The Last in a List of False Starts? The MARA Initiative for South Thailand (2015-2019)

In this article, I put forward the argument that, although different in some respects, peace talks between insurgent representatives and the Thai state between 2015 and 2019 suffered from the same shortcomings as previous attempts at peace talks for the southern provinces (2006-2014). I will also argue that the MARA initiative has been the last in a list of false starts at building a credible peace process for the south since the conflict began in 2004.

The military coup of 2014 ushered in a new era of authoritarian rule for Thailand. 1 Although the 2019 election saw the rise of The Future Forward Party, a new centre of opposition to military dominance; the party has since been banned. Overall, since 2014, Thailand appears to be on a trajectory of either maintaining military dominance or even increasing the role of the army in the running of the state. Since 2014, the level of violence in the southern provinces has gone into steady decline, with the number of casualties and violent incidents continuing to fall as years pass. Some attempts by analysts, both veterans and younger academics, have been made to explain this decline, yet overall a satisfactory or complete explanation has not been forthcoming, for reasons that will be outlined in another publication. In 2013, the southern conflict saw 574 casualties, while in 2019, the same conflict produced only 174 casualties. 2

Between 2015 and 2019, the Thai state held numerous meetings with Majlis Syura Patani (MARA), a coalition of ageing former insurgents from the previous conflict (1960-1990) that were widely acknowledged to have little or no effective control over active insurgents on the ground: insurgents who have been recruited, indoctrinated and trained by (contemporary) Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), a radical separatist organisation that has carried out a campaign of brutal violence since the early-2000s. 3 Contemporary BRN effectively started as an organisation in the old market district of Yala in the mid-1990s. 4

Ultimately, MARA became the most recent in a long list of failed initiatives; the first of which was the Langkawi talks: In late-2005 and early-2006, talks involving Thai bureaucrats and members of insurgent groups from the previous conflict were held on Pulau Langkawi and convened by controversial Malaysian prime-minister Mahathir Mohamad. Although the proposals put forward by the insurgents from the previous conflict were uncontroversial, they were ignored by the Thaksin government which was at that time preoccupied with anti-government street protests. Three days before the 2006 coup that ousted Thaksin, insurgents expressed their opposition to peace initiatives by bombing numerous department stores in Hat Yai on the same day that peace rally was planned to take place there. 5

In 2008, talks were held in secret between a representative of the Somchai government and representatives of different insurgent groups in Bogor, Indonesia; yet the talks were soon abandoned when they came under heavy criticism from leading Thai military figures. In 2010, the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation (OIC) suggested that Muslims in the South organise their own political movement and offered help to establish talks between separatists and the Thai state. The suggestion was criticised and dismissed by the Abhisit government and also by the Thai military, who are against any external involvement in what is seen by the Thai political and security establishments as a domestic issue. 6

Brokered by European NGOs, intermittent talks between the National Security Council (NSC) and insurgents were held between 2006 and 2011; Known as the ‘Geneva process’, the talks continued until the Pheu Thai government came to power in 2011. Ultimately, the talks proved to be fruitless. The insurgent delegation’s spokesman, Kasturi Mahkota, who claimed to have control of over 70% of fighters on the ground, arranged a ceasefire for three districts of Narathiwat in the summer of 2010. Attacks continued after the announcement of this ceasefire and it soon became clear that Kasturi had completely exaggerated his level of influence. 7 A similar ‘ceasefire’ had been announced by the military in July 2008. 8

In February 2013, the ‘General Consensus on Peace Dialogue Process’ was signed in Kuala Lumpur by Hassan Taib, a low-ranking member of BRN and General Paradorn Pattanatabut, representing the Thai armed forces. A number of meetings took place in Kuala Lumpur over the next six months. The KL talks were somewhat different from previous initiatives as they were held in public with the backing of the Thai prime minister and BRN issued a number of public statements via YouTube throughout the process. 9 The talks broke down after a failed attempt at a ceasefire between the two sides during Ramadan 2013.

