The first round of dialogue to bring peace to the troubled Muslim provinces of southern Thailand will get under way in Malaysia's capital on Thursday.
But analysts warn it will be many years before the negotiations resolve a conflict in which at least 5,500 people have died over the past decade.
Officials from the Thai government and military will meet representatives from the separatist group Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), for talks brokered last month by the Malaysian government. The parties have agreed to the appointment of Ahmad Zamzamin Hashim, a former official with Malaysia’s Islamic Dawah Foundation, which works to develop Islamic understanding, to co-ordinate the talks.
More than 1,000km from Bangkok, Thailand’s three southernmost provinces - Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala - have long chafed under Thai rule. The mainly Muslim, Malay-speaking region was an independent sultanate until it was annexed by what was then Siam in 1902. The local population was ordered to speak Thai and adopt Thai names. But many in the region continued their traditions, at least in secret, and simmering discontent fed a series of uprisings beginning in the 1940s.
Thailand and rebels agree to peace talks
Concessions from Bangkok, including development funds and greater political representation, helped cool the discontent until 2004, when armed fighters raided an army camp, killing four soldiers and stealing a cache of weapons. In October of that year, the deaths of scores of protesters at a mosque in Tak Bai, who suffocated after being arrested and thrown in the back of a military truck, fuelled anger and led to an escalation of violence.
Conflict resolution specialists say that given the sensitivities of the region’s history, negotiators will need to work hard to establish a workable framework for discussions.
“They need to make sure the foundation is laid; that there’s the strength to move to negotiations,” said Herizal Hazri. The deputy country representative for the Asia Foundation in Malaysia, Hazri has also been involved in the peace process in the southern Philippines' Mindanao island, where Malaysia is also mediating. “For the southern Philippines what you saw last year [the peace agreement], was 21 years in the making," said Hazri. "That is where we are right now with southern Thailand.”
A shadowy conflict
What the International Crisis Group (ICG) describes as southeast Asia’s “most violent internal conflict” is largely political, fuelled by a sense of alienation, the militarisation of the region, and a lack of accountability among Thai security forces. Thailand’s government needs to acknowledge the resolution of the conflict as a national priority, give the provinces a greater say in their own government and reduce the military presence, the ICG said in a December report.
Still, such proposals are likely to trigger strong opposition in Bangkok, both within the ruling party and the opposition. ICG analyst Matt Wheeler explained that a proposal to create a special administrative zone for the three southern provinces "evoked strong disapproval from some within the Pheu Thai Party as well as the Democrat Party. The Thai state is highly centralised, and overcoming resistance to decentralisation of political authority will be an enormous challenge".
The situation is further complicated by the shadowy nature of the fighters themselves.
There are thought to be some 20 groups behind the wave of attacks - from bombings, drive-by shootings and attacks on teachers, police and the military - that have plagued the three provinces over the past decade.
But none has formally claimed responsibility for the attacks or made any demands beyond a vague desire for an Islamic state. The Barisan Revolusi Nasional-Koordinasi (BRN-C), which has existed since the early 1960s, has been involved in previous talks. Discussions have also involved the Pattani United Liberation Organisation (PULO), whose leaders are mostly overseas; an umbrella group known as Bersatu, which is thought to include both BRN and PULO; and Gerakan Mujahadeen Islam Pattani, which was set up in the mid-1990s by veterans who fought in Afghanistan.
Despite the latest overtures, violence has continued in the south. A shooting and two bomb attacks killed one person and injured six only a day after Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and the BRN-C signed the agreement, under the watchful eye of Malaysian Premier Najib Tun Razak.
Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia’s prime minister for 22 years before he retired in 2003, has experienced the difficulties of peace negotiations first-hand. In 2005, Mahathir convened a round of talks on the island resort of Langkawi in the Andaman Sea.
“Although we talk to them, there are so many different factions,” he said in an interview at his office in Kuala Lumpur. “While the ones who talk to us might be willing to cease fighting, the others who are on the fringe may refuse to acknowledge or accept the agreements that have been reached. There are so many groups. There are even individuals who take action on their own, so it’s very difficult to get them to agree to anything.”
The Langkawi talks have not been the only attempt at dialogue in recent years. Successive efforts by Indonesia, Europe, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and even exiled former premier Thaksin Shinawatra - whom critics say bears at least some responsibility for the current violence - have all come to nothing.
Thailand's three southern provinces have strong ties with Malaysia’s northern Kelantanese people, who speak their own dialect of Malay and were also once part of a separate sultanate. Even today, the border separating Thailand and Malaysia is easily crossed, allowing regular citizens and insurgents alike to slip back and forth.
In the past, Thailand has accused Malaysia of helping the fighters, but given the region’s shared history, analysts say Malaysia is part of the solution rather than the problem.
Malaysia 'absolutely critical'
"The latest peace initiatives will need much greater commitment from both sides if serious progress is to be made."
- Duncan McCargo, author of Tearing Apart the Land
According to long-term observers of the situation, the fact that the countries' prime ministers stood together and committed to dialogue was significant.
“Malaysia is absolutely critical to the resolution of the conflict for a number of reasons,” said Professor Liow Chin Yong of Singapore’s Rajaratnam School of International Studies. “Firstly, geostrategic - it shares a border with the conflict region, one that is very porous. Secondly, historical - Malaysia has been sympathetic to the struggle in the past so there remain some residual suspicions. And thirdly, cultural - Malaysia’s religious orientation, especially in the northern states, means that there is considerable ethno-religious resonance across borders.”
Still, success will depend on conditions on the ground and, ultimately, whether those involved are truly ready to break with the past and commit to a peace process.
Duncan McCargo, a British academic and author of Tearing Apart the Land, the first major exploration of the Thailand conflict, notes that although the two prime ministers lent their weight to the initial agreement, the process so far looks little different from previous attempts to negotiate an end to the bloodshed.
“There is little evidence that the Thai military is on board, “ McCargo wrote in a commentary for Chatham House shortly after the agreement was announced. “Perhaps most seriously, there is no obvious reason to believe that Hassan Taib, the long BRN 'leader’ who signed the agreement, has the standing, connections or authority to negotiate, let alone to deliver any sort of settlement.
"The latest peace initiatives will need much greater commitment from both sides if serious progress is to be made.”