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Prospects for Conflict Resolution in Southern Thailand, 12 Feb

14 February 2019

On 12thFebruary, the EU-Asia Centre and the European Institute of Peace hosted a meeting in Brussels on the on-going conflict in Southern Thailand. The event brought together representatives from Southern Thailand, conflict mediation experts, European policy makers and members of the academic and think tank community to discuss the conflict in Thailand’s three southernmost provinces.

Thailand’s southern provinces have a long history of political instability, due in part to the different linguistic, cultural and religious heritage of the indigenous Patani (as Malay-Muslims), compared to the Buddhist majority of the rest of the country. Violence erupted in 2004, as armed Patani secession movements clashed with Thai security forces. Since then, the Thai state has taken measures to resolve the conflict by putting in place a peace dialogue, facilitated by Malaysia. However, this peace process has yet to result in a settlement.   

Representatives from the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies presented their new publication on the situation in Southern Thailand, which documents the voices of the local Patani inhabitants. They found strong support for the peace process, but also a desire that it become more inclusive of their views, as many perceive a lack of sincere political will from the Thai state. To the Patani, Malaysia, as the primary facilitator of the peace process, is also seen as untrustworthy. They voiced further concerns over the legitimacy and ability of the opposition groups to negotiate with the Thai state. They stated that the actual combatants were not at the table, owing to their suspicion of the politics and electoral rules of the Thai state. 

Discussion followed over the desired outcomes of the conflict, namely the future political status of the provinces. The research by the CPCS found many locals in the regions want self-determination. They are concerned about forced cultural assimilation of Thai nationalism on their own culture and traditions. One example cited was the absence of bilingual Malay-Thai education, with Thai and English being the only official languages (not Patani-native Malay). 

There were calls to internationalise the conflict resolution process by the representatives from the region, as a way to break the current impasse. However caution was advised, as it is up to the local and national actors involved, and the mediator, whether to seek additional international mediation. Others warned that European involvement is unlikely, given the sensitive questions of autonomy and self-determination prevalent within the European Union itself. 

The resolution of the peace process will depend on overcoming certain difficulties. One official warned that upcoming Thai elections could cause stagnation in the peace process. The Patani groups should avoid factionalism within the provinces. The BRN is the military faction of the opposition, whilst the Patani provide a political and educational role. These need to work together to have a united vision of the desired political outcomes. A call for independence based on self-determination has very different reactions internationally than a call for regional autonomy. What a possible autonomy might look like is also something that still needs to be sketched out.

Many young people in the southern provinces are engaged in political activism. Student political groups all over Thailand debate these national questions. Bringing people together to talk, particularly in the Southern provinces, is seen as a way to raise the issue and allow people to voice their opinions. 

At its heart, the conflict is centred on a discord of identity, particularly a state national identity versus a minority identity.  One participant noted that this is not a strictly religious conflict, but warned that, if tensions and frustrations are left unresolved, then the conflict could develop into religious intolerance and extremism. It is important continue to monitor the situation on the ground in Patani.