The Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN)-led separatist movement active in Thailand’s predominantly Malay Muslim southernmost region has signaled a new hardline position towards the kingdom’s ruling military junta.

Over the past month, multiple hard-hitting ground attacks on state targets across the restive region have shown that the core separatist group behind insurgent-instigated violence wants little to do with a dialogue process now being brokered by Malaysia.

The uptick in violence has made global headlines and coincides with an apparent weakening of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha’s military government, which is under fire for postponing elections many anticipated would be held on February 24.

While the junta, and particularly Prayut, enjoyed strong support in the country’s upper south and in Bangkok when it rose to power following its May 2014 democracy-suspending coup, that support has dwindled as promised polls have been repeatedly delayed.

More significant, perhaps, Bangkok-based analysts and well-placed Malay Muslim sources in the ethno-religious minority region believe that a disconnect has emerged between Thailand’s military under new army chief General Apirat Kongsompong and Prayut’s military junta.

Indeed, several sources that requested strict anonymity suggested that the uptick violence reflects in part a perception among insurgents that the junta’s strong grip on power in recent years has recently slipped.

The spike in recent incidents may also indicate that the decline in regional violence seen over the course of Prayut’s government, which has ruled the country during the country’s ultra-sensitive royal succession, reflects a tactical decision by separatists rather than improvements in state counterinsurgency operations.

Thai security personnel guard an area following a bomb attack at a civilian volunteer base by suspected separatists the night before, in the Rangae district in the southern province of Narathiwat on December 29, 2018. - Thailand's Muslim-majority "deep south" region saw a spike in coordinated bomb and grenade attacks by suspected insurgents against the military and police in the lead-up to the new year, an official said on December 29. (Photo by Madaree TOHLALA / AFP)
Thai security personnel following a bomb attack at a civilian volunteer base by suspected separatists in the Rangae district of Narathiwat province, December 29, 2018. Photo: AFP/Madaree Tohlala

A range of sources believe that the lull under four and half years of junta rule has occurred in part because it was futile for BRN to enter a dialogue process with a military-led government that is averse to conditions and concessions that have underpinned negotiated settlements in other internal armed conflicts.

Since a wave of attacks that occurred in late December, including two bombings just outside of the ethno-religious minority region in Songkhla town, multiple shootings and bombings have occurred in the border region.

On January 8, a retired Buddhist teacher was found hanging dead in his home in Songkhla’s Saba Yoi district. Hours later, his stolen truck exploded in neighboring Thepa district, injuring six police officers at an outpost.

On January 10, alleged insurgents shot dead four Muslim village defense volunteers guarding a state primary school in Yaring district of Pattani. On January 18, a roadside bomb seriously injured two police officers on teacher protection duty in nearby Nongjik district.

In recent years, insurgents have launched attacks on security forces tasked with protecting state teachers and schools.

In the earlier years of the current phase of insurgent violence, which began in January 2004, insurgents torched dozens of state schools, viewed as instruments of the state’s bid to assimilate the predominantly Malay Muslim region into Thailand’s Buddhist-dominated culture.

Also on January 18, following a bombing that left five security personnel injured in Poh Deng Village in Narathiwat’s Sungai Padi district, gunmen shot dead two Buddhist monks and wounded another two at a Buddhist monastery in the same village.

A Buddhist monk looks at belongings next to a metal alms bowl with bullet holes in Rattanaupap temple in Narathiwat province on January 19, 2019 following an attack by black-clad gunmen that killed two monks. Photo: AFP/Madaree Tohlala

One of the killed monks was the temple’s abbot, who had built a reputation for trying to mend ethnic and religious divisions in the area. Local sources on social media said that there was social cohesion in that area between Muslims and Buddhists compared with other areas of the conflict-ridden region.

One source noted that the abbot had visited Malaysia to talk to Mara Patani, an umbrella group that has been engaged in dialogue with the junta since 2015 but does not include BRN’s leadership.

In spite of the assumption that BRN fighters were behind the attack, which evoked national sympathy in predominantly Buddhist Thailand, a spokesman for Mara Patani, Abu Hafez Al-Hakin, posted on social media about the incident only to later remove the post.

One source who read it said that Abu Hafez noted that a “third party” may have been behind the attacks, possibly insinuating security forces’ involvement.

Some Narathiwat province-based sources suspected that the killings may have been revenge for the murder of an imam in Narathiwat’s Rueso district a week earlier.

According to one source, the imam had previously been urged by the military to participate in its “Bring the People Back Home” project, a quasi-amnesty program that harks back to similar programs launched in the 1980s for both separatists and communist rebels that was initiated without international involvement.

Over the course of the junta’s rule, BRN has demanded to allow international actors or organizations to oversee and monitor the peace process, so far to no avail. Academic research shows that rebel groups almost never enter a negotiation process without such security measures in place.

