In the past month, much ink has been shed on the resumption of peace talks with Malay insurgents in the restive deep South. The government announced its negotiating team, reorganised responsibilities in the South, and sent National Security Chief Thawil Pliensri to Kuala Lumpur on Sept 9 to restart talks. The broadsheets should save their ink.
For a conflict now in its 11th year, that has left more than 6,100 dead and over 10,000 wounded, a resumption of talks is ostensibly a good thing. In the past five years, an average of 29 people have been killed a month and 63 have been wounded. On average, every month there are 14 bombs and 16 shootings, several attacks on security force positions and countless acts of arson and sabotage.
While the world is rightly in arms about the Islamic State's beheadings of two US journalists, in the past five years alone, militants in the South have beheaded 12 and desecrated the corpses of 47 of their victims. Pervasive insecurity has hampered economic growth and destroyed the social fabric in Yala, Narathiwat, Pattani and parts of Songkhla. All of this is taking place in the heart of prosperous Southeast Asia.
But I can’t help but think the resumption of talks is a cynical ploy on the part of Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha and the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO). It is part of an overarching narrative that the coup was mounted to move the country forward from a political stasis. Yet as in the political and economic sphere, it is hard to see the move as truly beneficial.
The interim charter lays out nine principles that the permanent constitution must endorse, the first of which is that the Kingdom is one and indivisible. The Thai state will be unitary and inviolable which precludes any type of political autonomy or devolution of powers, however limited.
Beyond that, the junta’s track record since the May 22 coup has been completely uncompromising. My way or jail. Why should we expect the NCPO to make any concessions on an issue that the army has thwarted civilian leaders from making over the past 10 years? While many attribute the stalling of the peace process to the political gridlock in Bangkok last year, talks had largely come to a standstill because of the army's opposition to the Barisan Revolusi Nasional’s five demands. The military has refused implementation of most concessions, such as the use of the Malay language as well as other modest reforms.
The appointment of Gen Akanit Muansawat to head the talks is a case in point. A long-time critic of the talks but an adviser to the NCPO, he is deemed completely unacceptable by at least one of the insurgent groups.
It is hard to envision a "Nixon going to China" moment. There is nothing the NCPO will negotiate or concede that will satisfy the insurgents. With the National Legislative Assembly firmly in the military's hands and one-third of the cabinet directly controlled by them (including all of the key ministries responsible for security), let alone a "super cabinet", they are under no political pressure to make concessions.
With this in mind, one could even ask why insurgents should even bother to show up. There are three reasons: First, pressure from Malaysia. Though not a state sponsor, it is clear many insurgent leaders live in Malaysia and at least meet there, though there is no evidence that they train there.
Malaysia has no interest in this conflict festering on its border.
Second, there is some pressure from the local community. The four rounds of talks held in 2013, though they did little to end the violence, were widely supported by the public. This was borne out in public opinion polling. An April 2013 poll found that 67% supported peace talks. Even as talks stalled in June 2013, 54% of the respondents wanted talks to continue.
Moreover, while the talks were under way, insurgents actually reduced attacks on civilians, though they did continue to attack security forces.
Third, there is intense rivalry amongst the insurgent groups over leadership of the movement. The BRN, BIPP, Pulo, New-Pulo and the GMIP all want to be seen as the vanguard for the Pattani Malay. Some groups might hope that attending talks confers a degree of international support and legitimacy, thereby neutralising rival organisations.
So what can be gained from the talks from the government side? Again there is some public pressure. The NCPO can only claim that resolving the South is a priority without actually doing anything for so long. The bombing in Betong on July 25 did inordinate damage to local tourism and other services, and once again put the conflict on the front pages.
There is intelligence value in seeing who comes, who doesn’t attend and what their positions are. More importantly, for the government, the costs of appearing to negotiate are low: They know they aren't going to actually make any concessions or do something that hurts. It lets the NCPO demonstrate to the Pattani Malay they are sincere without making any hard concessions. The NCPO will then show that continued attacks against them demonstrate the insurgents' lack of sincerity or inability to exercise any command and control to justify cancelling or scaling back talks until it is politically convenient to restart them. That is what happened last year: While violence against civilians dropped between February and June 2013, it escalated against security forces.
After plateauing for several years, violence in 2014 is starting to come down. And for that reason alone, the NCPO may be more confident in its unwillingness to make concessions. Yet, this could be dangerous. While the government takes credit for the decline in violence, it is hard to attribute it to any policy shift or specific actions by security forces.
More likely, the downward shift reflects the tactical shifts, limited resources and operating environment faced by the insurgents. As such, it could spike again. And as long as insurgents aren’t losing, they’re winning. They have driven out large numbers of Buddhists, especially from the countryside, forced cutbacks in social services, and made large areas of the deep South ungoverned space. And with no political offer on the table, they will continue to do just that.
Zachary Abuza is a specialist in Southeast Asian politics and security issues, based in Boston. He is the author of 'Muslims, Politics and Violence in Indonesia', 'Conspiracy of Silence: The Insurgency in Southern Thailand and its Implications for Southeast Asian Security', and 'Militant Islam in Southeast Asia'.