Coronavirus News Asia

Covid-19 moment of truth for peace in Thailand


BANGKOK – If the old adage that no news is good news needed any confirmation, look no further than the border provinces of southern Thailand after 16 years of numbingly relentless violence.

For the past two months a remarkable, almost eerie peace has fallen on a conflict between Malay-Muslim separatist rebels and Thai security forces which has cost well over 7,000 lives in unremitting bombings, clashes and targeted killings.

But with the end of Ramadan and the winding down of the coronavirus crisis,  the border region now finds itself precariously poised at a tipping point that in the coming weeks will see either a return to bloodshed or, just possibly, a sustained peace grounded in a formal ceasefire and brokered negotiations.  

The uneasy peace that has descended on the majority Malay-Muslim provinces of Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat and parts of Songkhla emerged from a unique convergence of events.

Not least was the March onset of Covid-19 which in the border provinces started with cases imported from Malaysia and Indonesia and later posed a real threat of run-away contagion.

The role of Malaysian pressure on insurgents grouped in the Barisan Revolusi Nasional, or BRN, to reinforce with a ceasefire the first publicly acknowledged talks with the Thai government that opened in January in Kuala Lumpur facilitated by the Malaysian government is less understood.

On April 3, after days of internal wrangling, BRN finally announced a unilateral “cessation of activities” in order to support the Thai government’s response to the virus crisis.

Representing the first time BRN had publicly committed to a ceasefire, the declaration was notable on two counts. First and predictably enough, the pause was to remain in effect “for as long as BRN is not attacked by RTG (Royal Thai Government) personnel.”

Security personnel stand guard after a roadside bomb attack by suspected militants in the Yi-ngo district in Thailand’s restive southern province of Narathiwat, February 3, 2020. Photo: AFP/ Madaree Tohlala

Secondly, the ceasefire as announced was open-ended leaving a major question mark over how the BRN viewed its strategy going forward. Coming from a rebel organization whose rhetoric has always been more powerful than its capacity for planning, that too was perhaps predictable.

The striking effectiveness of the ceasefire – and by extension the leadership’s command-and-control over the rank-and- file in the field — was underscored by one salient breach of the peace.


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