6 June 2024

How will the coalition partners reconcile their differences in approach towards resolving the long-running conflict in the predominantly Muslim deep South? In the second of a three-part series, our Political Desk analyses the challenges in pursuing a peace process.

The eight-party coalition expected to form the new government led by the Move Forward Party faces tough challenges mapping out a new peace initiative in the restive South, according to members of the working group.

Among the progressive ideas being considered are demilitarization and decentralization of the region.

Peace in the predominantly Muslim region has been earmarked as a priority by the new coalition and they intend to deliver some concrete outputs within the first 100 days of the new government taking office.

While many governments in the past have struggled to contain violence orchestrated by faceless insurgents since 2004, this will be the first major effort to resolve the southern crisis as the new coalition strives to translate the people’s mandate they got from the May 14 election to bring peace to the region.

The parties in the coalition have sent representatives keen on the peace process to join a working group that would formulate policies and plans for the strife-torn region. The members of the group include ex-journalist and peace activist Romadon Panjor from the Move Forward Party; former National Security Council (NSC) secretary-general Paradon Pattanatabut from the Pheu Thai Party; former Southern Border Administration Center (SBAC) secretary-general Tawee Sodsong from the Prachachat Party; and former UN official Kannavee Suebsang from the Fair Party.

The working group has been tasked with addressing all dimensions and aspects of the problems in the deep South, comparing and synchronizing policies of all parties as well as making policy recommendations to the new government, according to Move Forward MP Romadon. The violence in the region, which has left over 7,000 people dead, is only one part of the bigger problems in the deep South, he said.

After three rounds of meetings, the group has already considered the different policies of all parties in the coalition, the political issues, the security concerns, and economic matters, he said.

Differences within coalition

Although parties in the coalition share the same goal of seeing peace and prosperity in the southernmost part of the country, which is very unique in terms of religion and ethnicity, they all have different characters, styles, concerns, and priorities.

The Move Forward Party, which won the most seats in the May 14 election and led the formation of the new coalition government, has many progressive and radical ideas to deal with the situation in the predominantly Muslim region. The party wants to demilitarize and decentralize the region as well as establish civilian-led operations on the ground. It wants to bring to an end the Martial Law, Emergency Law as well as Internal Security Law imposed in the region. The bold idea to end the role of the Internal Security Operations Command was broached by the Move Forward Party during its election campaign.

Another key member of the coalition, the Pheu Thai Party, has many years of experience in dealing with the deep South crisis. The current wave of violence erupted in 2004 when Thai Rak Thai Party, which became Pheu Thai many years later, was in power and was blamed for mishandling the issue. Pheu Thai revived peace talks in 2013 after a fresh mandate in 2011, under prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra. It was Paradon, the then NSC chief, who signed a deal with the separatist Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN). It is widely expected that Paradon would regain the job.

The Prachachat Party, led by the charismatic and influential Muslim politician Wan Muhamad Noor Matha, has its strong base in the deep South with 9 MPs from the May election. The party’s secretary-general, Tawee, is widely regarded as having a solid background on the South issue and is respected by Malay-Muslim leaders there. Tawee is focused on local governance, notably his former office SBAC, but reportedly simply wants to put his people in the agency, rather than restructuring as the Move Forward wishes, according to a source in the working group.

The Fair Party might have only one seat in the House of Representatives but its secretary-general, Kannavee, is popular in the restive region and has been dedicated to human rights protection for quite some time. The former UN official, who has experience in conflict-ridden countries, including Sudan, the Philippines, and Myanmar, is apparently not easy to work with, according to another source.

Furore over mock referendum could derail deep South peace moves

Talks with separatists?

While all the parties in the coalition agree in principle that the ongoing peace talks with the separatist BRN is a key component of the peace process in the deep South, they have reached no consensus on the way to proceed, according to Romadon.

Kannavee said he wanted civilians and politicians to handle the peace process. Other parties remain unclear on how to move the talks forward.

The Malaysian-facilitated peace process is now working on the Joint Comprehensive Plan towards Peace (JCPP), which is aimed at reducing violence and conducting public consultations. The latest round of meetings held on February 21-22 in Kuala Lumpur between a Thai delegation headed by the former chief of NSC General Wallop Rasanoh and representatives of BRN agreed on 2024 as the time frame for a final peace agreement.

Wallop said a week after the election that he wanted to see the new government continue working with the BRN and the Malay facilitators on creating the JCPP.

Security sources say the BRN is likely waiting to see if the new government will come up with any new ideas to proceed with the talks. The dialogue with the Thai authority over the past years was not exactly a peace negotiation as the military-backed government seemed to merely want a cease-fire pact, rather than a political dialogue for self-determination and perhaps independence from the BRN’s perspective.

Outgoing Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha insisted that his successor needed to carry on the talks along this line. The right term for the dialogue is cheracha santisuk (happiness talk), not cheracha santiphab or peace talk per se as both sides are not at war, he furiously told reporters.

Say no to independence

The Move Forward-led coalition has been forced to pursue peace in the deep South within the parameters outlined by the conservative elite who fear any new peace initiative, together with the Move Forward’s decentralization platform, could inspire the separatist movement to partition the Malay-Muslim region from the Thai kingdom.

PM candidate Pita Limjaroenrat told reporters clearly that his party and the coalition would uphold the constitutional principle of a unitary state. While the party wanted to push forward a decentralization platform, governance in the deep South would be similar to the rest of the country, he clarified.

Pita and parties in the coalition were forced to come out and explicitly reject separatism after a student group at Prince of Songkla’s Pattani campus held a mock referendum on the right to self-determination in early June, which ignited anger in security agencies and right-wing groups.

Romadon clarified that all political parties were required to uphold the Constitution and work within the legal framework, but it was the duty of the party to accommodate different ideas. “We have to face the nature of conflict with political courage,” he said.

By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk