The present violence in southern Thailand is part of a longstanding conflict in the region but can at its core be framed as ethno-nationalist rather than religious. Duncan McCargo, a professor of Southeast Asian Politics at the University of Leeds takes a look at the context around this and more, as well as providing a detailed overview of the current situation on the ground.
The southern Thailand conflict is an ongoing insurgency, concentrated in an area historically known as Patani. For a detailed analysis of the conflict, see Duncan McCargo, Tearing Apart the Land: Islam and Legitimacy in Southern Thailand, Ithaca NY and London: Cornell University Press, 2008. An excellent source on the background is the International Crisis Group Report, Southern Thailand: Insurgency, not Jihad, Asia Report No. 98, May 2005, and several subsequent reports, accessible at www.crisisgroup.org. The region comprises three of Thailand's southernmost provinces (Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat), as well as four districts of neighbouring Songkhla province.
Around 80 per cent of the region's population of roughly 1.8 million is Muslim (overwhelmingly Sunni), while the majority of the region's Muslims speak a local variety of the Malay language, and identify themselves as nayu (or Melayu, Malay).
More than 5,500 people have died in the intensive insurgencies
The ancient sultanate of Patani was only formally incorporated into Siam (now Thailand) in 1909, under a treaty signed with Britain. During the twentieth century Buddhist-majority Thailand successfully assimilated various other territories into a shared "Thai" identity, but Patani has been the focus of long-standing, intermittent resistance to rule from Bangkok. Malay separatist groups waged a campaign of violence against the Thai state in the 1960s and 1970s, which was largely suspended through an elite pact in the early 1980s. However, violence began again after the Thaksin Shinawatra government first took office in 2001 and erupted in earnest in January 2004. Since then, more than 5,500 people have died in one of the world's most intensive insurgencies.
The southern border region has been heavily militarised; large deployments of troops have been re-assigned to the south from other parts of Thailand, many of them based in ad hoc camps, often in the grounds of Buddhist temples. Additional paramilitary units (so-called "rangers") have been created, while local defence volunteers have been trained to guard villages and other key locations. Most Buddhists in the region have been trained to shoot by military instructors – on orders from the Queen The weapons training scheme began following a speech given by the Queen on 16 November 2004, in which she urged all 300,000 Buddhists in the three provinces to learn how to shoot. – and many government officials and civilians carry firearms. On the militarisation of Buddhism in the South, see Michael Jerryson, Buddhist Fury: Religion and Violence in Southern Thailand, New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Parents have moved their children to private Islamic schools
Government officials and those working for the state sector – such as electricity supply workers – have become very nervous about travelling to rural areas, wherever possible requesting villagers to come to their offices when they need to access services. Muslim enrolment in state secondary schools has largely collapsed, as parents have moved their children to the burgeoning private Islamic school sector. See McCargo, Tearing Apart the Land, pp. 37-45. Rural health services have been less affected by militant violence; hospitals and clinics continue to operate more effectively than other government agencies, but face serious shortages of qualified personnel.
Nevertheless, for many people in the region, life is relatively normal: this is a low-intensity conflict spread over a large area, and the chances of being affected by violence on any given day are remote. For detailed updates on the violence, including statistical analysis of incidents and trends, see http://www.deepsouthwatch.org/english At the same time, this "normality" includes: routine encounters with the army and police at numerous checkpoints; armed escorts for teachers travelling to and from work, and for monks conducting alms-rounds; and close monitoring of Islamic leaders and educational institutions by the security forces. While trust and reciprocity between different religious communities has not completely broken down, there is now far less interaction and exchange than before, especially in rural areas.
As described, the conflict is largely confined to the three provinces and four adjoining districts, though there have been a very small number of attacks in the nearby regional city of Hat Yai, including one at Hat Yai airport. Thais in the rest of the country have been largely unaffected by the violence, and Bangkok is nearly 1000 kilometres from the site of the conflict. Most remain relatively indifferent to what is going on, despite the large number of fatalities.
The post-2004 upsurge in violence is simply the latest wave of a longstanding conflict in the region. Siam was the only country in Southeast Asia which was never formally colonised by European countries, serving as a kind of buffer zone between British and French interests in the region. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the ruling elite built up a modern nation-state by firming up Siam's previously rather fuzzy borders. Areas which had previously paid rather loose homage to Thai suzerains were forcibly incorporated into a centralised state and subjected to direct rule from Bangkok.
