The Thai government of Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha is signaling a new approach to the armed conflict in Thailand’s southern border provinces by initiating a dialogue with the separatist group Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN).
This is the first public recognition by Thai authorities that the BRN is responsible for the insurgency that has claimed more than 7,000 lives over the past 16 years. It may take months or years for this dialogue to yield tangible results and core issues remain unaddressed by both sides.
The Prayut government has followed previous Thai governments in dismissing the root causes of ethnic Malay Muslims’ grievances, specifically a lack of accountability for the government’s human rights abuses in the region.
Stories of state-sponsored abuses can be heard in every Malay Muslim village across the four southern border provinces. The government’s counter-insurgency operations have countenanced extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detentions, and torture.
Since the 2014 coup led by Prayut, Thai authorities have shunned discussions about political decentralization or greater democratic participation, and have charged some involved in such discussions with sedition.
Meanwhile, the BRN routinely commits serious laws-of-war violations that have caused numerous civilian deaths and injuries to both ethnic Thai Buddhists and Malay Muslims. Insurgents have made cruel and legally unjustifiable claims that attacks on civilians are permitted because they are part of the Thai state or because the BRN’s radical interpretation of Islam permits such attacks.
Many governments and international organizations have monitored the conflict and assisted peace efforts in the southern border provinces. They should forcefully urge the Thai government and BRN to recognize that a meaningful peace process requires an environment in which human rights are fully respected, justice is upheld, and everyone is able to live without fear.
Without strong commitments from both sides to end human rights abuses, this new dialogue will fall short of providing the protections needed by people of all ethnicities in Thailand’s southern border provinces.