Webinar on “Peace Dialogue in Thailand’s Deep South: Prospects and Pitfalls”

In this webinar, Mr Matthew Wheeler (Senior Analyst, Southeast Asia, International Crisis Group) talked about the complicated security situation in Thailand’s Deep South.


31 January 2023, Tuesday – Amidst continuing violence, peace dialogue has been convened off and on over the past ten years between the Thai government and Patani-Malay nationalist groups waging an armed campaign against Thai rule. Bangkok and the Barisan Revolusi Nasional Patani Melayu (BRN) have agreed on general principles for dialogue. Meanwhile, Malaysia’s Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim has appointed a new facilitator for the dialogue, with consequences yet to be seen. Mr Matthew Wheeler unpacked the complicated security situation and other challenges facing Thailand’s Deep South which the webinar attracted the interest of 119 attendees.

Speaker Mr Matthew Wheeler (Senior Analyst, Southeast Asia, International Crisis Group) with moderator Dr Termsak Chalermpalanupap. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Mr Wheeler opened with the webinar with a review of events since February 2023 marked the tenth-year anniversary of the initial peace dialogue between Thailand and BRN. He mentioned a number of potential pitfalls such as division among stakeholders, Malaysia’s role as an impartial facilitator, and the political cost of the failure of the peace dialogue. He also observed a variety of responses from the local people in the Deep South towards the peace process, ranging from guarded optimism to outright cynicism. Mr Wheeler also stated that the dialogues were conducted mostly outside of public view and analysts had to tolerate a degree of ambiguity. 

Mr Wheeler then moved forward with a quick overview of the peace dialogue and the obstacles to overcome for the peace process to be successful. Violence in southern Thailand had largely contained in the three provinces namely Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat where 85 percent of the population of those three provinces are Malay Muslims. The conflict is based on the contrasting beliefs of national identity. BRN, a main Malay nationalist militant group, cast their struggle as a struggle for self-determination and liberation from Thai colonialism. In recent years, Thai security forces had increased the pressure on militant groups through search operations and militants have been killed since 2019. Many Malay Muslims considered these operations as extrajudicial killings and fighters killed in those operations became martyrs. Thus, he concluded that the grievances and ideology that underpinned the insurgency remained.

General consensus of peace dialogue process was signed in Malaysia on 28th February 2013 between the Thai authorities and BRN, and this document affirms Bangkok’s willingness to engage in peace dialogue under the framework of the Thai constitution. On the one hand, there was criticism for the peace process being rushed, the representatives being ill-prepared and the BRN representatives lacking credibility. On the other hand, the Thai government recognised the political nature of the conflict for the first time and made a formal commitment to resolve the conflict through dialogue.

In late 2019, BRN met with Thai officials in Berlin under the facilitation of an international non-government organisation. It was a significant event as the BRN’s political wing voluntarily joined talks with Thai officials for the first time. The parties endorsed the Berlin Initiative as a framework for the dialogue. The first official meeting of the joint working group of the peace dialogue process on southern Thailand was conducted in January 2020 in Kuala Lumpur.

Since then, renewed dialogue has been running on two tracks – the formal channel facilitated by Malaysia and the back channel where the parties in conflict are able to exchange views informally. Thailand and BRN have undertaken the back channel of their own volition even though Malaysia felt as if the back channel process undermined its role as a facilitator in the dialogue process. Mr Wheeler reiterated a quote from a member of BRN delegation stating, “the back channel is a lubricant for the formal dialogue process”.

During the pandemic, the back channel helped discuss three issues namely a reduction in violence, public consultation about the resolution to the conflict and the commitment to a political solution to end the conflict. In January 2022, during the first face-to-face meeting after the pandemic, the parties agreed to formulate a term of reference and procedures for the implementation of any future agreement. On 1st April 2022, the joint working group formally endorsed the general principles of the peace dialogue process which includes the commitment by both sides to seek a political solution in accordance with the will of the Patani community under the unitary state of Thailand and Thailand constitution.

The general principles indicated that the BRN might have relinquished the goal of independence or separation from Thailand while the Thai government made an effort to recognize the Patani identity which is distinct from the Thai national identity. The latest round of the joint working group took place on the 1st and 2nd of August in 2022. The main agenda items were the draft terms of reference for public consultation, reduction of bilateral acts of violence, mechanism for public consultation and monitoring, and assessment of the Ramadan Peace Initiative.

BRN and Thai government representatives had since been working on a roadmap that would provide safety and legal immunity for BRN representatives to facilitate consultation with local people in the southernmost provinces. The Thai government has a mechanism called ‘area-based interagency working group’ to facilitate peace discussions between the government and civil society. It is more difficult for members of BRN, an armed group in Thailand, to engage the public on alternative administrative futures since the Thai military does not have a good track record of protecting free speech and entertaining dissenting views. Thai high authorities are also anxious about the expression of Malay identity in the southern provinces. However, there is also optimism about the new chief facilitator appointed by Prime Minister Anwar who appears to have a genuine interest in solving the problems facing the southernmost provinces in Thailand.

Mr Wheeler then moved on to explain the risks associated with the peace process. One of the risks is the splintering of militant groups where one group would like to engage in dialogue while the other would like to keep fighting. Another risk is that if the Thai military considers the militant movement weakening, they will have less incentive to engage in dialogue. During the 1990s, the BRN was reconstituting and gathering new recruits while violence abated to a low level. This led to a new era of violence over the next twenty years, and thus the speaker warned about the possibility of past anguish being rekindled by a new generation in the future.

 The question-and-answer session at the conclusion of this webinar covered the role of observers in the peace dialogue, the impact of the upcoming Thai general election on the peace dialogue, specific details on the formal consultation process, the inter-generational dynamics among Patani Malays, the significance of decentralisation as a solution for the Deep South, the inclusion of women’s voices in the peace process, the constructive role for the international community, and the improvement of the human rights situation in the Deep South.