Why any negotiated solution to the Southern Thai insurgency will be extremely difficult
Negotiations between the Southern Thai insurgents and the Thai government recommence in Kuala Lumpur this week, after being postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Mediated by former Inspector-General of Police Rahim Noor, in Bahasa Melayu, representing the Malaysian government, there is little chance of any progress due to vested interests on both sides. This round will be directly with the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN).
So far, past dialogues have failed even to map out any agreed terms of reference for discussions. The Thai government is critical of Malaysian funds moving in to assist Salafi oriented groups involved in the Deep South tensions. On the other side, rebels are skeptical of the sincerity of the Thai government. A spokesman for the BRN reported by Benar News said residents believe the military wants to keep the violence continuing so it can gain funds for so-called development projects, covert operations, and business projects. Over the last few weeks there has been a spike in violence.
Rahim Nor will be under stress over money flowing from Malaysia into the deep south
Institutional corruption and the narcotics trade within the Thai deep south are important dynamics of the ongoing insurgency. These two issues have often been neglected in most analyses of the regional conflict.
Up until early 2000, the southern Thai drug trade was primarily controlled by Chinese diaspora based in Hat Yai, Songkhla Province. Hat Yai is the major southern railway junction and where major roads crossed. The town became the major transit point for heroin shipped down from the Golden Triangle onto Malaysia and the rest of the world through Sadao, near the border.
As the Chinese mafia switched from narcotics and prostitution into legitimate businesses, the deep south provinces and Yala and Narathiwat became more important smuggling transit points, taken over by local Thai-Chinese.
With porous borders along the mountainous areas of Yala, the Golok River along much of Narathiwat and an open sea area along the Patani coastal region, the deep south became the prime smuggling region.
With the decline in the importance of heroin, and rise in demand for methamphetamines, and crystal meth, this illegal trade became much more fragmented. In addition to the production of narcotics within the Golden Triangle, now producers are also emerging from countries like Cambodia, bring more players into the trade.
According to Thai authorities, the deep south narcotic trade has become closely linked with insurgency groups.
This has not necessarily developed out of design by the central command of the insurgency groups. Command and control of the insurgency groups such as Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) is not centralised, where grassroot cells most often act autonomously. These cells are operated by middle-aged Malay locals, and more recently by Malay youths, who have become involved in narcotics as users and sellers. According to sources, some operate protection rackets for smugglers in what could be called ‘tollways’, while others are more directly involved in smuggling. Others act as ‘hired-guns’ to safeguard gang territories, and maintain demarcation between competing gangs.
Other sources report rogue Thai security force members intensely involved in smuggling across the southern border regions. The Thai authorities have invested more than Baht 264 billion into equipment and infrastructure which makes a perfect cover for illicit activities across the southern border provinces.
With more than 50,000 military and para-military personal within the region, and an equal number in civil servants working in provincial and district levels, there for massive opportunities for corrupt activities.
Areas where massive corruption takes place at government level lies in annual military and civil budget allocations, purchases of equipment, building of infrastructure, and the awarding of service contracts to third parties. Leakage of annual budgets could be higher than 30 percent. This level of corruption is a disincentive for any peace agreement which would see any dramatic scaling down of military presence and activity within the southern border provinces.
Approximately 25 percent of the 7,000 deaths during the insurgency were caused by disputes and violence over the narcotics trade in the region, which is estimated by the United Nations to be worth between USD 30-61 billion per annum in Thailand. A large proportion of this trade transits through the deep south.
Much of these funds from the insurgents has been money laundered through Islamic savings coops and Wakafs, or endowments to finance micro, small and medium enterprises in Patani, Yala, and Narathiwat. Consequently, the illicit narcotic trade has become a major pillar of local community development. To some extent, this source of funding has become a powerful tool of the insurgents to garner support and empower Muslim communities. The insurgents have been able to offer the Muslim community the assistance, the Thai authorities have not given.
Southern Thai border province Muslim communities are currently facing a narcotic epidemic where approximately 35 percent of the population is addicted to a cocktail of local kratom leaves, cough syrup, and Coca Cola, often diced with Ice. Most users are aged between 14 and 24.
The Thai deep south insurgency viewed through this perspective, helps to explain why both sides to have little enthusiasm for peace negotiations, which is doing very little to bring any transition to peace in the region. At the moment, there are incentives to maintain the status quo so money can continually be made through misappropriations and funding leakages through corruption, and the smuggling of fuel, illegal weapons, human trafficking, and the narcotics trade can continue unabated.
Published in the Asia Sentinel 10th January 2022
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