Thai students wear face masks donated by a school official during a ceremony at Attarkiah Islamic School in Thailand's southern province of Narathiwat on March 17, 2020. Unlike some 'developed' countries, Thailand's Covid-19 infection rate is very low. Photo: AFP / Madaree Tohlala

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.

On April 30, a Thai military task force from the 43 Ranger Regiment launched a raid on an unregistered house in a village in Pattani province’s Nong Chik district, a longstanding hotbed of BRN activity.

Timed just before the iftar breaking of the Ramadan fast, the raid triggered a shootout and resulted in the death of three rebel fighters.

All three were senior and experienced BRN operatives wanted on arrest warrants for a string a major attacks; probably not by coincidence, there were no negotiations to attempt to persuade them to surrender.

According to Thai authorities, the group had gathered to plan attacks during Ramadan, a claim which made little sense given the preceding weeks of unbroken quiet.

BRN’s anger was manifested immediately in an uncharacteristically swift statement released the following day condemning the Thai operation, but signifcantly not threatening a return to all out hostilities.

Then, on May 3, two para-military Rangers were attacked in Pattani’s Saiburi district, one killed and one wounded, as they rode a motorcycle from a checkpoint to a grocery store in what appeared to be a carefully calibrated tit-for-tat retaliation for the Nong Chik raid.

Revenge exacted, the rest of May through Ramadan and into the Eid ul Fitri holiday remained as quiet as April had been before the Thai military’s strike.

How BRN now plays its hand will be critical to the future of the conflict. Broadly the rebel group has two options.

Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha (R) greets Muslim religious officials during a visit in Thailand’s southern province of Narathiwat, January 20, 2020, to hold a cabinet meeting. Photo AFP/Madaree Tohlala

The first would be to exploit the moral high ground it has gained both in the region and beyond. Building on the ceasefire and its demonstration of command and control, the party could take the initiative by proposing a bilateral agreement as an invitation to the Thai government to establish its credentials as a credible partner for peace.

The second option would be simply to allow the current situation to drift, maintaining its commitment to holding fire and seeing what, if any, initiative the Thai side chooses to take.

This would undoubtedly be the more dangerous path as the current precarious peace would likely be interrupted by another raid by Thai forces predicated on the need to enforce law and order.

Any such operation might then be followed by a possibly generalized retaliation by a BRN military wing suspicious of the susceptibility of the party’s negotiators to Malaysian arm-twisting and that went along with the ceasefire only grudgingly.

According to one well-placed source who spoke to Asia Times at the end of Ramadan, militants in the field are itching to get back to the fight. Nevertheless, given the incapacity of BRN’s senior leaders either to map strategy or make swift policy decisions, drift may well emerge by default.

How the Thai government and military react to the current tenative cessation of hostilities is even more difficult to gauge.

National Security Council doves largely responsible for shepherding public peace talks in Kuala Lumpur may well see advantage in building on the current peace with some form of bilateral agreement. Such a deal might possibly be reached behind the scenes rather than publicly.

Whether the military, in the shape of the southern region Fourth Army and the locally-based Forward Command of the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC), would be willing to entertain a formal, even if unpublicized, ceasefire is far less clear.

In early April, the army pointedly ignored BRN’s “cessation of hostilities” announcement, noting merely that security forces would continue to enforce the law of the land. And changing that stance will inevitably be contentious.

A map of Thailand’s southernmost border provinces. Image: Wikimedia

At one level, the military would risk surrendering the tactical flexibility it currently enjoys under its law enforcement mandate to carry out targeted raids, such as that of April 30. As the elimination of three key rebel operatives in the Nong Chik operation illustrated, such strikes have military appeal.

Secondly, any broad ceasefire would potentially allow BRN to regroup after a recent string of reverses and put at risk the slow but steady gains security forces have recently made in a long war of attrition.

Over the past three years, that attrition has driven a steady reduction in violent incidents. Bombings which were at the height of the conflict in 2010-2011 were running at over 20 incidents a month had dropped to around eight last year.

Insurgent targeted killings, the other major cause of casualties, were running at fewer than 10 each month in 2019 after highs of over 50 earlier in the conflict.

Thirdly, any such formal bilateral agreement would serve to accord BRN’s military wing a political legitimacy starkly at odds with the official Thai line that the rebels are common criminals to be hunted down and prosecuted in court. Conceding any measure of political credibility to Patani separatism has always been anathema to Bangkok.

Finally, the advent of something approximating sustainable peace in the region after 16 years of conflict will inevitably impact military deployments and budgets worth billions of baht.

The low intensity war in Thailand’s south, which in recent years has arguably declined to become more of an irritant than a threat, has undoubtedly made many ranking officers far wealthier than would otherwise have been the case.

The prospects for building on today’s peace are tantalizing. But against this challenging multi-faceted backdrop there may soon be news again from Thailand’s border provinces. And after 16 years of steady death and destruction, it almost certainly will not be good news.