants in Thailand’s five southern provinces, in line with the country’s ongoing transition towards renewable energy sources as part of its Power Development Plan and Alternative Energy Development Plan, which were approved in 2019. Moreover, the projects are expected to provide sustainable economic and employment opportunities for residents of the southern provinces.
It is as yet unclear if the former insurgent leader’s involvement is part of the ongoing peace negotiations between the central government and the separatist front which re-started early this year. It is, however, a nonetheless promising development amid the resurgence of distrust between Bangkok and the insurgents.
The long-running separatist insurgency movement in southern Thailand, which, in its current phase, re-emerged under the premiership of Thaksin Shinawatra in 2001, has been a major issue for Thailand’s domestic security for the past two decades. Although the past years have seen a gradual decline of violent confrontations between the insurgents and government forces, and several attempts from both camps to opt for negotiations, a lasting peaceful settlement is yet to come.
The roots of the insurgency movement can be traced back to the historical grievances of the predominantly Muslim communities in the southern provinces of Patani, Yala and Narathiwat, stemming from Bangkok’s policy of forced assimilation. Several national reforms in the areas of governance, education, and freedom to practice culture and religion, have gradually alienated the southern Muslim communities from the Buddhist-led leadership in Bangkok since Thailand acquired the territories from Malaya under the Anglo-Siamese Treaty of 1909. Socio-economic conditions in the southern provinces further exacerbated discontent. By the 1970s, there were at least 20 insurgency movements, such as the Gabungan Melayu Patani Raya (GAMPAR), Barisan Nasional Pembebasan Patani (BNPP), and PULO, which emerged to actively fight for the political autonomy of the southern provinces, resulting in violent clashes with government security forces.
The late 1990s saw a gradual decline of insurgent activities resulting from the more progressive domestic policies of Prime Minister Prem Tinansulanond, which encouraged a conciliatory approach towards the insurgents. The election of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in 2001 saw a resurgence of insurgent activities and a reversal of the growing rapprochement between the separatists and Bangkok. A combination of repressive security measures and failed development projects in the south implemented under Shinawatra’s leadership revived historical grievances, resulting in several violent incidents.
The official peace negotiations between the coalition of the insurgent groups (Majlis Syura Patani, or MARA Patani) and the Thai Government started under the premiership of Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s younger sister, in 2013. Internal divisions in both camps, mutual distrust between the insurgents and the government, a lack of clarity of the terms of the negotiation process, and the general political instability in Thailand limited the progress towards a peaceful resolution. The repeated refusal of the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), the largest and most active insurgent group, to co-operate also delegitimised any progress from the negotiations.
The current iteration of the peace negotiations, which were initiated in the closing months of 2019, had been a major development. Bangkok has signalled its intention to shift towards a more liberal approach in the peacebuilding process by conceding to some of the conditions of the insurgents, such as involving an impartial negotiator to facilitate the talks and the presence of international observers. Previous administrations repeatedly rebuffed those demands in fear of internationalising the conflict and risking international intervention. On a similar note, the insurgent camp, including the BRN, had upheld its commitment to reduce its activities, as demonstrated by the short-lived quasi-ceasefire in April this year.
Although relations between Bangkok and the insurgents seem to be moving towards rapprochement, it is still too early to assume that this will lead to a long-term solution in the near future. First, Bangkok needs to understand that the conflict requires a comprehensive approach to address the core issues of the conflict. Although Thanam’s involvement in the energy projects in the deep south signals a growing mutual understanding that inclusive economic development will play an important role in achieving a resolution, it is still unclear how both sides can agree on the issue of governance. Autonomous governance has always been central to the goals of the insurgents and has been consistently opposed by Bangkok. Unless the central government can find a way to provide the benefits of autonomous governance to the south without conceding to a decentralisation process, it is unlikely that there will be substantial progress towards a resolution.
Second, both sides should demonstrate their commitment to reducing hostilities in order to avoid risking the integrity of the peace negotiations. The government crackdown on BRN operatives on 30 April, which ended the short-lived quasi-ceasefire declaration earlier that month and the ensuing resumption of violent confrontations, demonstrates the mutual distrust and the fragility of the relationship between both sides. It is necessary that de-escalatory measures should be adapted as early as possible to avoid compromising any potential progress from the negotiations.
The conflict in southern Thailand has claimed more than 7,000 lives over the past two decades. Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha‘s government needs to accept that a long-term solution to the conflict will require concessions and commitment. On the other hand, the insurgent camp should establish a coherent political aim for the future of the southern provinces and demonstrate its commitment to a peaceful resolution. With the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic potentially further exacerbating the political situation in Thailand, the authorities may be wise not to risk re-igniting the instability in the deep south.