Thailand's Insurgency Grinds On
25 Nov 2015
The militant Muslim insurgency in southern Thailand continues to rumble on, with renewed sporadic violence in 2015. Michael Kugelman examines the prospects for peace in the region.
On 19 October 2015, a roadside bomb killed two paramilitary troops and wounded five other people in the province of Pattani in southern Thailand. Sadly, such potent attacks are relatively commonplace in southern Thailand, the site of a long-running violent insurgency that has claimed more than 6,500 lives since 2004.
Such a figure pales in comparison to the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, where more than 25,000 civilians alone have died since 2001, and to closer-to-home rebellions in places like the southern Philippines, where more than 120,000 people have died in recent decades. Still, nearly 7,000 lives lost in just over 10 years is a strikingly sizable figure for a country that otherwise enjoys a relatively stable security situation.
Southern Thailand insurgency has claimed nearly 7,000 lives.
The decades-long conflict in southern Thailand is often framed in religious terms, though the conflict appears to be more ethno-nationalist at its core. The region of Pattani, with 1.8 million people, and made up of the provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat, as well as four districts of Songkhla, has a majority Malay Muslim population of over 80 per cent. The region has strived to distinguish its national identity from the 'Thai' identity in the rest of the country, where a majority 87 per cent of the population practice Buddhism, and six per cent practice Islam.
The violence tends to be restricted to several volatile provinces in the south—a reality that may explain why Thailand's insurgency rarely makes international headlines.
For a brief time earlier this year, however, there were some fears that the insurgent violence was indeed spreading. In August 2015 a bomb ripped through Bangkok's famous Erawan shrine, which is located in the very heart of the city's tourist district. At least 20 people died and more than 100 were wounded in the rare assault on Thailand's capital.
Speculation about the perpetrator rapidly spread around the world. Some observers wondered if the attack marked an effort by the insurgents to ramp up their activities. Others, including the Thai army, rejected such allegations, contending that the rebels have neither the interest nor the capacity to extend the fight beyond their bastion in the south.
Recent weeks have brought validation to those subscribing to the latter theory, and on 24 November 2015, a military court in Thailand charged two men, reportedly described as ethnic Uighurs from Xinjiang province in China, with conspiracy to explode bombs and commit premeditated murder. There was no mention of terrorism in the charges, and Thai officials said there was no political or religious motive behind the attack. Instead, according to officials, it was carried out by a people-smuggling gang seeking revenge on Thai authorities for cracking down on their operation.
Independent analysts, in fact, had previously suggested that Uighur militants bombed the temple in revenge for Bangkok's decision several weeks earlier to deport dozens of Uighurs to China, but this was downplayed by the Thai government. Uighurs are a marginalised ethnic minority mostly based in the Xinjiang province of China. As media reports have pointed out, more than a third of those killed in the blast were Chinese.
This is all rather unsettling for a country already facing a variety of troubling issues—from the precarious health of its universally revered king to a sputtering economy. And, of course, military rule. Not to mention an insurgency that shows little sign of abating, despite some hopeful developments.
Dialogue with militant groups has raised hopes for the peace process.
Over the previous few years, there were some signs of progress over attempts to halt the insurgency, as the Thai and Malaysia governments began talks. However these were put on hold following the Thai coup in May 2014. Then, in December 2014, the Thai Prime Minister, General Prayuth Chan-ocha met the Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak and agreed to press ahead with talks. The ruling National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) has expressed a commitment to renewing the dialogue with the militant groups in the South, and the Thai military have put it on their agenda.
Indeed, more recent weeks have brought encouraging reports that a moribund peace process could be resurrected between the rebels and the Thai government. Different rebel factions formed an umbrella group in May for the sole purpose of pursuing peace. In October, the head of the military government's negotiating team even predicted that full-fledged negotiations would resume by mid-November.
And yet mid-November has now passed us by, and there is no word of a resumption of talks. The most recent signals from the military are far from encouraging. Earlier this month, the Thai military unveiled its latest product—an armoured personnel carrier boasting a bombastic name: the Black Widow Spider. It's unclear where in Thailand other than in the insurgency-riven south that such a powerful weapon would have any reason to be deployed. In effect, the arrival of the Black Widow Spider could portend a new era of coercive state policies in the south—the very policies that galvanise rebels and help sustain the insurgency.
The uptake? The insurgency is unlikely to end anytime soon.
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