By Joshua Kurlantzick, CFR
Editor's note: Joshua Kurlantzick is a fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of Charm Offensive: How China's Soft Power Is Transforming the World. This entry of Asia Unbound originally appeared here.
In the wake of the Philippines government announcing that Manila and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) had agreed upon a peace plan after 15 years of negotiations and forty years of war, many Thai news outlets are wondering whether Manila could teach Bangkok a lesson in how to deal with the southern Thailand insurgency. The Nation, in an editorial titled “A Lesson for Thailand from the Philippines,” offers that the Philippine agreement has many key points for Thai policymakers to learn from, a mantra echoed by several other Thai media outlets. Yet there are key differences between southern Thailand and southern Philippines that, at this point, will make it hard to apply many of Manila’s lessons to Thailand:
1) Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is not personally engaged in ending the insurgency. According to nearly all Philippine news sources, Philippines president Benigno Aquino III made a peace deal with the MILF one of his highest priorities, and agreed to face-to-face meetings with the MILF leaders in order to personally guarantee the peace process and demonstrate his commitment. Yingluck has shown no such interest, perhaps because her brother Thaksin remains the power behind the throne, or perhaps because most Thais in Bangkok and the north/northeast, the Puea Thai power base, do not really care about the situation in the south as long as the war does not trickle beyond the south. The Philippines government was also willing to offer the south a self-governing autonomous zone, which is a red line most Thai politicians will not cross at this point.
2) The southern insurgents in Thailand do not have any apparent leader. Time and time again, efforts by the Thai government to launch negotiations have been stymied because Bangkok is still not really sure who leads the insurgency, or even whether the top leaders are in touch with each other, since the insurgencies’ cells are so diffuse and disconnected. In contrast, the MILF had a clear leadership to negotiate with.
3) The Thai government has rejected most assistance from outsiders. As The Nation notes, because the government and insurgents have no trust in each other, outside mediation can be crucial, but the Yingluck government wants to have a peace process with the insurgency with minimal input from outside parties like Malaysia, the Organization of the Islamic Conference, or Saudi Arabia. As a result, the few negotiations that have taken place have failed in acrimony.
4) The Thai insurgents are not tired of war. Unfortunately, unlike in the southern Philippines, the southern Thai insurgents seem to be only getting stronger and angrier. Seven people have been killed in the south in the past few days alone, and the insurgency, by shutting down businesses most Fridays, appears to be gaining the upper hand.