The region of Patani remained attached to an older national identity
This process of assimilation (or Thai-isation) was relatively successful in large swathes of the country, but incompletely so in Patani. The shibboleth "Nation, Religion, King" was not well received in a region where much of the population remained deeply attached to an older national identity as a Malay state, practiced the "wrong" religion, (Islam, not Buddhism) and had lived for many centuries under their own local rulers, rather than Bangkok-based kings. The Thais alternated between carrot and stick approaches, alternately cajoling and compelling Malay Muslims in the deep South to become more Thai.
The conflict: 1980s - 2000
After a phase of serious violence in the 1960s and 1970s, the Prem Tinsulanond government brokered a deal in the early 1980s which led to the surrender of most active militants, opened up new opportunities for Malay Muslims to become politicians (including MPs and even ministers), and created financial incentives for the owners of Islamic schools to offer the Thai high school curriculum alongside traditional religious instruction. The arguments in this section are discussed at much greater length in Duncan McCargo, 'Thaksin and the resurgence of violence in the Thai South: network monarchy strikes back?' Critical Asian Studies, 38, 1, pp. 39–71, 2006, later republished in Duncan McCargo (ed.), Rethinking Thailand's Southern Violence, Singapore: NUS Press, 2007, pp. 35-68. A special agency, the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Centre (SBPAC), was established in order to dispense government patronage to the Malay-Muslim elite, build strong ties to local communities, and so maintain peace and order.
The conflict: 2001 - 2003
The controversial police officer turned telecommunications tycoon, Thaksin Shinawatra, became prime minister in 2001 after winning a sweeping election victory. Brash and overconfident, with little sympathy for local sensitivities, he brought a new approach to managing the South. Thaksin quickly began dismantling the existing security structures – which were largely in the hands of the Fourth Army, a branch of the military with close ties to his political opponents – and abolished the SPBAC, which he also mistrusted intensely.
Thaksin disbanded Bangkok's security but new militants were re-grouping
Thaksin was under the grave misapprehension that anti-Thai sentiment in the region had simply faded away, and that occasional violent incidents resulted simply from personal conflicts among local elites and government officials. Unfortunately, just as Thaksin was disbanding Bangkok's security capacity in the region, a new generation of militants was re-grouping. Younger militants believed that their former leadership had long since sold out to Bangkok's financial and other inducements, and planned a new violent offensive using a low-profile network of well-trained youths who would initially focus as much on Muslim "traitors" and collaborators (munafik) as on Thai state targets.
The conflict: 2004 - present
The combination of Thaksin's high-handed brutality, plus the ruthless violence of the revived separatist movement, had explosive results during 2004. Three major incidents symbolised the resurgent violence. On 4 January 2004, militants staged a raid on an army camp in Narathiwat, easily overpowering Thai soldiers, killing four of them, and seizing a large cache of weapons. On 28 April 2004, 111 people were killed, most of them militants who had allegedly staged attacks on a dozen security checkpoints. 32 of the militants were killed when the military stormed the historic Kru-Ze mosque – the most revered Muslim site in southern Thailand – where they had very deliberately taken refuge. The storming of Kru-Ze triggered outrage among Malay Muslims, and proved a turning point in the conflict.
A third major incident took place on 25 October 2004, when more than a thousand Malay Muslim men were arrested following a peaceful protest in Tak Bai, Narathiwat. Seven of them were shot dead on the spot, while another 78 were suffocated while being transported to an army base in military trucks. Tak Bai remains a day of infamy for Malay Muslims, symbolising the repression of which the Thai military is capable, and also the country's culture of judicial impunity; none of those responsible has faced criminal charges. Thaksin himself was at the scene that day and declared at the time he had taken personal command of the operation, something he has since denied. Alas, the brutality shown by the Thai state at Tak Bai has been echoed in the decade that has followed by thousands of murders committed by the militant movement, often against fellow Muslims.
Thailand has repeatedly failed to decentralise power to the regions
Conditions that made Patani ripe for renewed violence at the beginning of the twenty-first century were largely political. Thailand has repeatedly failed to decentralise power to the regions. Of the country's 77 provinces, only one gets to elect its own governor: Bangkok. Governors of the other 76 provinces are all career officials from the Interior Ministry, who are dispatched from Bangkok to rule over the rest of the country. This internal colonial model is singularly inappropriate for managing geographically concentrated ethnic and religious minorities. Malay Muslims in Thailand constitute around 2 per cent of the country's total population, and the dozen or so MPs they elect to a parliament of 500 will never have more than a token impact nationally. Local political elites can run for election to sub-district, municipal and provincial administrative organisations, but these offices carry little prestige.
