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In Thailand’s deep south conflict, a ‘glimpse of hope’, but no momentum to sustain a COVID-19 ceasefire

‘When communities are broken, they become very hard to heal.’

Security personnel inspect the site of a car bomb in Yala, Thailand
Security personnel inspect the site of a car bomb after if exploded in front of the government's Southern Border Provinces Administrative Centre in Yala, Thailand, 17 March 2020. (Surapan Boonthanom/REUTERS)

Violence continues to simmer in Thailand’s deep south, despite hopes a rare ceasefire called during the coronavirus pandemic would be a stepping stone to peace.

More than 7,000 people have been killed in the slow-burning conflict in Thailand’s southern provinces, where an insurgency pushing for independence or greater autonomy for the region’s Malay Muslim minority was re-ignited in 2004. Although violence has decreased substantially in recent years, bombings, gunfights, and targeted killings still flare. 

The Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), the main separatist movement controlling the majority of the conflict’s insurgents, announced a unilateral ceasefire in April, citing the “grave threat” posed by the coronavirus.

To some, the ceasefire is a tentative but rare opportunity.

“For the first time in 16 years of the armed conflict in Thailand’s deep south, there is a glimpse of hope for peace,” said Sunai Phasuk, Thailand researcher for Human Rights Watch.

But tit-for-tat violence continues to kill and maim. In late April, a raid by Thai security forces killed three men accused of being insurgents. July saw scattered clashes and back-to-back bombings that killed a soldier and injured at least 10 people, including a family of four.

Data from Deep South Watch, a monitoring group that tracks violence in the region, shows monthly casualty figures have dropped slightly since the ceasefire, but at least 10 people were killed or injured each month from April to June.

The BRN was one of multiple armed groups in conflicts around the world that announced temporary ceasefires to deal with the pandemic, following a call for a “global ceasefire” from UN Secretary-General António Guterres in March. But for the most part, the threat of the virus itself hasn’t been enough to sustain peace. Some ceasefires were broken within days. The aid agency Oxfam called international peace efforts a “catastrophic failure”.

While the BRN has not officially announced an end to its ceasefire in Thailand, the conflict remains at a standstill: There are still hopes for peace, but little momentum to end the violence.

The military says it hasn’t reciprocated the ceasefire pledge because it views the southern violence as a criminal issue, not a war. There have been sporadic, high-level peace talks among insurgents and Thai negotiators as recently as January, but no new discussions have been announced. 

For people caught in the southern conflict – roughly 90 percent of victims have been civilians – the continuing violence leaves behind fear, distrust of both authorities and the insurgents, and broken communities. 

Collective trauma in deep south communities

Civilians greeted news of the April ceasefire with a mix of cautious hope or outright scepticism. Maajid, a 34-year-old torture survivor, simply shook his head in disbelief.

Only a few months earlier, the BRN were blamed for one of the south’s deadliest recent attacks: a highly organised assault that killed 15 security personnel. He has little faith in either the insurgents or the military, which has a heavy public presence.

Read more → How views of Thailand’s deep south conflict are shifting

“It seems impossible that everything will end soon,” Maajid said, speaking in a dimly lit room in his home in Pattani. He asked that his real name not be used for fear of reprisal.

Malay Muslims are a tiny minority in mainly Buddhist Thailand, but they form about three quarters of the population in three southern provinces bordering Malaysia – Pattani, Narathiwat, and Yala  – as well as parts of a fourth, Songkhla.

The conflict has torn through all communities who call the south home. Various insurgent groups have historically targeted Thai Buddhists, including teachers and government workers they see as connected to the state. Rights groups accuse Thai security forces of torture and killings of suspected militants in counter-insurgency operations.

A Malay Muslim, Maajid said he was tortured and wrongly imprisoned by state security forces four years ago, accused of involvement in a drive-by shooting at a checkpoint near his home. To be Muslim is to be a suspected combatant, he said, repeating a phrase widely shared in his community.

“As long as the military is around, it will never end,” he said.

Rukchart Suwan, a Thai Buddhist in Pattani, has seen the other side of the conflict as a survivor of an insurgent attack. He was sitting at home when a car bomb exploded nearby around seven years ago. 

“I heard the sound first, and then I rushed to the scene to try to help people who were injured,” Rukchart said. 

He arrived before paramedics and began helping the injured. But within moments, another blast went off, sending shrapnel into his leg. 

“I didn’t know there was going to be another car bomb,” he said.

READ MORE: The roots of the deep south conflict

Thailand’s southern insurgency erupted in 2004 after years of dormancy, but the roots of the conflict go back more than a century.

In the early 1900s, Thailand, then known as Siam, annexed the sultanate of Patani, which roughly correlates to today’s Pattani, Narathiwat, and Yala provinces. 

Resistance movements emerged in the late 1940s, and armed campaigns by separatist groups – including the forerunners of today’s dominant Barisan Revolusi Nasional faction – ignited in the 1960s. Tensions rose over the next half century, interspersed with periods of relative calm.

