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Thai general revives peace hopes in restive South

A militant faction in the Muslim separatist movement is said to be opposed to any negotiation with the Buddhist-majority state

James Lovelock, Bangkok

James Lovelock, Bangkok

Published: April 28, 2021 10:47 AM GMT
Thai general revives peace hopes in restive South

Police investigators recover a body at the site of an ambush on a car by suspected militants that authorities said killed three people in Sai Buri district in southern Thailand's Pattani province on April 24. (Photo: AFP)

The ongoing Islamist insurgency in Thailand’s southernmost provinces is one of Southeast Asia’s most intractable religious conflicts and has claimed thousands of lives.

Yet a peaceful resolution to the internecine violence is possible. Or so a prominent Thai peace negotiator says.

“To accomplish the task [of peaceful resolution], rounds of peace dialogue must be held until all the parties concerned are satisfied with the resolutions and agreement on their talks,” argues Nipat Thonglek, a military general.

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Nipat was once part of government-sponsored negotiations with Malay Muslim insurgents who have been waging a war of attrition against the Thai state in a bid to secure independence for Thailand’s Muslim-majority provinces of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat, which border Malaysia.

Since separatist violence in the troubled region erupted in 2004, more than 7,200 people, mostly civilians, have been killed and another 13,500 injured, often severely, in attacks carried out by Islamist militants as well as in operations conducted by Thai security forces.

Both sides in the brutal conflict have been accused by rights advocates and observers alike of committing atrocities against unarmed civilians.

I see the number of attacks and casualties is falling when compared with past years

In just the past few days, five people have been killed in the restive region. The dead have included three members of a family who were ambushed by suspected militants on a road in Pattani province while traveling in their pickup truck to deliver merchandise.

In an especially brutal act of murder and mayhem, the family’s car was peppered with bullets from assault rifles and then torched with gasoline, according to eyewitnesses, in what local authorities called an act of terrorism against unarmed civilians.

Meanwhile, a suspected militant was killed by Thai security forces in a shootout with several suspected insurgents in the same province. At the same time, a Thai soldier succumbed to his injuries when two teenagers on a motorcycle drove near a group of soldiers manning a security checkpoint in Yala province and lobbed a pipe bomb at them before speeding away.

Despite the ongoing violence, however, negotiators like Gen. Nipat are optimistic that a resolution to the seemingly interminable conflict is possible.

“I see the number of attacks and casualties is falling when compared with past years,” Nipat told an online forum on peace building at King Prajadhipok’s Institute, a Thai research institution.

Nipat observed that based on his meetings with them many local Muslims in the three restive provinces are sick and tired of the violent conflict and want a return to normalcy in their lives.

“[They] want to see their people in the deep South enjoy a good quality of life and strong health so that they will be better able to spend their lives normally,” the army general said.

“They want to see their children have a better education and their people get the sleep they need each night and have enough food to eat.” 

That may well be the case, but sadly it isn’t the majority of locals but a small group of hardline separatists who are calling the shots in the three southernmost provinces.

Nor has it helped matters that Thai security forces have been credibly accused over the years of alienating a large segment of the local Muslim population through strongarm tactics such as summary arrests and the torture of suspected insurgents.

Attempts by the Thai army to entice local separatists who belong to a shadowy group called Barisan Revolusi Nasional (National Revolutionary Front) back to the negotiating table have been rebuffed.

The challenge for Thai negotiators is how to keep the talks going, to move beyond mere ‘shop talk’

According to some reports, though, negotiations could finally resume next month.

Yet even if talks do get underway again, there is no telling what, if any, fruit they will bear. Complicating matters is that a more militant faction within the Muslim separatist movement is reported to be opposed to any negotiation with the Thai Buddhist-majority state and wants to continue the armed struggle for independence.

Some senior Thai military men are likewise said to be opposed to negotiating with people they see as terrorists.

“The challenge for Thai negotiators is how to keep the talks going, to move beyond mere ‘shop talk,’ without upsetting political and military leaders who never liked the idea of talking to the enemies in the first place,” Don Pathan, a Thai security analyst, noted in an op-ed published earlier this month.

“As for the BRN’s elders and the small band of negotiators, justifying a return to the table — that is to say, convincing the military wing that something good will come out of all this — is getting harder by the day.”

What isn’t in doubt is that as long as hostilities continue, it will mostly be innocent locals, both Muslims and Buddhists, who will end up being at the receiving end of the ongoing violence.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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