from Asia Unbound

Does Bangkok Have a Real Negotiating Partner in the South?

March 04, 2013

The secretary-general of Thailand's National Security Council and the chief of Thailand's National Revolution Front (BRN) atte... for peace in the border provinces of southern Thailand, in Kuala Lumpur February 28, 2013 (Bazuki Muhammad/Courtesy Reuters).
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This past week, Thailand’s government made the surprising announcement that it would launch talks with the insurgent organization National Revolution Front (BRN) in the south, with the discussions focused on achieving peace in the south. This marked the first time Bangkok had opened talks with any insurgent organization in the south since the violence flared up again more than a decade ago. Previously, many Thai leaders had insisted that even opening formal talks with an insurgent organization would be providing the insurgents with the kind of status they did not deserve, and possibly would open the door to significant autonomy for the three southern provinces. Allowing such autonomy would challenge the very foundation of the modern Thai government, which has always insisted on a unitary Thailand that allows little room for ethnic, religious, and geographical minorities. Since only a few weeks ago many prominent Thai scholars were still insisting that the Yingluck government would never give up this notion of a unitary state and even attempt to invest the prime minister’s prestige in talks, the announcement this week is a major step forward. In addition, the willingness to trust Malaysia as a potential interlocutor also shows the kind of risk-taking and bold thought on the south that had long been absent in Bangkok.

Yet there remain many significant hurdles to real peace in the south. As noted by Don Pathan in The Nation, it remains very unclear whether the BRN group really can speak for large numbers of younger insurgents, who seem to have allegiance to no one leader and operate in nearly autonomous and fragmented cells. It is not even clear whether BRN, as the Thai southern command insisted this week, is even a major player in the southern unrest.

Does the coordinating committee of BRN really call the shots in the south, as has been alleged by some analysts? Since the Thai government has been talking to a wide range of insurgent groups in the south, and any real peace will require the signing on of all these organizations, why not bring more than one group to the talks in Malaysia? Bangkok says it hopes that, by reaching an agreement with BRN, other insurgent groups will then come to the table and sign on. But while Bangkok might be able to reach a deal with BRN without making major concessions such as special status for the three provinces in the south, it is unlikely to lure other groups to the table that way.