Features | Politics | Southeast Asia

Southern Thailand’s New Activists

The peace process slowly moves forward, while younger activists opt for Facebook over guns.

By James Bean for
Southern Thailand’s New Activists

Tuwaedaniya leads a protest outside the Malaysian Consulate in Southern Thailand in August

Credit: Soray Deng

For years, Thailand has been engaged in a little-known war in its Malay-speaking southern provinces (or “Patani,” as the locals call it), the origins of which lie in the country’s sustained policy of assimilation that started with the annexation of the region by Siam in 1909. Both sides in this conflict are dug in. While statistics have not been kept throughout this century-long conflict, since 2004 – when data started being systematically collected – more than 10,000 people have been injured and nearly 6,000 killed.

It has only been this year with the commencement of formal bilateral peace talks in February that the resistance movement has been able to learn just how far the Thai government is willing to go to secure peace along its southernmost borders. There are positive signs that Bangkok is willing to discuss the full scope of the prickly issues that epitomize the resistance movement’s complaints and demands. However, one of the challenges that beset these talks is the degree to which the parties at the table are able to look beyond their own set of concerns and represent the voices and perspectives of civil society in Patani.

What has begun to emerge amidst the peace talks is a resistance movement that is gradually shifting from a purely militant-led strategy to political action led by civil society. Activists I have spoken to in Southern Thailand, who are as fluent in Thai as they are in their native Malay, like to point out that they have over 5,000 friends on Facebook and, “will not remain silent on the issues.” Contrary to the widely held assumptions about resistance indoctrination in Patani, this civilian-led movement is not emerging from unregulated Islamic boarding schools – long accused of being the breeding ground for radicalization – but from Thailand’s own public education system.

The current bilateral dialogue process is the first time that the government has formally acknowledged the armed resistance movement led by the highly secretive National Resistance Front, or BRN. Another first for these talks is the formal participation of the Malaysian government, in this case as a facilitator, which is seen by seasoned Patani-watchers as a crucial development given the historical tendency of resistance groups to use peninsular Malaysia as a safe haven from which to mount attacks and more recently seek refuge. In April, BRN for the first time publicized its preliminary demands, which included an expanded role for the Malay facilitator, the inclusion of external observers, release of political prisoners, and – perhaps most vexing of all for Bangkok – the complex question of Patani-Malay indigenous rights. Barely nine months in, this tentative peace process has already succumbed to hubris, best illustrated by an abortive ceasefire episode that collapsed within days of its announcement.

Young people inclined to political action have started to quietly question the logic of an overwhelmingly militant struggle in Southern Thailand. Pointing out the intrinsic limitations of this approach, one former member of BRN’s political wing, Aziz, recalls the early days of the conflict in 2004; “In areas where the population provided strong support, BRN carried out too many political activities and military operations…The battle intensity exhausted communities and put them at risk of retaliation from the Thai military.” Thus, instead of protecting the population, BRN shot itself in the foot by actually inviting insecurity in those areas it controlled. Aziz, a university graduate from Ramkamhaeng University in Bangkok, claims that he complained internally at the time and urged BRN to adopt a more politically savvy approach. He explained that only when BRN found itself on the ropes during the last ten years did it reluctantly lift its injunction on members operating – or hiding in plain sight as it were – within local government, security services, or joining political parties .

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Finally, with the peace talks afoot, it seems that BRN has rediscovered politics and negotiation. In September, at the request of the Thai delegation, the BRN-led delegation transmitted what the media has described as a 38 page report or “clarification.”  This document has elements of “bait and switch” – in this case, baiting members of the Thai delegation with a relatively straightforward set of issues, and, when they show interest, pressuring them to consider a more onerous set of “clarified” demands. Compared to the “roadmap” document prepared by the Thai delegation and widely circulated in March-April this year, BRN’s submission is by far the most detailed and thorough proposal for sequencing the current and future negotiations. A key demand is a proposed joint drawdown of forces, which has agitated the Thai military and no doubt accounted for the delay in the response from Bangkok. In late October, the Thai delegation finally responded, agreeing to further discussion of BRN’s demands, adding two agenda items of their own concerning a reduction in violence and respecting the co-existence of different religious groups in what it refers to as Southern Thailand’s “pluralistic society.”

Both despite and because of the talks, violence on the ground has intensified and BRN has shifted its focus from targeting local collaborators to assassinating security officials and representatives of the state. There are, however, signs of hope. Central among them is the emergence of civil society groups and activists who have started asking just how responsive peace talks are to local perspectives and expectations. New books with titles like Patani Merdeka (i.e. “Independent Patani”) are being published by young activists, local media is blossoming, and the boundaries for political expression in Southern Thailand are being routinely tested and expanded. Some observers claim that this rise of political activism is nothing more than the rejuvenation of BRN’s political wing. But in fact, these mostly young civil society activists are exercising freedoms that the broader Thai polity has been exploring since the most recent coup d’état in 2006.

In 2004, the war in Southern Thailand made international headlines when several thousand Patani-Malays confronted the Thai army in the seaside town of Tak Bai seeking the release of six men detained by authorities on accusations of providing weapons to insurgents. On that day protesters assembled in what the government claimed was a political action orchestrated by BRN. Kandar (not his real name), a teacher who was among the approximately 1,300 men arrested that day in Tak Bai, recalls, “On the way to the site we heard shots, but everyone thought, ‘whatever, let’s keep pushing on!’ Initially soldiers had started using tear-gas and water cannons to disperse the crowd, but when I retreated to the river’s edge, a live round hit a steel railing just near me. At this point I realized that the army had switched to live ammunition.”