The Thai state has used the promise of local elections as a divide-and-rule tactic, encouraging prominent Malay Muslim families to squabble amongst themselves for political spoils. This has led to disillusionment with the Malay Muslim elite among lower social classes and especially among the youth. This argument is elaborated in McCargo, Tearing Apart the Land, chapter 2. A parallel process of disillusion has set in with Islamic religious leaders, many of whom have close ties to the Thai state through various connections, including their ownership of government-subsidised private schools, and their work with state-sponsored provincial Islamic councils. In short, the upper echelons of the Malay Muslim elite have lost credibility with their grassroots communities, who see them as having sold out to Bangkok. Meanwhile, Bangkok continues to view these very same elites with great suspicion, suspecting them of harbouring separatist sympathies.
The main militant movement in Patani comprises Malay-Muslim opponents of the Bangkok government. They are opposed primarily by the Thai military, police and formal paramilitary groups, including various kinds of defence volunteers. There are also some more shadowy Thai Buddhist militia groups dedicated to "defending" their communities; some members of these groups may have carried out revenge attacks or even killings. See International Crisis Group, Southern Thailand: The Problem with Paramilitaries, Asia Report no. 140, 23 Oct. 2007, at www.crisisgroup.org
The Malay-Muslim insurgent groups are difficult to define and classify properly. See McCargo, Tearing Apart the Land, chapter 4. These insurgents never claim responsibility for attacks, have not given themselves a name, have no explicit "political wing", and do not issue statements or demands. In earlier phases of the conflict, the militants were divided into various groups which had competing agendas. The most prominent of these groups were the Patani United Liberation Organisation (PULO) and the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN). By the 1990s, these older groups had fragmented into rival factions, many of them semi-dormant, and some existed partly or largely in the imaginations of self-proclaimed leaders who were living in exile either in Malaysia or in Europe.
The link between insurgent groups and the juwae remains murky
The Thai military generally believes that the post-2004 insurgents are aligned with the National Revolutionary Front-Coordinate (Barisan Revolusi Nasional-Coordinate, BRN-C), a splinter group of the old BRN. Thai intelligence claims that the militants have their own top-down structures operating in parallel with Thai villages, districts and provinces. Evidence for this monolithic view is patchy, however, and other analysts insist that most fighting is carried out by small groups of fighters (juwae), typically youths aged 17-25, who operate in cells of around 6, and carry out attacks largely on their own initiative – operating as "self-managed violence franchises". McCargo, Tearing Apart the Land, p. 186. While these juwae have been trained by a larger movement, it apparently functions as a network rather than a conventional hierarchy – something the Thai security forces have struggled to comprehend. The precise relationship between older insurgent groups such as BRN-C and the current juwae remains murky.
Anonymous leaflets purportedly distributed by militants reflect a number of shared narratives concerning the historical mistreatment of Patani by Bangkok, the brutality of what they would call the "infidel Siamese", and the illegitimacy of their territorial claims. At the same time, there is little evidence that Malay Muslims who oppose Thai rule share a common platform. Some clearly cherish hopes of an independent Patani state, sandwiched between Malaysia and Thailand. Others regard such a demand simply as a negotiating ploy to achieve some form of autonomy. Others have no specific political agenda: they simply want to express their resistance to Thai rule through acts of civil disobedience and violence.
The southern conflict reflects the political divide at national level
The Thai security forces have struggled to understand the insurgency as a political problem, initially preferring to believe that much or most of the violence was being caused by personal conflicts, by banditry, or as a spin-off from drug-dealing or smuggling activity on the border. The Thai state has been vitiated by severe internal conflicts since 2001. In brief, the Army has been generally associated with the monarchy, the judiciary and the conservative establishment, which in turn has close links with the Democrat Party: this set of alliances has been termed "network monarchy". By contrast, former premier Thaskin Shinawatra – whose sister has served as prime minister from July 2011 to May 2014 – is closely allied with the police and with a network of pragmatic bureaucrats and business people. In recent years pro-royalist "yellowshirts" have regularly taken to the streets to protest against pro-Thaksin governments, while rival "redshirt" protestors have opposed rule by the Democrat Party. On the red-yellow divide and conflicts, see Michael J. Montesano et al (eds), Bangkok 2010: Perspectives on a Divided Thailand, Singapore: ISEAS 2012. In other words, the conflict in the South reflects wider intractable political divides at the national level, including rivalry between the military and the police.
