An upsurge in violence and an abrupt rebuff from the Thai government to a group seeking to negotiate peace have brought a long-running separatist insurgency in Thailand's Malay-Muslim South back into sharp focus.
In the short to medium term, the stage appears set for an escalation of hostilities that have already cost more than 6,500 lives and wounded more than 11,000. The renewed violence also comes amid rising fears of inroads into Southeast Asia by Islamist jihadists. In the longer term, however, the bad news may serve to reduce the 13-year-long war in Thailand's South to its essential parameters, perhaps ultimately underpinning a future settlement.
At the heart of the crisis in the area in recent months has been the viability of Majlis Syura Patani, an umbrella group of five exiled separatist factions cobbled together in Malaysia. The group, also called MARA Patani, has been seeking to negotiate with Bangkok, but the Thai government has bluntly refused to recognize it.
MARA has never been known to have exercised effective control over fighters on the ground in the southern border provinces of Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat and parts of Songkhla. But given the near-total silence of the secretive Barisan Revolusi Nasional (National Revolutionary Front), the driving force behind the insurgency, the Malaysia-based group of five has been gaining legitimacy by default. Unveiled publicly in August 2015, MARA's credibility was significantly reinforced in January when its representatives held a meeting in Kuala Lumpur with the secretary-general of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, Iyad Amin Madani.
These tentative successes appear to have been the group's undoing. The question surrounding MARA has never been whether it could present itself as a credible negotiator for rebels it clearly neither commands nor controls. In the balance has been whether a group that includes individuals once associated with BRN and leaders of other factions once active in the south could achieve the political and diplomatic weight to form a credible bridge between the Thai state and the insurgency. With MARA under increasingly heavy fire from both principal players, the answer now appears to be an unambiguous No.
Having initially underestimated MARA's potential to gain diplomatic traction, BRN was the first to move against the group. In October its information department issued a rare communique and granted an interview to the Nikkei Asian Review intended specifically to disavow the MARA initiative while staking out the party's own central condition for peace talks with Bangkok: international mediation.
Then in February BRN dramatically ramped up offensive operations after a striking 18-month lull in hostilities that in retrospect appears to have been used to recruit, train and reorganize, as well as to reassess strategy after more than a decade of conflict that has achieved no substantive breakthroughs. Whether the timing of the offensive was linked to the MARA-OIC meeting is unclear. But according to a source close to the party, anger in BRN's leadership council over MARA's gradually rising profile and its vulnerability to pressure from its Malaysian hosts was undoubtedly one reason behind the wave of attacks.
That much was clear in the first major operation in what has since developed into a rolling offensive: a large car-bomb attack targeting a police base at a checkpoint on the edge of Pattani city on Feb. 27. Not by coincidence the blast -- the first car bomb in nine months -- came a day in advance of a peace conference at the university campus in Pattani which was addressed in video presentations by MARA chairman Awang Jabat (who also claims to represent BRN) and Ahmad Zamzamin Hashim, the Malaysian facilitator of the peace process.
The second high-profile operation involved a resort to a tactic the insurgents had put aside for more than three years: massing large numbers of fighters for a complex assault on the security forces. On March 13 more than 50 uniformed combatants overran a district hospital in Narathiwat province in a carefully choreographed daylight attack on an adjacent military base.
The topography of the district in question -- Cho Airong -- favored the attackers, with jungled hills close to the administrative center. But it was unlikely to have been a coincidence that the district was also one of several specifically proposed by Thai negotiators as a possible "safety zone" where a suspension of insurgent attacks might serve as a confidence-building measure in the formalization of peace talks with MARA.
Major operations including a wave of lethal bomb attacks in urban areas came against the backdrop of a sharp rise in the daily shootings and roadside blasts that have come to represent normality in the border provinces. Incidents involving improvised explosive devices surged from 12 in January to more than 30 in April, while gun attacks against both civilians and off-duty security force personnel rose from 15 in January to 40 in March.
The Thai government's response to MARA was not long behind that of BRN, and no less unambiguous. At a meeting of the Thai and MARA negotiating teams in the Malaysian capital on April 27, the Thai team headed by Aksara Kerdphol, a retired general, declined to sign off on terms of reference for formal talks that had been jointly hammered out in earlier unofficial meetings. The official largely responsible for defining the small print on the Thai side, Lieutenant General Nakrob Bunbuathong, secretary to the negotiating team, had been abruptly removed from his post a few days earlier.
A predilection for publicity aside, Nakrob's foremost failing appears to have been an investment in the future of the MARA process that eventually came to alarm his superiors. From their perspective, the formalization of the process risked conferring greater international legitimacy on a group of avowed separatists that owes its prominence largely to Malaysia. On top of that, the months since February had made it painfully clear that any hopes that MARA might act to put a break on the violence were threadbare at best: if anything, the group's rising profile appeared to be aggravating the violence.
Whether the battered dialogue process can survive this setback remains to be seen: not for the first time, mixed messages are emanating from Bangkok. At one level, the trappings of a peace process provide the government with undoubtedly useful top-cover on the international stage. At another, spinning out the talks but refusing to recognize those across the table poses an obvious and perhaps terminal challenge.
Ultimately though, Thailand's military chiefs, not least Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, are locked into a mindset that necessarily defines the southern conflict as a large-scale law-enforcement operation against deluded "instigators of violence" rather than as an overtly political challenge to the nation's administrative framework -- and by extension to the legitimacy of a state that is already under severe strain. The historical precedent of using a carrot-and-stick mix of amnesties, development funds and military suppression to exhaust a communist insurgency in the 1970s has also fuelled the illusion that a similar approach will bear fruit in the very different ethnic, religious and linguistic terrain of the "Deep South."
If any player stands to profit from this understandable but ultimately unsustainable denial of reality it ought to be BRN. For years the party has championed a loose ideology built around an idealized vision of Patani-Malay identity and a separatist appeal rooted in opposition to Bangkok's efforts to assimilate the region into the national mainstream -- or, in BRN-speak, "Siamese colonialism." It has also developed a cult of secrecy that has served it well in maintaining a murderously effective underground military wing that has penetrated every district of the region.
Its challenge today is squarely political, however. The fact that without charismatic leaders or a blueprint for future governance BRN has successfully survived a 13-year-long counter-insurgency campaign across a small geographical area is an achievement that speaks to the depth of popular distrust of the Thai state and its field agencies in the region.
Whether BRN has the capacity to harness that disaffection in a constructive political direction remains a decidedly open question. The party will need to convince both the Malay-Muslim constituency it claims to represent and the international community that it is not just a force that can efficiently calibrate violence but also an organization that understands and can articulate the need for governance.
If BRN can rise to that challenge -- and there are grounds to believe the party's leadership is exploring a more political approach -- any future peace process will almost certainly be very different from the MARA Patani initiative. It will need to involve representatives of the central protagonists, Bangkok and BRN. And given the acute sensitivities on both sides of the divide their deliberations will need to remain entirely shielded from the media and the public eye. ANTHONY DAVIS, Contributing writer