Brief: Thai Peace Talks Continue Amid Anonymous Militant Group Attacks
Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 4
The southern Thai ethnic Malay Muslim insurgency is comprised of various factions with similar goals, aiming collectively to achieve either autonomy or independence from Thailand and implement Islamic law. However, only one faction has consistently been committed to engaging with the Thai government through ongoing peace talks—the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN). This group is the largest and likely the most organized of all the insurgent groups and has participated in five rounds of peace talks since they first began in 2020 (benarnews.org, January 25).
The new Malaysian facilitator of the negotiations, General Zulkifli Zainal Abidin, served in the Malaysian army for 40 years. General Abidin will meet with the BRN in the next round of talks, which are to be held on February 21-22. No other militant groups are expected to attend (bangkokpost.com, February 4). In preparation for the negotiations, which are expected to focus on reducing violence and exploring political solutions to the conflict, Abidin met Thailand’s lead negotiator, General Wanlop Rugsanaoh, on February 4 (thestar.com, February 4). Beyond appointing Abidin to be his lead negotiator, Malaysia’s new Prime Minister, Anwar Ibrahim, visited Bangkok on February 9 to discuss economic and energy cooperation with his Thai counterpart. One of the objectives of this cooperation is to strengthen the economies of the border areas in the hopes that improving socio-economic conditions will help establish of peace in the region (bangkokpost.com, February 9).
The talks are nevertheless occurring amidst sporadic violence in southern Thailand. On February 9, for example, a bomb exploded next to a rail line in Narathiwat, one of the three conflict-affected southern provinces. The bombing injured eight security officers (thethaiger.com, February 9). Similar to many attacks in southern Thailand, this one went unclaimed. However, the bombing occurred just as Anwar Ibrahim was visiting Bangkok and was thus likely intended to send a message to the Thai and Malaysian negotiators.
On December 6, 2022, another attack occurred, this time in Songkhla province. A railway was bombed twice; the first bomb derailed a cargo train, with the second bomb targeting rescue and repair crews when they arrived on the scene (benarnews.org, December 6, 2022). The sophistication of that attack and its timing (amid plans for the upcoming negotiations) suggests that one of the southern Thai ethnic Malay Muslim militant groups was behind it. The targeting of railways and infrastructure was rare before this attack. Looking at the December 2022 and subsequent February 2023 bombings, the sophistication and timing of each suggests that the same attackers were behind both.
The BRN, meanwhile, has largely held up its promise not to carry out attacks since the onset of COVID-19 as a show of goodwill during the peace talks (nikkei.com, September 13, 2022). The rare exceptions were a spate of arson and bomb attacks at convenience stores across southern Thailand in August 2022, which the BRN claimed were conducted in the name of combatting the “power of capitalism” (bangkokpost.com, August 19, 2022). Those attacks may also have represented an attempt by the BRN to push the Thai government towards concessions in the peace talks before they began.
At the same time, the “non-Islamist” messaging of the BRN in this case also reflects that the group is pragmatic, at least compared to other jihadist groups. The BRN is not simply demanding greater autonomy or a “pure” Islamic state, but also has economic grievances, which the ongoing meetings between Anwar Ibrahim and his Thai counterparts are attempting to address. It remains to be seen, however, if the BRN will be followed by other, less pragmatic groups if they should agree to a peace deal.