Earlier in January, BRN’s information department released a new video on Youtube that shot down any notion that the dialogue process under a new Thai dialogue team, led by General Udomchai Thammasarorath, would bring its insurgent leadership to the dialogue table in Kuala Lumpur.

Thai Marines move equipment from a sea vessel as units change shifts to patrol the coast in the southern Thai province of Narathiwat, near the Malaysian border, early on September 29, 2017.The rangers change shifts for routine patrols along the coast as part of the military's counter-insurgency operation in the "Deep South" border provinces. / AFP PHOTO / Madaree TOHLALA
Thai Marines patrol the coast in Narathiwat province near the Malaysian border, September 29, 2017. Photo: AFP/Madaree Tohlala

In the video, BRN urged Patani Malays to fight for independence as long as Thailand only offers a peace process designed to “trick” them, an apparent reference to the separatist movement’s belief the military will use any dialogue largely as a means to collect intelligence on their highly secretive movement.

Then, on January 16, the Bangkok Post reported that BRN appointed a new “anti-peace” leader, replacing Abudullah Wan Muhammad Nor with Sama-ae Kho Zari.

One source who requested strict anonymity claimed that several Malay Muslim sources said that Abudullah fled Malaysia for Thailand, where he allegedly intends to mobilize BRN fighters to escalate attacks in the coming weeks. Several Thai security officials, however, were dismissive of the claim.

The alleged change in leadership occurs following persistent Thai efforts to push authorities in Malaysia, long used as sanctuary for separatists, to bring leaders who exercise some command and control over the insurgents on the ground to the dialogue table.

Udomchai, a former regional army commander in southern Thailand, has reportedly been insistent on meeting Abudullah, who he had expected to meet but was rebuffed on two occasions in Malaysia.

To be sure, certain Thai authorities question the degree to which Malaysia genuinely pressed the leaders since Malaysian officials by and large hold strong sympathies for Thailand’s Malay Muslim minority and view the junta as too rigid on dialogue.

Thais protest against violence in the Rangae district in the province of Narathiwat after a bomb attack at a civilian volunteer base by suspected separatists on December 28, 2018. Photo: AFP/Madaree Tohlala
Thais protest against violence in Rangae district Narathiwat after a bomb attack at a civilian volunteer base by suspected separatists, December 28, 2018. Photo: AFP/Madaree Tohlala

That skepticism also applies to the alleged shift in leadership. Although BRN’s structure and leadership has confused analysts and officials alike for years, many senior officials in the region have long indicated in private that others in BRN are likely more influential than the alleged leaders mentioned in media reports.

Still, despite long-time efforts to identify and target a specific leader, most authorities and Malay Muslims with ties to the clandestine rebel movement contend that there is still no single overarching BRN leader.

At the same time, while rank and file foot soldiers may believe they are fighting ultimately for independence, many senior security officials believe that BRN leaders realize it is a pipe-dream and that some form of regional autonomy is the likely best outcome of their long armed struggle.

The potential for some form of regional elected governance gained momentum in the years prior to the Prayut-led coup that ousted Yingluck Shinawatra’s elected government but has been on the back-burner over the course of his hardline government.

Udomchai, for his part, recently stated that the government will study decentralization for the region. In the 1990s, new decentralization bodies were introduced in Thailand but they continue to operate alongside the Ministry of Interior and its appointed system, one that was introduced over a century ago to mimic colonial regimes bent on extending their control over peripheral regions.

In preparation for elections, several political parties have already suggested their willingness to push forward on decentralization for the region, including anti-junta parties Future Forward Party and the more regionally based Prachachat Party.

Yet, according to several sources, even the junta-aligned Bhumjaithai Party has informed BRN figures in Malaysia that it will push to introduce some form of regional governance.

Thailand's King Vajiralongkorn pays respects at the statue of King Rama I after signing the military-backed constitution in Bangkok on April 6, 2017. Photo: AFP/ Lillian Suwanrumpha
King Maha Vajiralongkorn pays respects at the statue of King Rama I after signing the military-backed constitution in Bangkok, April 6, 2017. Photo: AFP/ Lillian Suwanrumpha

To be sure, Thai political parties played second-fiddle to the military and monarchy during the reign of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who passed away in October 2016.

Now, many Malay Muslim leaders and activists believe that new King Maha Vajiralongkon holds significantly more progressive and nuanced views towards the ethno-religious minority region than the older generation of royalist soldiers that surrounded his father.

Thailand’s political trajectory is still highly uncertain two years after the death of the widely-admired Bhumibol. But that uncertainty also means that there is a possibility to negotiate a new social contract with the kingdom’s predominantly Malay-speaking region.

But so long as the country is ruled by military generals, BRN will likely resist any dialogue efforts offered by the Thai side and continue to express its discontent with the status quo through spasms of anti-state violence.