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Thailand’s Junta and the Southern Insurgency

May 23, 2016

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Earlier this month, Thai junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha lamented the ongoing bloodshed in southern Thailand and implicitly criticized his own government’s feeble attempts to restart talks with the insurgents. In his weekly address in early May, Prayuth lamented the “sad and terrible waste of lives” in fifteen years of fighting in the south. More than 6,500 people have reportedly been killed in the southern insurgency since 2001. The general also essentially said that the insurgency’s negotiators, who have held talks about how to hold talks with the junta, make unreasonable demands and have not shown they actually represent the interests of most southerners, according to the Bangkok Post. Prayuth also has said that the insurgency has failed to slow down the pace of violence in the south, a shift that would be a sign that the militants are committed to a peace process.

The southern insurgency clearly is not petering out. Southern insurgents have utilized increasingly brutal tactics, and in the past five years insurgent cells have mastered more sophisticated bombing and shooting attacks. Attacks may be spreading outside of the south. Thai intelligence and police officials believe the southern militants were behind a bombing in Koh Samui last year. Insurgents have repeatedly launched large-scale, military-style offensives in the deep south in recent years, attacking Thai army posts with waves of fighters shooting and throwing grenades at soldiers.

But Prayuth’s speeches ignore the military’s own role in keeping the southern conflict going, and the armed forces’ inability to protect its own soldiers in the south. Successive Thai governments, dating back fifteen years, have utilized brutal tactics in the south, further alienating many southerners who might not be inclined to support the insurgency. In one of the most horrific examples of brutality in the south, after a protest in October 2004 at a police station in Tak Bai in Narathiwat province, the security forces detained hundreds of demonstrators. Police and soldiers tossed protestors into cramped trucks and vans in stifling heat. Left for hours without enough water or air, eighty-five of the detainees died of suffocation and organ failure en route to an army camp.

Tak Bai was hardly unique. According to Human Rights Watch, Thai security forces routinely detain suspects in the south without charge, torture them, and disappear them. Besides being brutal, the security forces’ counterinsurgency strategy has yielded no obvious results. No review of the southern insurgency---whether by outside groups or Thailand’s own national security council---has concluded that the security forces could defeat the insurgents through a military solution alone. The security forces also have invested little in protecting Thai soldiers operating in the south. Thai soldiers, many of whom come from other parts of the country and have no knowledge of southern terrain or customs, are often placed at roadblocks, at night, with insufficient weaponry and armor. Training programs for soldiers heading to the deep south place little emphasis on tactics to win popular support or understand southern society.

As a result of this poor preparation, privates and lower-ranking officers know few locals who might be able to give them intelligence on where to situate roadblocks or how to anticipate insurgent attacks. Although Thailand’s army is top-heavy with flag officers, few senior commanders regularly travel to the south.

The insurgents, meanwhile, can draw on significant local support despite killing mostly local civilians. According to the International Crisis Group, “official Thai estimates consistently indicate about 3,000 trained fighters and 10,000 active supporters … [but the]number of those ‘who view the struggle favorably and may be prepared to provide logistical and intelligence support’ [is] 100,000 to 300,000.”

Posted on unfamiliar roads, facing an incensed population and skillful militants, lacking modern armor, Thai soldiers and paramilitaries in the south are often easy targets. In one typical daylight strike in July 2012, insurgents murdered four Thai underequipped Thai soldiers.

After becoming prime minister in 2011, Yingluck Shinawatra attempted to change course in the south, broaching the idea of decentralization and curbs on the security forces. She relaunched the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Center. She appointed a new government body, in Bangkok, to coordinate all ministries’ activities in the three southern provinces, an attempt to exert greater government control over all state actors in the south, including the army. She made some cosmetic attempts to reduce the security forces’ use of brutal tactics, including by attempting to quietly transfer out some officers alleged to have overseen abuses. However, these cosmetic shifts did not include any real reckoning with abuses committed in the past in the deep south.

More importantly, Yingluck took a step toward substantive peace talks with the insurgents---talks that might have led to a deal that changed the way Thailand is governed. Previous Thai governments had broached peace talks through interlocutors, but Yingluck’s approach was more substantive. For the first time under Yingluck, ICG notes, a Thai government had admitted that the conflict in the south had political and cultural roots---that it was not simply a battle of bandits or militants with no cause against the Thai state. The Yingluck government also “identified decentralization and dialogue with militants as components of a resolution” at the peace table, ICG noted.

But Yingluck’s government was not fully prepared for the ferocity of the opposition to the idea of decentralization from the military, Thailand’s bureaucracy, and many other Bangkok opinion leaders. As anti-Yingluck protests expanded in Bangkok in late 2013 and early 2014, Yingluck’s government found it almost impossible to govern the country, and the southern peace talks stalled.

After the coup in May 2014, the junta essentially called a halt to the peace negotiations, although it has held talks about talks with insurgency representatives based in Malaysia. Prayuth’s speeches suggest even these exploratory talks will go nowhere. In addition, the coup government’s control of nearly all the functions of the state---the exact opposite of decentralization---makes it hard to imagine it will ever restart peace talks based upon the concept of reducing Bangkok’s power over other parts of Thailand. Prayuth and other junta leaders publicly affirm the idea that Thai identity rests on adherence to a Bangkok-centered notion of religion, monarch, and nation. They also show no signs of changing the harsh legal structures in place in southern Thailand. Indeed, since the coup the junta has implemented new legislation that gives the armed forces draconian powers to detain virtually anyone without charge.

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