Southern Thailand: How to end the insurgency

Posted in Asia | 11-Oct-05 | Author: Joerg Eschenfelder

A Thai victim of a terrorist attack in the South.
A Thai victim of a terrorist attack in the South.
Southeast Asia is still a trouble spot despite all democratic achievements and economic growth in the recent months. The bombings in Bali are just a flashlight which catches the attention of the broader international community. But besides this there are other conflicts smouldering which have the potential to feed the international jihadist-terrorism. The most dangerous of them is the continuing insurgency of the Muslims in southern Thailand and the inability of the central government in Bangkok to control the conflict and to placate the Muslims. The southern provinces are at the moment the most violent arena for Muslim violence outside Iraq. After more than one year of a newly erupted violence and more than 1.000 deaths it is time to ask: Is peace possible in southern Thailand? How can it be achieved? And does Prime Minister Thaksin have the right approach?

1 The conflict

The separatist movements in the three southern provinces Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat are anything but new. These three Muslim dominated regions–the other parts of Thailand are Buddhist dominated—were part of the independent kingdom of Pattani until 1902. Since then there have been quarrels between the separatists and Thailand’s government. Religion is just one source of the unrest. The people feel neglected by the Thai majority and are frustrated because of the growing economic imbalances within Thailand leaving the South behind.

January 4, 2004, was the starting point of the renewal of the open violence, when thirty separatists raided an army depot, stole 300 guns and killed four Thai soldiers. Since then, the violence on both sides has increased. Approximately 1.000 people got killed up to now. There are attacks almost on a daily basis, bombings, killings and beheadings. The separatists act with more and more sophisticated means. The army and the police forces on the other side still put violent suppression at the centre of their counter-insurgency strategy. So, the distrust on both sides is growing.

The strategy of the army and police forces is backed by Prime Minister Thaksin Shinatwatra who won with his Thai Rak Thai party the parliament elections with a landslide victory in February 2005. Thaksin is now Thailand’s first democratically elected prime minister who could fulfil a four-year term and win a consecutive one. Though his triumph was overwhelming his party could not win any of the six parliament seats in the southern provinces.

Thaksin is a former police colonel and a telecom tycoon. He has the image of a handson-premier who gets things done. Others describe him as brusque and intolerant of criticism. His first choice after the outbreak of the violence was backing the army and the police even defending their excessive violence. After his landslide victory he wanted to add economic suppression to the villages who are believed to be supporters of the insurgents and stepped back unwillingly when he faced massive national and international criticism.

In March 2005, the National Reconciliation Commission (NRC) was created to recommend steps to end the conflict. The NRC takes a more moderate approach than the premier and tries to look at the sources of the conflict. Though the creation of the NRC was welcomed by the West and ASEAN countries its influence on Thaksin and his politic is limited. He even ignores their advice if it does not suit him.

On July 17, the Thai Cabinet issued an emergency decree. This grants Thaksin new powers over the provinces. It also grants immunity to security forces in emergency zones. The decree will likely harden the conflict and is against the advice of the NRC. So despite growing violence, Thaksin seems to stick to his policy instead of changing it.

A closer look to Thailand and the neighbours.
A closer look to Thailand and the neighbours.
2 The international element of the conflict

The insurgency in southern Thailand is up to now primarily a regional, internal conflict. And the government in Bangkok rejects any help from the outside. But there are two aspects of the conflict which threaten the status quo of the region.

The obvious aspect is the relationship between Thailand and its Muslim dominated neighbour Malaysia. Thailand has already accused Malaysia of supporting the insurgents. This and the flight of Muslim Thais into Malaysia has already put a strain on the relations between the two countries who are heavyweights in the ASEN besides Indonesia.

The second aspect is more frightening. An ongoing conflict could turn southern Thailand in a new haven for terrorists. Up to now there is no evidence of links between the regional insurgents and Jihadists. But some fear this could change if the conflict goes on. And with the ongoing hunting of terrorists in Indonesia and the peace-deal in Aceh these jihadists are looking for a new hideout – and could turn to southern Thailand which is already in the interest of Jemaah Islamiyah.

Therefore it is more than important that Bangkok brings the southern provinces and the insurgency under control. But with the ongoing violence in mind, is Thaksin the right man for this?

3 How to win the struggle

Let’s have a look at the conflict, the main parties involved in it and their strategic options.

Though the separatists have no formal organisation and include very disparate groups (separatists, Muslim extremists, criminals and perhaps terrorists), the majority of them are separatists and have as such the backing of the people in the south. Therefore it is reasonable to concentrate on the separatists. On the other side is the government with the prime minister choosing the strategy and the army and the police forces executing it. Both players (Government and Insurgents) have two possible strategies: They can choose co-operation or confrontation with their opponent.

Therefore there are four combinations which result in four possible outcomes (figure 1): If Thaksin prefers confrontation and the Insurgents chose confrontation the actual situation evolves with growing violence on the brink to a civil war; if the insurgents opt for co-operation and Thaksin sticks to his conflict-strategy the result will be the (fragile) status quo ante with Muslim provinces being frustrated and feeling neglected, but keeping quiet and staying within Thailand. And it is very likely that the conflict will erupt once again. If Thaksin switches to cooperation and the insurgents remain with their confrontation, the end could be the separation of the provinces; if the insurgents also turn to co-operation, then a Thai-solution could evolve with a special status within the existing borders.