All of these initiatives failed for the same or similar reasons:

  • Lack of command and control: The anti-state side was represented by combatants from the previous conflict, described by Marc Askew as ‘vocal but impotent has-beens’, 10 with no operational control over fighters on the ground. This is the most relevant in this list of shortcomings and it is a result of BRN’s policy of silence, the overly-secretive cell-based nature of the organisation itself, and also the seemingly detached nature of its aging leadership in exile.
  • Spoilers: Constant attempts were made to derail talks by contemporary BRN who were opposed to negotiations with the Thai state and who were also opposed to the misrepresentation of their struggle by ageing former-combatants whose intentions were unclear.
  • Rivalries: Division within the Thai political and security establishments were rife until 2014, with constant in-fighting and attempts at undermining the other side being common.
  • Inexperienced participants: Insurgent ‘representatives’ and also representatives of the state tended to not have any negotiating experience or discernible plan.
  • Lack of third-party mediation: international bodies or third party intermediaries were not present or played a role that was non-productive.

Ultimately, the MARA talks would suffer from all of these short-comings.

Malay Muslim provinces in Southern Thailand with northern Malaysia.

After an order signed by the junta in November 2014 stating the importance for renewed talks concerning the southern conflict, it was announced in early-2015 that a collective representing six long-standing insurgent groups would be called Majlis Syura Patani (MARA). Between 2015 and 2019, there were a total of twenty meetings between MARA and representatives of the junta. As part of the junta’s peace initiative, two former Patani United Liberation Organisation (PULO) leaders were released from prison and pledged to support the Thai government in their efforts to bring peace to the south. 11 Contemporary BRN expressed their disapproval of the talks by carrying out a three-day bomb blitz in the city of Yala in the days prior to the first meeting in May 2015. An Imam associated with one MARA representative, Awang Jabat, was also assassinated a few months before the first meeting. 12

Similar to the Geneva process and the KL Talks, the representatives of the insurgent side were treated with scepticism from the outset. The talks received much criticism from seasoned analysts such as Don Pathan, and in September 2015, the apparent death knell of the talks arrived in the form of a video published by BRN clearly outlining their opposition to the talks. BRN reiterated their opposition to MARA in an interview with Anthony Davis which soon followed the release of the video.

Although facing opposition from BRN, the MARA talks continued for another four years, experiencing disappointments and delays along the way. In 2016, the head of the army’s delegation was removed by Gen. Prayuth and the junta openly rejected the previously discussed terms of reference (TOR) for the meetings. 13 The discussion of TOR continued until September 2016 when MARA finally gave in to the junta’s demands. Discussions concerning the establishment of ‘safety zones’ (similar to Kasturi’ Mahkota’s plan during the Geneva process), continued for more than a year. Ultimately, and after lengthy discussion, the safety zone plan was rejected by the military.

Simultaneously, back-channel talks between legitimate BRN representatives and the junta began in 2016 which indicates a possible sea change in BRN’s position concerning negotiations, possibly motivated by the group’s declining armed campaign and changes introduced after the deaths of BRN’s two most influential members in 2015 and 2017. A ten day suspension of hostilities took place between April 8th and April 18th 2017 as a means for BRN to display their command and control capabilities. 14 Overall, the ceasefire was a step forward, yet it was not connected to MARA. In December 2019, after more than four years of the MARA initiative and false-starts, discussion arose in different quarters that a new development was taking place, one which would finally lead to legitimate insurgent representatives coming to the table and MARA finally being completely sidelined.

Overall, the MARA process suffered from the same flaws as previous attempts at peace talks for the south: internal divisions, spoiler-related violence, inept or inexperienced negotiators, a Thai leadership more interested in public appearances than implementing changes, insurgent representatives with no effective control over insurgents on the ground, and a lack of international or neutral third party mediation. 15 To summarise, the MARA initiative achieved little except prompting BRN into producing communications, and also into initiating a ceasefire that clearly demonstrated BRN’s level of control.