An array of insurgent groups has emerged and fragmented over the years, but the grievances largely remain unchanged: There are perceptions of discrimination, marginalisation, and forced assimilation. Over the years, insurgents’ demands have included calls for more autonomy, a minimum quota for Muslim civil servants, for Malay to be recognised as an official language, and the use of Malay in schools.

Although there have been occasional peace talks between the Thai government and representatives of insurgent groups, analysts say the government has been unwilling to grant meaningful concessions, viewing the insurgency as a threat to national security.

Aid agencies have a very limited presence in the south, and the Thai government “is generally reluctant to accept external involvement” in the peace process, according to the Asia Foundation.

In early January, Thailand and BRN leaders met for the first time since 2013. “The meeting provided an opportunity for both sides to meet and get to know each other,” read a statement from Thailand’s Secretariat for Peace Dialogue. Plans for further peace talks are unclear.

The years of conflict and killings have created a collective trauma for people in both communities, says Pateemoh Poh-Itaeda-oh, president of the Association of Women for Peace, a Yala-based group promoting reconciliation and rights education.

“For the last 16 years, families have been torn apart,” she said. “There are countless families with lost loved ones, and they are the real cost of the conflict.” 

It’s a problem that hits home for her as well: Four of her family members have died. 

“There are countless families with lost loved ones, and they are the real cost of the conflict.” 

“When someone dies from this kind of violence,” she said, “the whole family experiences psychological problems.” 

She added that military or police will often visit Malay Muslim families that have lost loved ones. Many consider these visits a form of intimidation, intended to deter retaliation. 

Divergent visions of peace

Thai security forces are a common sight in the heavily militarised southern provinces. Checkpoints are peppered along the region’s roads, and security posts are planted at the entrances of large neighbourhoods, shopping centres, and busy intersections.

Muhammad Ruslan-Tojewae, a village chief, acts as a sort of bridge between the omnipresent military and his community.

“The most important thing the government can do is to show trust and sincerity,” he said, speaking to The New Humanitarian at a heavily guarded compound in Pattani’s Saiburi district, an area particularly prone to clashes.

“Local people need to know that they can trust them. They have some good policies, and often they are very fair, but sometimes people don’t think their actions reflect that,” Ruslan-Tojewae said, as around a dozen armed guards watched in silence. 

The military views the conflict as a law and order issue – that the deep south simply has a high crime rate that needs heavy policing. 

“We stand by what we​ have already​ told everyone​ many times before​: The situation in the southernmost provinces is an internal problem. It's not a​ war,” said Colonel Pramote Prom-in, spokesman for the Internal Security Operations Command, Thailand’s powerful security agency that oversees counter-insurgency operations.  

“It's about criminal groups committing crime. So it's​ our duty as​ law enforcement to​ try to​ stop​ it,” Pramote added. “When [the BRN] called the​ ceasefire, we could not do anything, because we don’t consider it a conflict.”

But rights groups say the official silence on the ceasefire – and the continued military raids and targeting of suspected insurgents – is a missed opportunity.

“The situation in the southernmost provinces is an internal problem. It's not a​ war.”

COVID-19 gives insurgents a chance to show peaceful intentions, said Sunai of Human Rights Watch, while “Thai authorities fail to reciprocate and return the gesture”.

Don Pathan, a security analyst who has researched the conflict for more than two decades, sees the ceasefire as part of a series of positive steps made by the BRN in recent months, including a public commitment to protect children in conflict, and internal discussions to not target civilians.

“As policy, BRN has stopped targeting civilian personnel unless he or she is determined to be a legitimate target,” Pathan said, though he added there is some dispute within insurgent ranks about defining this.

A clear-cut resolution to the conflict is unlikely, he said, unless Thai authorities show a willingness to compromise, acknowledge past mistakes, and move forward to “create a shared sense of destiny”. 

Zachary Abuza, a specialist on Southeast Asian security issues and professor at the National War College in Washington, said Thai authorities have shown little indication they’re willing to do so.

“They will say they want peace, but what the government means by ‘peace talks’ is that the BRN surrenders, turn over their weapons, all while the government makes no concessions,” Abuza said. “That’s the Thai government’s vision of peace, and that's just not going to happen.”

“What the government means by ‘peace talks’ is that the BRN surrenders, turn over their weapons, all while the government makes no concessions.”

This leaves insurgents in a cycle of revenge attacks: “If the government does something like launch a raid that kills three insurgents, then you know there’s going to be a retaliatory strike,” he said. “That’s just how they operate.”

A way forward

Without movement on a negotiated peace, people like Maajid, the Malay Muslim man who said he was tortured by security forces, have little hope that things will change. 

“It’s because of torture and these abductions that people join the insurgents,” he said. “It makes people even more angry. This is what encourages even more violence.” 

Rukchart, the Thai Buddhist, is more optimistic. “I feel like the ceasefire is a good sign from the BRN, but there’s still no clear sign from the Thai side,” he said. 

Today, Rukchart runs the Buddhist Network for Peace, an organisation promoting dialogue between the two communities. The ceasefire is a “good start”, he believes, but it’ll take more effort from all sides. 

“There’s also an emotional war that's going on,” he said. “When communities are broken, they become very hard to heal.” 

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