In Thai Peace Talks, a Challenge to Military Dominance

By Marwaan Macan Markar 17 April 2014

PATTANI, Thailand — At a recent event to mark the first anniversary of a landmark peace dialogue in Thailand’s troubled south, the mood was more uncertain than celebratory. The conflicting views of the main parties at the talks—the National Security Council (NSC), heading the Thai government’s delegation, and exiled members of the Barisan Revolusi Nasional-Coordinate (BRN-C), speaking on behalf of the strongest Malay-Muslim insurgent movement in Thailand’s southernmost provinces—were one obvious source of this unease. But beyond this, there were also worries rooted in the attitude of Thailand’s powerful military toward such a dialogue.

The words of Maj.-Gen. Nakrob Boonbuathong, a ranking member of the Internal Security Operation Command (ISOC), an influential branch of the military, went some way toward allaying these concerns. “The security community supports the peace process and for the dialogue to find a solution,” he told a panel discussion held in a packed lecture room at Pattani’s Prince of Songkhla University.

Such words from a general known to be a hawk were not lost on analysts of the insurgency that has bloodied the provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat, home to predominantly Buddhist Thailand’s largest minority, the Malay-Muslims. “It is a good sign, at least verbally,” remarked one Pattani-based analyst. “The military seems to have accepted that this process will go ahead and it wants to have a role.”

Yet, even such analysts prefer to be guarded, given the military’s dominant role in combating the BRN-C-led insurgency and the sway it enjoyed during four previous efforts at peace talks since this latest cycle of violence erupted in January 2004. The latest talks have exposed the manner in which the military has wrested control from other arms of the Thai state to determine the political agenda in this region along the Thai-Malaysian border, making the question of whether it is on board with the current peace process the focus of much fraught speculation.

The turf war over who sets the agenda in the south has come increasingly out into the open since the signing of the “General Consensus on the Peace Dialogue Process” on Feb. 28, 2013, between Lt.-Gen. Paradorn Pattanatabut, head of the NSC, and Hassan Taib, an exiled political representative of the BRN-C. According to Rungrawee Chalermsripinyorat, the author of reports about the insurgency for the Brussels-based International Crisis Group from 2008-2012, “The military sent a message to the government not to sign the Feb. 28 ‘General Consensus’ with the BRN-C. Gen. Nakrob often said that the army was being kept at a distance by Paradorn and [other allies] of the government.”

The extent of this tussle was exposed by a security establishment insider nearly two months after the pact for talks was signed. His timing lent weight to his words, coming as they did just before Paradorn and Taib met for the second round in Kuala Lumpur in April of last year.

In an interview with a local newspaper, Thawil Pliensri, Paradorn’s predecessor, decried the lack of a consensus among Thai state actors that matter—the NSC, the Foreign Ministry, the National Intelligence Agency, ISOC, the Justice Ministry and the armed forces.

“All state organizations must be united and adopt the same stance before negotiations,” he said. “We have seen that [the] insurgents have made demands about prosecutions and arrest warrants but Army Chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha has dismissed them. This reflects disunity on our side. Such an issue rattles the confidence of negotiators.”

That questions over the military’s willingness to sustain Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s peace gambit still continue is hardly surprising. It was marginalized by Yingluck’s elder brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who, despite living in self-imposed exile after his elected government was overthrown in a September 2006 military coup, continues to advise his sibling from abroad. For peace in the south, the elder Shinawatra turned to his allies within the civilian arm of the security establishment and the police to launch the peace dialogue with the BRN-C. This move challenged the military’s preeminent political role in solving the ethno-nationalist conflict in the south.

Two significant benchmarks emerged after Paradorn met the goatee-sporting Hassan in Malaysia, chosen to fill the role of an international facilitator. The first was that the BRN-C was elevated to the status of equality with Bangkok. That dealt a blow to a goal long held by the hawks in the military: to deny the BRN-C or other Malay-Muslim insurgent groups the status of equality with the Thai government. The latter strategy had resulted in the military dealing with the militants in “informal dialogues,” often with the aim of reducing violence being a key driver.

Equally significant was the Thai government’s public affirmation in the February 2013 pact as to who its armed forces was locked in a battle with, and who Bangkok should negotiate with: the BRN-C, a well-armed insurgent movement that had a political agenda. This broke the wall of silence that the military had maintained to determine the nature of the conflict that, currently, has accounted for 6,000 deaths and 10,700 people injured.

“The past year has offered clear evidence of the existence of a Malay-Muslim rebel movement,” a Bangkok-based diplomat told The Irrawaddy. “The narrative of the conflict that the army controlled—about attacks by ninjas, drug networks, criminal groups and unknown militants—has been blown apart.”

Such a turn of events marks a rare institutional setback for the most powerful pillar of the Thai state. The military’s influence here is not limited to protecting this Kingdom’s international boundaries and being on hand when national security is threatened. It also wields power in shaping Thailand’s foreign policy towards neighboring Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Malaysia.

“Thailand lacks civilian control over its armed forces. During the Cold War, the military became the strongest political institution in Thai politics,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University. “The friction between the military and elected governments is entrenched. Because democratic institutions are weak, the military in recent years has assertively retaken policy reins in key areas, particularly border conflicts and the Malay-Muslim insurgency.”