Given that the Buddhist religion is a pillar of Thai national identity, it is not really possible to separate religion from a challenge to Thai nationhood, especially when the source of the challenge derives from a religious minority. At its core the Southern Thai conflict is an ethno-nationalist struggle, not a religious one; at the same time, Buddhism is closely aligned with Thai ethno-nationalism, while the Malay ethno-nationalism of an imagined Patani statelet is inseparable from Islam.
Anonymous leaflets distributed by militants in the region do contain some jihadist language and references, but the grievances they articulate overwhelmingly concern history, identity, justice and politics. That said, pondok (traditional Islamic boarding schools) and private Islamic schools provide fertile recruiting grounds for young militants, many of whom are identified and groomed by Islamic teachers. For a detailed discussion of Islamic education in the region, see Joseph Liow, Islam, Education and Reform in Southern Thailand: Tradition and Transformation, Singapore: ISEAS 2009. Those who die violently in clashes with the Thai security forces are typically buried unwashed, as shahid. A number of violent incidents have taken place inside or in the grounds of mosques.
Thai forces have taken over temples as ad hoc bases
The militarisation of Buddhist temples in the region symbolises the close ties between the Thai minority population and the security forces. See Jerryson, Buddhist Fury, and Duncan McCargo "The Politics of Buddhist Identity in Thailand's Deep South: The demise of civil religion?" Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 40, 1, February 2009, pp. 11-32 The Thai security forces have taken over many temples as ad hoc bases, sometimes ostensibly in order to protect members of the sangha. Many Buddhist abbots and monks are deeply conservative and harbour anti-Muslim sentiments. Only a minority have supported inter-faith dialogue initiatives. A small number of Buddhist monks have been killed or injured, apparently targeted by militants. Under an officially-supported programme to boost flagging ordinations in the region, some soldiers who remain on active duty have been ordained incognito as monks at local temples; some of them even continue to bear arms.
Some militants have been recruited into the movement on the basis that they are fighting a jihad, and will go to heaven if they should die for the cause. Recruiters claim that Thailand limits religious rights and freedoms for Muslims (a questionable assertion). It is difficult to argue that Muslims in Thailand face real difficulties in actually practicing their religion, though it is true that the Thai state has sought to "manage" Muslim communities, and the security forces have kept imam and religious schools under close scrutiny in the deep South. For decades, the militant movement has maintained its own circle of ulama (Islamic scholars), who are supposed to be consulted about, and to "approve" acts of violence.
By contrast, some members of the Thai security forces and local militias believe that they are acting in the defence of Buddhism by using all possible means – including even extra-judicial killing – to curtail militant activity. Privately, many senior Buddhist monks in the region condone illegal acts of violence committed ostensibly in order to "protect" Buddhist communities.
For the most part this is a localised domestic conflict
It is certainly true that many Islamic teachers in Patani have studied in the Middle East, Pakistan and Indonesia, and that their understandings of notions such as jihad have been shaped by these experiences. There is some limited evidence that a few young juwae (fighters) have also spent time in other Muslim countries. But for the most part, this is a domestic conflict, and Patani insurgents have apparently urged foreign fighters to stay out of it. They do not see the struggle as part of a global or regional jihad, but as a localised conflict over their claim to a specific territory.
To date, the majority of those killed since 2004 have been Malay Muslims, while the majority of those injured have been Buddhists. That said, since Muslims greater outnumber Buddhists in the region, Buddhists are disproportionately affected by the violence, and so in relative terms more Buddhists have been killed. For a relevant discussion see Bangkok Pundit, 3 February 2011: http://asiancorrespondent.com/47607/are-the-majority-of-the-victims-in-t... There are several different categories of victim: members of the security forces and those aligned with the Thai state, school teachers, Islamic leaders, and ordinary civilians from both major communities. At times Buddhist monks and Islamic teachers have been singled out for high profile attacks and, though relatively rare, violence against monks grabs headlines in Bangkok far more than equivalent violence against imam or Islamic religious leaders.