Figure 1: The Southern Thailand Game

3.1 Thaksin’s solution: Ongoing conflict

Thaksin – given his character and recent politics as a hard-liner – clearly wishes to get back to the status quo ante, this is his best outcome, and he clearly prefers the actual situation to a co-operative approach. He does not want to negotiate with the insurgents, he does not want to give in. The insurgents on the other side prefer the status quo to the status quo ante otherwise they would not fight. Given their aim of a separation their best outcome would be an autonomy and a Thai solution the second best.

So, Thaksin clearly prefers a conflict-strategy to restore the status quo ante. Even the actual situation is his second best outcome. Therefore the separatists know they have to chose this strategy which grants them their best outcome. But the insurgents will always opt for confrontation, because this is also their dominant strategy. Therefore, the actual situation is an equilibrium which will only be left if one of the players is exhausted and forced to change his strategy. If the insurgents need a break they will stop their violence and take to the arms again when they have enough strength again.

Figure 2: Thaksin – Insurgents

What, if Thaksin switches to co-operation linked with the threat the insurgents either agree to negotiate a peace deal or he turns back to conflict? Would peace be possible? Unlikely. Who would believe Thaksin that he would achieve his second worst outcome using threats when he can always get his best or second best outcome with his own actions? Such a move and threat would be implausible.

3.2 Statesman solution: Peace

What about the approach of the NRC which Thaksin mainly ignores? What would happen if there was a prime minister who is more concerned about a peaceful resolution, who prefers to negotiate rather than fight, like the members of the NRC, the king and foreign countries. They believe that there can only be a lasting settlement if the Thais can reach an agreement with the Muslims in the south which is not enforced by violence but by conviction and trust. I like to call this attitude "statesman".

For the statesman a Thai-solution is the best outcome, the actual situation is the second worst. The worst would be a separation. And the fragile peaceful status-quo is better than the status quo. But the insurgents still have their dominant strategy of conflict and the statesman has also to chose conflict to avoid a separation and secure to optimise his outcome. Again they end with the violent status quo.

Figure 3: Statesman –Insurgents

The classical game theory leaves the statesman in a trap. If he chooses his preferred strategy, he ends with his second worst outcome. But this is the assumption that the strategy once chosen cannot be changed. But if you take a more dynamic view, the statesman can get his best outcome. The statesman can chose the more elaborate strategy which in Thaksin’s case would be untrustworthy: The statesman can switch to co-operation and declare that he wants to negotiate a Thai-solution. If the insurgents refuse to start negotiations he threatens to move back to confrontation. So the insurgents can chose between their second best or their second worst outcome – and would clearly prefer a settlement to the status quo. This threat would be credible because everybody knows the statesman wants a success of the negotiations as this would end with his most preferred outcome and guarantees every player a better outcome than the status quo.

This does not mean to give in to violence but to treat it as what it is: an act of crime. Each bombing is a criminal act which should be prosecuted by the police. Each beheading is murder. This means additional forces for law enforcement in individual cases but not additional soldiers as it is now the case. A better prosecution does not demand to stop talking with the people.

4 Conclusion

The conflict in Southern Thailand can be solved. And the solution can be a special autonomy status within Thailand’s constitution. But this requires a Thai government which clearly and credibly prefers a co-operative solution over violence. This can be achieved in three ways: (a) Thaksin changes his politics; (b) Thaksin gives in to pressure from outside; and (c) a substitution of the players, namely of Thaksin.

Scenario (a) is very unlikely in the light of the recent developments. Thaksin does not change his course. He ignores the NRC and he wants to maintain his image as a hard-liner. Even if he changed his mind he has to build a lot of trust and take a lot of steps to make this change credible. In view of his other problems (corruption in his government, slowing economy, declining approval rates) and his successful political career as a hard-liner, it is unlikely that he will change his course.

Scenario (b) could work, but it would be a very fragile situation. Because if Thaksin does not really change his mind, this would be just an exhaustion of the government and any deal nothing else than a ceasefire and reprieve and Thaksin would just wait for the right moment to turn back to conflict. Anything else would be a defeat in his eyes.

The best way is (c). A new prime minister might be able to convince the insurgents that he has a new approach. Together with other steps to reform the governance this could lead to a peaceful resolution of the conflict. These have been the preconditions why a resolution of the Aceh conflict was possible. Indonesia’s president Yudhoyono is new in the office, he proved that he is willing to reform the Indonesian governance (military, corruption) against all resistance. The Tsunami just accelerated this process.

This gives scope for some hope but also for despair. It lies in the hands and mind of Thaksin which strategy and course he chooses. If he remains the hard-liner, then there is just hope for exhausting the separatists with the danger of an uprise some time later and a growing haven for international, Muslim extremists. This would be just a ceasefire solution. But Thaksin can become a statesman who rethinks his preferences and acts accordingly, although the probability at the moment seems to be very low. Then there is the possibility to reach a sustainable solution without changing Thailand’s borders and giving the Muslims in the Buddhist nation a new perspective – and this is what they are looking for.