Features | Security | Southeast Asia

Thailand’s Forgotten Conflict

While the international media focuses on Red and Yellow Shirt clashes and a temple spat, a deadly rebellion still brews in Thailand’s south.

Luke Hunt

As Thailand lurches from one political crisis to the next—whether over its Cambodian border, or closer to the capital where the Red and Yellow Shirts are going toe-to-toe—the separatist rebellion in the country’s south has largely escaped international attention. Its seventh anniversary passed quietly, with little mention.

But the lack of a media spotlight doesn’t mean the situation has calmed down. On Tuesday, a villager was shot dead in Pattani, with his death being blamed on insurgents. The incident followed Monday’s motorbike bomb, which killed one person and injured 16 in Yala; another 17 were hurt by a car bomb in Pattani on Sunday. Back in Yala, on February 13, 18 people were wounded by a car bomb. On February 3, five Buddhist villagers were gunned down outside a Pattani teashop.

And the fact is, February was just another month in southern Thailand.

For most of the past seven years, the authorities have preferred to dismiss the attacks as random acts of violence carried out by either bandits or a handful of disgruntled Islamic militants. But such attempts at playing down the carnage rankled Western governments. What they saw instead was another battleground in the global war on terrorism and Islamic militancy, with the conflict in southern Thailand seen as a persistent threat to regional security.

But whatever the view from abroad, it was five years before the Thai police admitted they had a separatist movement on their hands—a well-structured organization consisting of five related groups operating across four provinces—Songkhla, Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat—where six million Muslims live. Still, actually identifying the leaders proved tricky, even though the National Revolutionary Front-Coordinate (BRN-C) can be traced back to the 1960s, and has held the highest profile among southern separatist movements.

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Yet this is about more than just some obscure provincial groupings—there has also been evidence of links with al-Qaeda and regional terrorist outfits like Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) (although this group is currently in decline). The evidence of this can be traced through a series of interviews believed to have been granted by the self-described leader of al-Qaeda in Southeast Asia, ‘Abu Ubaidah’ who had fits of talkativeness up until last year, but who has since gone quiet.

‘What’s happening in Pattani isn’t an internal conflict, some (fighters) come from the neighbouring country, some come from far away, many thousands of miles,’ he has said, while urging Muslims in Malaysia and Indonesia to join his jihad.

He has also said through a series of Malaysia-based blogs that the conflict changed significantly from 2004, when the struggle was based largely on nationalistic assertions. Killings that year at the Kerisik Mosque, which claimed more than 100 lives, and at Tak Bai where at least 85 died, had effectively transformed the rebellion.

‘Now they fight fully and only for Allah,’ Abu insisted.

Fast forward to today, and police offer a breakdown of the five groups believed to be behind the unrest. Officials say the first of the five groups under the BRN-C consists of Islamic leaders and teachers who are responsible for initiating sympathizers to the cause and educating insurgents at an operational level through the distortion of Islamic teachings to suit their military objectives.

The second group develops close links at the grassroots by occupying administrative positions. A third group is responsible for funding and, according to assistant national police chief Abdul Saengsingkaew, has found strong support among influential local business leaders.

The Runda Kumpulan Kecil (RKK), a small combat unit of guerrillas, makes up the fourth group, and there are an estimated 3000 to 5000 RKK troops in the south.

Last is the Permudor, a fifth column made up of young sympathizers who monitor official movements, obstruct police wherever possible, and protect RKK fighters. This group of motley teenagers is expected to graduate into the ranks of the RKK over the coming years.

The south was an independent sultanate until Thailand annexed it a century ago, and separatist violence has periodically flared since then. However, the conflict really erupted on January 4, 2004, with an arms theft from an army camp that resulted in a heavy-handed crackdown by the military, which included the killings at Kerisik and Tak Bai.

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On the same day, according to Abu, the Syura Council of the Islamic Mujahidin made a ‘declaration of war’ targeting the Thai and Malaysian governments. Since then, more than 4,300 people have died in bloody tit-for-tat reprisals as militant Muslims push for an independent homeland.

To counter this, the Thai Army has embarked on an ambitious plan aimed at recruiting heavily from the southern provinces troops, with these forces expected eventually to be used to quell dissent and resolve issues among the predominantly Malay Muslims.

They are backed by Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who has vowed to find a solution to the violence by establishing a permanent administrative office, a special economic development zone, and enhancing co-operation with Islamic countries.

But there are doubts about whether all this will work given his government’s inability to resolve protests on the streets of Bangkok, especially with anti-government Red Shirts launching another series of demonstrations this week, and the belligerence on display over the border dispute with Cambodia near Preah Vihear. Peaceful negotiations and the recognition of the rights of others hasn’t exactly been a strong point in Bangkok lately.

Thailand’s disputes are many, and the reality is that few believe Abhisit’s government will find the logistics—or the will power—to resolve the southern insurrection anytime soon.