There are no particular restrictions on the practice of the Islamic faith – indeed, many villages now have two or three different mosques, reflecting different schools of belief. However, the Thai state has sought to manage the Muslim communities through a system of elected Islamic provincial councils, which have been extensively manipulated. State authorities have even attempted to meddle in Islamic council elections in the region. For a detailed analysis see Duncan McCargo, 'Co-optation and Resistance in Thailand's Muslim South: The changing role of Islamic Council elections', Government and Opposition, 45, 1, 2010, pp. 99–113.
Many Buddhist temples have become fortified bunkers
Buddhists communities who form a minority of the population in many rural districts have found it difficult to maintain their way of life. Given low numbers of long term ordinations in local temples, they are hard pressed to continue merit-making and other religious activities. Merit-making is at the core of popular Buddhist praxis in Thailand: examples include offering food to monks on their morning alms rounds, and making donations to temples in return for blessings and prayers from members of sangha. Many Buddhist temples have been securitised by the state or by village defence volunteers: instead of oases of peace, they have become fortified bunkers. Some Buddhists have left these areas for nearby towns, while more affluent Buddhists from the region typically maintain second homes in Hat Yai or even Bangkok. Others have formed militia groups dedicated to defending their way of life, with tacit support from government agencies. See International Crisis Group, Southern Thailand: The Problem with Paramilitaries, Asia Report #140, 2007 http://www.crisisgroup.org/~/media/Files/asia/south-east-asia/thailand/1...
Some civil society organisations have been formed that are working to address the causes of the conflict and to help build peace. These include Deep South Watch, a group based on the Pattani campus of Prince of Songkla University which is dedicated to monitoring the conflict and strengthening local communities. See more details at http://www.deepsouthwatch.org/english Another organisation is Patani Forum, which promotes the open exchange of views on issues relating to the conflict. See more details at http://www.pataniforum.com/
A series of external players has sought to assist in resolving the conflict. These have included the regional organisation ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), the Malaysian government (on two different occasions), the Indonesian government, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), and at least two European humanitarian groups. Several of these players have sought to facilitate or broker dialogue between militants groups and the Thai state. See Patani Forum, Negotiating a Peaceful Coexistence between the Malays of Patani and the Thai State, November 2012, pataniforum.com/admin/jquery/.../Press%20Release%20English(1).pdf
None of these initiatives led to significant breakthroughs, partly because they tended to focus on particular elements with the Thai state – the National Security Council, the military, or the prime minister's office – rather than engaging with a full range of state agencies. Given the diffuse nature of the competing power networks operating within Thai state and elite circles, any successful initiative would require broad-based support. Fragmented and polarised politics in Bangkok constitute a major obstacle to a political settlement.
Not easy to define who could or should represent the insurgents
A similar problem applies on the other side of the table: given the diffuse nature of the insurgency and the lack of clearly identified groups and leaders controlling militant violence, it is not easy to define who could or should represent the insurgents in any dialogue process. Previous processes have worked mainly with both non-insurgents – Malay Muslims with no direct ties to militant groups, but who may have relevant insights or access to back-channels – and former or exiled insurgents.
A key question is: Who is well-placed to facilitate, broker or mediate between the Thai authorities and the insurgents? This is the third major problem facing any dialogue process. Non-state actors may enjoy advantages in such situations, but they lack the clout or the resources of governments. Governments from neighbouring countries may have much to contribute; but Malaysia and Indonesia are likely to be viewed with some scepticism by the Thai authorities, as states that are overly-sympathetic towards the Malay community in Patani.
The OIC has been viewed with particular suspicion by the Thai side, as representing an "Islamic" agenda likely to be inimical to Thai interests. The latest Malaysian government initiative was officially endorsed by the Thai government in February 2013, and gained more traction than any previous dialogue process. Nevertheless, severe national-level political conflicts in Thailand since November 2013, including the recent take over of the government by the military, mean that all hopes for a resolution of the southern insurgency are on hold. However, prime minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha met his Malaysian counterpart Najib Razak on 1 December 2014, and the two leaders agreed to press ahead with peace talks using a revised format, one which so far looks likely to be devoid of substance in terms of any real quest for a political solution.
The views expressed by this author remain solely their own and are not to be taken as the view of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.
This situation report was first published on 10 February 2014.
It was last updated on 2 December 2014.