Peace talks between the Thai government and Muslim separatist groups reached a milestone last month when the two parties decided to sit down to discuss ways to rebuild mutual trust and eliminate suspicion and to find a long-lasting solution to the protracted conflict.

Malaysia, once accused of meddling in the unrest in Thailand’s deep South, hosted the peace talks in Kuala Lumpur on June 13, between representatives of the Thai government and members of the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN).

At the end of the meeting, a statement was released vaguely stipulating the importance of good will and sincerity, but without specific measures on how to reduce violence. The issuing of the statement was timely, just ahead of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan that began in July.

Despite optimism, the challenges have remained. Although the two parties have already had three rounds of talks, killings in the restive South — particularly in the provinces of Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala — have continued. The Muslim militants have mainly targeted security forces and teachers, perceived as agents of the predominantly Buddhist Thai government.

Under the government of Thaksin Shinawatra (2001-2006), an Islamic insurgency re-erupted in 2004. The incidents at Krue Sae Mosque in Pattani, where 32 Muslim militants were executed, and at Tak Bai district in Narathiwat, where 78 Muslim detainees suffocated to death while being transferred to a long-distance military camp (they were tied behind their backs and stacked five or six deep in the trucks) infuriated Muslim communities in Thailand and worldwide.

So far, the conflict has produced more than 5,000 deaths in the three southernmost provinces. Attacks occur on a daily basis. Successive governments in Bangkok have been preoccupied with ongoing political crisis roughly shaped by the clashes between supporters and enemies of former Prime Minister Thaksin. Violence in the South has been left unattended.

The reasons behind the rekindling of separatism in the South are the combination of economic deprivation of the local Muslim community, political subordination and social discrimination, the rise of Islamism, and an increasing religious intolerance that became part of the Thai state’s employment of nationalism to fight against the insurgency.

The Thai state, however, should not solely be condemned for the rise of Buddhist chauvinism. The monastic Sangha and the making of Buddhism as the national religion endorsed by the monarchy all play a role in the monopolization of religious space in Thailand.

For a long time, Thai Muslims have felt alienated and abused. They underwent forced assimilation including the declaration of Thai as the official language. This threatened certain traditional Islamic practices and customs, thereby triggering a violent response from Thai Muslims.

Strife in the South did not only have a bearing on Thailand’s domestic politics; there was also an international aspect, especially the impact on Thai-Malaysian relations. Bilateral relations from 2004 onward were mostly influenced by the resurgence of Thai separatism. Thailand’s lack of understanding of the conflict and the politicization of the situation generated a rift in Thai-Malaysian relations.

History has justified the role of Malaysia in the southern Thai crisis. The Pattani Kingdom was annexed to Thailand in 1902 prior to the Anglo-Siamese Treaties. Remade as an alien part of a Buddhist-dominated society, the Thai Muslim minority has maintained religious and cultural links with their Muslim fellows in Malaysia. It is known that Malays in Malaysia have been sympathetic toward the plight of the Thai Muslim. Escalating violence at the hands of Thai security forces strained Thai-Malaysian relations.

Until recently, Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra had tried to reach out for peace with the Thai Muslim community and for better ties with Malaysia. There were obstacles to the government’s efforts. For one thing, local Thai Muslims could not forget what Thaksin did in 2004. And in the political context, the South has never been the territory of the ruling Pheu Thai Party, although the opposition Democrat Party is known to have a position in the South.

Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein has told the media that he is hopeful of progress through concrete development of Southern provinces: “The issue of development, poverty, fair treatment of everybody — those are the issues to be navigated by both sides based on trust. Building up trust is the difficult part.”

Trust will certainly keep alive future negotiations. From a broader perspective, a peaceful Thai South will allow a better Thai-Malaysian relationship.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies.

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