YANGON - The government of Thailand and Muslim separatists in the far south of the Buddhist-majority country have begun a new round of peace talks, but some analysts say the negotiations have little chance of scoring a breakthrough.
After months of backchannel meetings spanning Asia and Europe, the government met with leaders of the largest of the rebel groups, Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), for formal talks for the first time in six years on Jan. 20 in Malaysia, which is brokering the process. A second meeting is expected in early March.
Having rejected BRN's demands for the inclusion of independent observers in the past, the Thai government wooed the rebel group back to the negotiating table at least in part by finally relenting, said Srisompob Jitpiromsri, who teaches conflict studies at the Prince of Songkla University in Pattani.
For BRN, "this is a very critical condition. They think that talks ... without any international observation would be risky for them and it will not be a guarantee for sustainable talks," he said.
Observers from Thailand and Switzerland reportedly joined the Jan. 20 meeting, but neither side has shared details about their contingents.
Matthew Wheeler, a Bangkok-based analyst for the International Crisis Group, a non-government research organization, said BRN's senior leaders may also have been drawn out by a waning faith in military victory.
"I think the reason [for the new talks] is that BRN recognizes, or at least some in BRN recognize, that the conflict is not going to end on the battlefield for them; it's going to have to end at the negotiating table," he said.
"They've been waging a struggle using violent means for 15 or 16 years and don't appear to have very much to show for it. So I think for the militant side, for BRN, they've got to be realistic about what their ultimate goals are and how they can expect to achieve them."
Wheeler said there are those in Thailand's politically powerful military involved in the talks who also believed that the south cannot be settled with force alone.
Paul Quaglia, a former U.S. intelligence officer who now heads a local security and risk consultancy, PSA Asia, said the government — short on accomplishments since winning a tainted March 2019 election after five years of military rule — is also keen to show some results. Re-animating a moribund peace process would give it something to boast about.
But with little popular interest in the insurgency except on the rare occasions when the violence creeps out of the south, or after an especially brutal attack, "there's no political pressure to put a lot of capital and emphasis into it right now," Quaglia added.
Even the southern provinces that have born the brunt of the tit-for-tat attacks between the insurgents and state security forces have seen a steady drop in violence. Deep South Watch, an independent monitoring group that tracks the violence in southern Thailand, says about 220 violent incidents — including bombings, shootings and sabotage — could be clearly attributed to the insurgency in 2018, compared to about 1,200 in 2012 and more than 1,900 at their peak in 2007.
The analysts agreed that there is virtually no chance the pro-military government that succeeded the junta last year is prepared to grant any degree of autonomy to the southern provinces.
"It's difficult to see this government relenting on any issue which touches on Thai sovereignty. But these sorts of negotiations take time. I think people need to lower their expectations of what can be accomplished in a short period," said Wheeler.
"I wouldn't expect any breakthroughs in the near term," he added.
Both sides seem more likely to put big-ticket items to the side for now and work on rebuilding trust with a cease-fire or safe zone where they agree to suspend regular operations.
Before the government even thinks of making concessions, Quaglia said, the military will want proof that the people representing BRN at these talks actually have influence over the group's foot soldiers. A factious BRN leadership mostly cloistered in the north of Malaysia has had trouble evincing control of isolated cells in Thailand in the past. Quaglia said the group now claims to have brought its "guerrilla wing" to the table.
"I don't expect that much out of it," he said of the new talks. "But that's not to say it's useless. They are talking, and who knows what can result from it. But until the BRN side can show positive control over south Thailand insurgents, I don't think the Thai government's going to budge."
If the government and BRN can get past those initial steps, Srisompob said he was "upbeat" that they could then move on to more substantive negotiations, if not on autonomy then at least on minority rights, development aid for the southern provinces, among the poorest in the country, and maybe even more locally elected government posts.
"I think the confidence building is crucial. This is the first step, the first condition. So long as they have confidence or have trust, mutual trust, they can go and find a solution," he said. "It's going to take some time."
A government spokesperson referred questions about the peace talks to the Ministry of Defense, which deferred to Gen. Somsak Rungsita of the National Security Council, who declined to comment. The BRN could not be reached.