JAKARTA, Indonesia 

One year later, peace talks facilitated by Malaysia between the Thai government and Muslim rebels in southern Thailand are still facing obstacles due to political instability in both countries, according to experts and activists.

On Jan. 20 last year, Bangkok engaged in formal dialogue with National Revolutionary Front (BRN), the main rebel group. The second round of talks was held in Kuala Lumpur in March. Since then no talks have been held due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Speaking to Anadolu Agency, Thai political analyst Abdulsuko Dina said the government is facing a wave of pro-democracy demonstrations demanding a more democratic policy.

The same situation, said Dina, is also occurring in Malaysia, where the government of Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin continues to face criticism from opposition groups over the validity of his status as a prime minister.

“The political situations in Thailand and Malaysia are unstable. This is a problem. If Malaysian politics is unstable, the negotiations will be hard to be realized,” he said.

Since July last year, Thailand has been gripped by pro-democracy protests.

“The peace talks were effective, but not much has changed. Violence has indeed decreased, but it was due to COVID-19,” said Dina.

The expert said the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) should be able to be involved in the peace negotiations led by Indonesia, as the world’s largest Muslim country.

“ASEAN can put more pressure on Thailand,” he said.

Dina also encouraged the unity of several Patani resistance groups, including the Patani United Liberation Organization, the Islamic Liberation Front of Patani (BIPP), BRN and others to ensure peace in the region.

“There needs to be an inclusive perspective among them so that everyone understands the perspective of the other group in solving a problem,” he added.

The insurgency in southern Thailand originated in 1948 as an ethnic and religious conflict in the historical Malay Patani region.

Southern Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat and Songkhla provinces have a large Malay-Muslim community — Patani — with 1.4 million residents, according to government data.

The Thai government imposed martial law in three Muslim-majority provinces in southern Thailand — Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala — following deadly violence in 2004.

According to the monitoring group Deep South Watch, more than 7,000 people were killed and 13,000 injured in the armed conflict from 2004-2020.

Muhammad Aladi Dengni, chairman of the Civil Society Assembly For Peace, made up of 27 non-governmental organizations, said the government decided to negotiate with BRN because the group is currently the most powerful in southern Thailand.

“The government has said it wants to negotiate with each organization, but they want to prioritize BRN because it is the largest organization,” Dengni told Anadolu Agency.

He said, however, that the people of Patani do not really know about the peace negotiation process between the group and the government as the two parties never explained the process to the public.

Learn from failure

Dengni said it was not the first time that the government held peace talks with several factions in southern Thailand.

He noted that peace talks between factions and the government were held several times from 1991 to 2013 in Switzerland, Egypt, Damascus, Malaysia and Indonesia, but they failed to bring real peace to southern Thailand.

He said this was partly because the peace negotiations were always organized by the military-led government, not by a civilian government.

“Negotiations led by a civilian government were only held in 2013,” he said, adding the country its first-ever peace talks deal with BRN aimed at ending the decades-long conflict in the south under the then Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

However, negotiations between the two sides stopped in 2014 as the country was hit by a military coup led by Gen. Prayut Chan-o-cha, the commander of the Royal Thai Army.

Another factor, according to Dengni, was the sincerity of the Thai government and the resistance groups.

He said the government often carried out an intelligence operation only to know more about the groups and their leaders

“Their way of thinking is military; how to control and how to win. So negotiations are just a show,” he added.

– Peace through prosperity

Awani Irewati, a researcher from the Indonesian Institute of Sciences, encouraged the Thai government to optimize economic development in southern Thailand as a way to build peace.

Irewati said the economic situation in the southern regions is in stark contrast to the other provinces in northern Thailand.

“Inclusive development must be implemented in the southern region immediately. The economic gap is also the root of the problem,” she said.

Peace negotiations between the BRN and the Thai government were first launched on Jan. 20, 2020, followed by the second round in Kuala Lumpur on March 2-3 last year.

On April 3, the BRN declared that it would cease all activities on humanitarian grounds due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Both sides agreed to restart negotiations online on Feb. 3, 2021.

The Patani Malay National Revolutionary Front, also known as the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), is an independence movement in northern Malaysia and southern Thailand’s Patani region.

The BRN was founded on March 13, 1963 by Haji Abdul Karim Hassan, a religious teacher, as a territorial organization that prioritized Pattani secessionism.

*Writing by Rhany Chairunissa Rufinaldo from Anadolu Agency’s Indonesian language services in Jakarta

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