The ceasefire of 2017 and the back-channel talks that took place between 2016 and 2019 are a strong indication that contemporary BRN, now, arguably, in a state of irreversible decline, has come to understand that its campaign is not going to end in achieving ‘Merdeka’. The organisation does not have any history of negotiating with the Thai state and judging from Berjihad di Patani and videos produced by the group, they seem to lack any discernible program or supportable vision for the future of their region, neither do they have a sophisticated or internationally recognised political wing or visible and charismatic leadership. The group is also entering into negotiations at a time when it is at its weakest. Although accepted warmly by analysts, contemporary BRN’s decision to come to the table and negotiate with the Thai state in January 2020 is, for the separatist cause, quite possibly a case of ‘too little, too late’.

Overall, one of the previously missing components essential to resolving the southern conflict is now in place: the presence of legitimate insurgent representatives at the table. Increased pressure from the Malaysian government since the 2018 summer elections, the deaths of older BRN leaders in recent years, and the operational decline of the organisation since 2014, have in unison made it possible and necessary for the organisation to engage in some form of negotiation with the state. However, now that BRN’s insurgency is operationally weaker than ever, it should be argued that the organisation have less to negotiate with than before. Additionally, although there is now less political division in Thailand due to the strict authoritarian nature of the regime and its control over the institutions of the state, considering recent developments in Bangkok, such as the banning of the Future Forward Party in February of this year, it seems unlikely that there will be much on offer from the Thai side in the near future. There are two other positive aspects to the developments of January 2020: a far lesser potential for spoiler-related violence now exists since BRN have displayed their strong capacity for command and control in 2017; Secondly, third party mediators from European countries will now be assisting both sides in the future talks.

To summarise, the MARA initiative suffered from the same shortcomings as previous peace talks and inevitably never gained traction. However, other developments during the same period have now opened up the possibility of the two sides eventually reaching some form of agreement to resolve this nearly 17-year old conflict. The decline of the MARA initiative could be seen as the end of the last in a long list of false starts concerning the establishment and development of a legitimate peace process for the southern provinces. Overall, the events of January 2020 should be viewed as the beginning of a turning point for the conflict.

Gerard McDermott
Gerard McDermott is a PhD candidate at the Department of Asian and International Studies, City University of Hong Kong.


  1. Claudio Sopranzetti, “Thailand’s Relapse: The Implications of the May 2014 Coup”, The Journal of Asian Studies, 2016, pp.1 – 18
  2. Email correspondence with Anthony Davis (Janes Defence), January and April 2020
  3. Marc Askew, “Fighting with Ghosts: Querying Thailand’s “Southern Fire””, Contemporary Southeast Asia, Vol. 32, No. 2 (2010), pp. 117–55
  4. Sascha Helbardt, Deciphering Southern Thailand’s Violence: Organization and Insurgent Practices of BRN-Coordinate, (ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, 2015), p.32
  5. “Bomb Blast Aftermath”, Bangkok Post, 18 September 2006.
  6. Don Pathan, “Negotiating the Future of Patani”, Patani Forum, May 2014, pp. 102 – p110.
  7. Jason Johnson, “Talk is cheap in south Thailand”, Asia Times, 26 May 2011. 
  8. Don Pathan, ‘Ceasefire in south is just too good to be true,’ The Nation, 19 July 2008.
  9. Gerard McDermott, “The 2013 Kuala Lumpur Talks”, Peace Research: The Canadian Journal of Peace and Conflict Studies, Vol.46, No.1 (2014), pp. 18-27
  10. Marc Askew, “Insurgency Redux: Writings on Thailand’s Ongoing Southern War”, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, Vol.42, No.1 (February 2011), p 161–168
  11. “Ex-Separatist Leader Pledges to Help Thai Govt. Fight Southern Rebellion”, Khaosod English, 19 July 2015).
  12. Don Pathan, “Deep South Peace Efforts Hit Another Dead End’, The Nation, 22 May 2015.
  13. Razlan Rashid and Pimuk Rakkanam, “Thailand ‘Not Ready’ to Accept Reference Terms for Peace: Southern Rebels”, Benar News, 28 April 2016.
  14. Matt Wheeler, “Thailand’s Southern Insurgency in 2017”, Southeast Asian Affairs, 2018, pp.380-382
  15. Gerard B. McDermott, “Barriers Toward Peace in Southern Thailand”, Peace Review: A Journal of Social Justice, Vol.25, No.1 (2013), pp.120-128.