"Peace talks between the Thai government and rebel groups are a step in the right direction," Marco Bünte tells DW. But it is only the very beginning of any kind of peace process between Bangkok and southern separatists.
DW: Peace negotiations between the Thai government and Islamic insurgents begin Thursday (28.03.2013) in Kuala Lumpur. What will they be talking about?
Marco Bünte: The Thai government will try to get to know its opposition. It will also be looking for contacts with whom it can negotiate mutual goals. Because right now, there is no communication between the conflict parties and violence in Thailand's southern provinces rages on.
The rebel groups in the south are quite divided; some are fighting for autonomy, others are involved in criminal activity. How would you describe the group Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), which at the end of February signed a deal in Malaysia to start peace talks?
This was the beginning of a collective movement about which not much is known. It has no clear and unified objective, for example, gaining recognition for an autonomous state. Studies have shown that they are all different cells acting individually, but no one really knows who is behind them. A number of teenagers are said to be among them.
The conflict has been going on for a long time. It started at the beginning of the last century and has flared up time and again. There were a number of groups demanding more autonomy. These older groups are said to have admitted to the government that even they are not sure what the other groups are fighting for and how they should try and influence the young rebels. So, because there is no structure and the groups are not really organized, the talks will be very difficult.
What qualms do the rebel groups have with the government that are so strong that they resort to this violence?
First of all, the southern provinces are at an economic as well as political disadvantage. To add to that, Thai is the country's only official language but most of the Muslim population in the south does not speak Thai, but a dialect of Malay and thus cannot commutate with Thai authorities very well. The third important factor is the power of the military. There are over 60,000 military personnel stationed in the south of Thailand. They have their own politics there and are trying in whatever way they can to get the conflict under control. It is leading to a form of anarchy in relation to the Muslims and rights violations by the military, which are carried out with impunity. The discontent of the youth in the region is palpable. They say that they do not want to be part of Thailand and so they turn to the last resort - violence and crime.
What has the government under Prime Minister Yingluk Shinawatra done so far to find a solution to the conflict?
The government has promised to place more emphasis on dialogue. The National Security Council last year suggested initiating talks with the rebels and granting the area (the South) autonomy. But whether or not that will be do-able, or whether this advice should be followed, is difficult to say.
Though the groups are divided, one common goal is to achieve more autonomy. This would mean decentralization to a certain extent. Thailand, however, has a strongly centralized tradition focused on Bangkok, with the king being the symbol of unity. Would the government be willing to make any concessions in this regard?
Decentralization is surely opposite to the idea of the Thai state, for which a strong center is pivotal. So what they are talking about here is more of a cultural autonomy, referring to religion and language. And politicians have already mentioned offers to this regard. But there has not been an official offer from the Thai state yet.
A number of suggestions have come from Thailand's civil society, but those have not been addressed. So the offer for cultural autonomy is, to a certain extent, a concession. But this autonomy will not be able to question the state or its representative, the king.
People in southern Thailand feel like they are treated as second-class citizens. Will this initiative be able to gain back some of their trust?
It is a step in the right direction because at least it is inciting dialogue. But beyond that, many other factors of autonomy, especially the withdrawal of security forces in the region, will have to be negotiated. Martial law is still in place in southern Thailand and this has led to a lack of accountability of the military. The situation will only begin to change there when the politics change.
Do you think the government will seriously address these issues in talks on March 28 in Malaysia? Will the talks be a genuine attempt at a peace process?
I think the signal being sent is quite weak, but only because there are so many aspects to the conflict. I think it will be more of an informational meeting for both sides. It will be extremely difficult to find a solution to the conflict, which is one of the most violent in Southeast Asia and is chronic. So, the talks are a step in the right direction, and they are the first step that can be taken towards any solution.
Marco Bünte is a lecturer for international studies at Monash University in Kuala Lumpur and is associated with Hamburg's German Institute of Global and Area Studies (GIGA Institut) as a Southeast Asia expert.