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Restoring trust in the peace process under the current political situation

Leaders of the eight party in the Move Forward-led coalition joined a press conference on 22 May to announce that they had signed an MOU to form a democratic government. From left: Prachachat Party leader Wan Muhamad Noor Matha, Move Forward Party leader Pita Limjaroenrat, and Pheu Thai Party leader Chonlanan Srikaew.

After the last general election, eight opposition political parties signed a historic memorandum of understanding (MOU) to form a democratic government. I have no idea how significant an MOU is in politics, but for universities, it is like a treaty which must be fully respected. Given that there are no written rules for political parties forming coalitions, an MOU might serve as a document stating political intentions at a given moment in time. According to media reports, it was an allegiance to form a government free from undue military influence in Thai politics.[1]

However, this ‘historic’ document was soon revoked when forming a government under MFP met with serious obstacles. Pheu Thai Party (PPT), the second largest opposition party, and Prachachat Party, the most influential party in the country’s deep south, eventually decided to leave the coalition to form a government with parties under strong military influence, Palang Pracharath Party led by Gen. Prawit Wongsuwon, and United Thai Nation Party under Gen. Prayuth.

The obstacles to forming a democratic government were not unforeseeable. ‘Independent institutions’ such as the Constitutional Court and the Election Committee, whose members were appointed by the junta, often interfere with election results. Most of the 250 senators, also appointed by the junta, were not willing to support the democratic coalition. The question is: knowing that such institutional obstacles existed, why did the parties sign the MOU in the first place? It might have been little more than post-election PR but the failure to honour the agreement left many voters feeling disappointed and betrayed.

In the context of the southern border provinces, moves taken by Prachachat Party were significant. In Malay, the party calls itself ‘Parti Umat’. The term ‘umat’ is a Malay word borrowed from Arabic.  It has strong Islamic connotations. The first head of the party, veteran politician Wan Muhamad Noor Matha, is also a Muslim. Not surprisingly, in the southern border provinces, the party promoted itself as the Patani Malay-Muslims’ party.

At the same time, however, party leadership included the former director of the Southern Border Provinces Administration Centre (SBPAC) Thawee Sodsong, suggesting that it was under the influence of Thaksin Shinawatra.[2]  When he was Prime Minister, massacres in Krue Se Mosque on 28 April 2005 and in Tak Bai on 25 October, two of the deadliest incidents in the history of the southern conflict, occurred.[3]   As a consequence, the party received mixed support from local Malay Muslims.

Still, the parliamentary seats won by Prachachat all came from the southern border provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat, where almost 80 percent of the population is Malay Muslims. Many conservative Malay nationalistvoters in this region found some MFP agendas - such as support for LGBTQ+ rights and changing Thai alcohol control measures - difficult to accept. As a result, locals weary of military government voted for Prachachat.  MFP received support from younger people in the region but it did not win a single constituency and party candidates garnered less than 3,000 votes.

Some observers characterised Prachachat as a local branch of PTP.  Its decision to join the PTP coalition in collaboration with military-backed parties lends credibility to this observation. The move might be the correct choice to remain in power under the current political framework of Thailand. As Duangyewa Utarasint, a political scientist with close ties to the party,  explained in an interview with Prachatai (Thai), the main aim is to be in the government, a goal that has never changed since Wan Muhammad Noor led the Wadah Group, the region’s most influential political group.[4] “Outside the government, you have no power and budget from the state.  By joining, you can serve the local people better.”  This was the rationale of the Prachachat leadership.[5]  However, at least a part of party’s support came from those who no longer wanted military government and were unwilling to back MFP. These voters are now disappointed.  Whether they continue to support the party remains to be seen, particularly now that party head Wan Muhammad Noor has been replaced by Thawee Sodsong, the party’s former secretary general. No longer led by a Malay Muslim, the party needs to do something to retain Malay Muslim support.  

Aside from politics, the (mostly negative) impact of revoking the MOU on the peace process must be seriously considered. Among insurgents, the pre-election expectation for a democratic government was very high.[6] The cancellation of the MOU was a disappointment. In a public forum held in Yala, Romadon Panjor, an MFP MP, explained how the last raja of Patani, Tengku Abdul Kadir Kamaruddin, was cheated out of his administrative power by a ranking Siamese official.[7] The officer had the raja sign a document without telling him its real content -  a renunciation of his status as the administrator of Patan. The raja, who was not able to read Thai, only found out what he had signed long after the official had left his palace.[8] The collective memory of such an event surely affects local perceptions of the Thai state.

Discarding the MOU confirmed such negative perceptions. As a BRN member said, “The Siamese lie even when signing agreements. How can we trust them?” During the peace dialogue process begun in 2020, the Thai delegation was reluctant to sign off on a negotiated settlement. Now, even if there is an agreement, it will be tough to win the trust of insurgents, a serious obstacle to the peace building process.

Although it is not yet officially announced, the peace dialogue will surely continue. Below are some policy suggestions.[9] First and foremost, the government needs to prove its credibility as a dialogue partner. Involving international actors other than Malaysia in the negotiating process might help. The Thai state should not worry that this will internationalise the issue. Strengthening a peace process by allowing the participation of international actors agreed by negotiating parties is normal. A parliamentary commission on the peace process would also be beneficial, both in monitoring and studying developments and the peace process. It could also enhance the participation of stakeholders from various sectors, including opposition politicians, academics, researchers, analysts and journalists. As a lack of confidence between the dialogue parties has been a serious problem in the process, establishing backchannels for informal communications would be helpful too. The formal process has been partly driven by agreements reached away from the formal talks in Kuala Lumpur. Reestablishing trust in the process will not be easy, especially after the MOU was thrown away, but results in the process depend upon the degree of trust the new government can create.           


[1] “2023 Election: Historical moment – 8 parties signed MOU to form an “MFP government” and amend Section 112” [in Thai], 22 May 2023. https://www.thaipbs.or.th/news/content/328072

[2] Thawee was appointed as the director of the Southern Border Provinces Administration Centre (SBPAC) under the Yingluck administration, and dismissed from the position after the military coup on May 2014.

[3] “Thaksin later expressed his regret about the Tak Bai Incident but refused to take responsibility for it.  Thai PBS, 26 October 2022. https://www.thaipbs.or.th/news/content/320834

[4] “Duangyewa Utarasint: Who is disappointed with Prachachat?” [in Thai], Muhammad Dueramae, published via Prachatai on 29 August 2023. https://prachatai.com/journal/2023/08/105677

[5] Ibid.

[6] “Prospects for the Peace Process under the New Government”. Hara Shintaro, published via Prachatai English on 1 September 2023. https://prachataienglish.com/node/10566

[8] For a detailed description of this incident, see “History of the Malay Kingdom of Patani”, Ibrahim Shukri, 1985. Ohio University, Center for International Studies.

[9] In generating these suggestions, I was benefited by the latest report from International Crisis Group, “Southern Thailand’s Stop-start Peace Dialogue”, published on 25 May 2023. https://www.crisisgroup.org/asia/south-east-asia/thailand/b176-southern-...

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