Not long after being shot at, Kandar and many other men were arrested and loaded onto a truck. Kandar was forced to lie down in the third row of men stacked four rows high. He estimated that the entire trip lasted over ten hours before they arrived at a military camp in the province of Pattani. During this time he described how he had to move around and allow for the men in lower rows to breathe and get the circulation going in their limbs. Upon arrival, three unconscious men were removed from the truck bed, one of them found to have severe swelling in his legs and testicles. Out of the estimated 1,300 men arrested that day, some 80 men died from asphyxiation and organ failure. But this, according to an implausible and widely derided Supreme Court review concluded in August, was not due to any wrongdoing on the part of the Thai security personnel.

Tak Bai should have marked the beginning of stepped-up political action by the resistance movement, but the heavy-handed response by the Thai military was devastating. Hasan (not his real name), a field coordinator working with a community-based organization providing outreach assistance to a prominent legal aid provider, explained to me that it took nearly three years for civil society activism to muster up the courage to challenge the government after the tragic events at Tak Bai in 2004. In June 2007, a four-day strike and sit-in at the Pattani Central Mosque brought 10,000 people together to raise awareness of human rights abuses in southern Thailand. Older activists claim that this protest and the silent protests preceding it (i.e. short demonstrations by performers wearing tape over their mouths) were the result of lessons learned at Tak Bai

Tuwaedaniya, a prominent activist, decries the paucity of reliable information in southern Thailand “especially at the start of the peace talks, when we really wanted to know what was going on!”  Tuwaedaniya shot to prominence this year by spearheading a series of rallies designed to publicly confront both the government and BRN with the costs of war and the need for a “representative peace”.

Sadly, Tuwaedaniya’s notoriety also stems from a smear campaign on Facebook and through the Thai media, accusing him and others of being BRN sympathizers. This campaign started when a primary school teacher was arrested in April, accused of aiding insurgents, and detained at a camp in the province of Yala. Two grassroots organizations – a teacher’s union and Tuwaedaniya’s own activist group – organized a demonstration outside the camp that gathered around 500 protesters, mostly primary school teachers. The demonstration lasted five hours, and after protracted negotiations, the military camp authorities relented and allowed the teacher to leave the camp to address the 500-strong crowd. Along with the protest organizers she warned the camp administrators that unless she was released in seven days (the time limit for detention without charge under the martial law in force across Thailand’s southernmost provinces) a bigger demonstration would follow.

Tuwaedaniya played a significant role in this protest. After it was over, he and his colleagues became the targets of “trolls” on a Facebook page entitled “South Dark” whom some believe to hail from the same security agency as the camp authorities they confronted in Yala. The choice of means for attacking activists, in this case Facebook, was particularly significant because activists like Tuwaedaniya have been using exactly this medium, along with town-hall style meetings, to engage civil society in exploring what peace in Patani means for people who have been living with guerrilla war all their lives.

BRN’s apparent shift in strategy from revolution to negotiation has taken civil society groups by surprise. “We wanted to pressure BRN to disclose their strategy, the direction of their thinking…we had almost no information in the beginning,” explains Tuwaedaniya. “At the time BRN was putting up banners around Patani, reproducing their demands at the village-level. The Thai media were accusing us of being a division of BRN! So, we came up with ‘Talking Patani’ as a way of putting peace squarely in the public domain.”

Although under-reported, ‘Talking Patani’ has become a popular development in southern Thailand, precisely because it pre-empts the common mistake made in many peace processes that leave the “middle” out by focusing on the leaders of the opposing sides. Nearly 40 town hall events have been held in towns and trading centers across the region, with attendance ranging from 300 to 10,000 people per event. Eschewing the conventional discussion forums and protections offered by nearby university-based think tank Deep South Watch, the format of “Talking Patani” engages people living with the conflict at the community-level in exploring indigenous rights and the dynamics of the ongoing peace talks in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

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According to activists working on the ground, local authorities arbitrarily charge and arrest Patani-Malay civilians thought to be giving aid and comfort to the insurgents. Tuwaedaniya feels that the “violence committed against soft targets has increased as a result of the peace talks” – he believes that the vast majority of this violence is perpetrated by Thai security forces. During the writing of this article, I was informed of the assassination of two young civil society activists in August and September.

Each of the two warring parties tends to assume that civil society groups are actually collaborating with the other side and this justifies targeting civilians. During the course of my fieldwork in October, I spoke to the families of two ex-combatants, who were part of a large group of 93 alleged “insurgents” that surrendered to the Royal Thai Army in September last year. Under this program, known as “Bring People Home,” individuals with outstanding arrest warrants or bounties for security-related crimes are induced to resume “normal” lives providing that they report to the authorities and renounce rebellion. Despite the safety assurances provided by local security actors to participants of the scheme, two of the 93 that surrendered in September 2012 were shot dead during the last two months. Family members of the victims believe that these killings were carried out by death squads supported by the Thai military, despite allegations by local Thai security forces that BRN in fact carried out the killings because the victims were “snitches.” Commenting on the killings, one of the remaining 91 returnees under the same program said, “The military is not sincere…they refuse to trust us and leave us alone.”

Ustaz Duloh (not his real name), a senior member of BRN’s religious wing, depicts the people of Patani as easily manipulated and anxious to throw their lot in with the strongest side. Senior resistance fighters like Duloh, who typically represent a less compromising stance, view the political action led by activists like Tuwaedaniya through the prism of their own participation in protest movements back in the1970s. “My friends and colleagues were killed,” he says, “I was so angry…The Thai government is cruel, they provide us no freedom to think, to express our culture… They should have caught who did it, but the government failed.”

The way old grievances calcify in people like Ustaz Duloh should be instructive for the Thai government as it considers how to deal with this new crop of bright, passionate activists who, for now at any rate, have chosen to build political strongholds for nonviolent resistance rather than pursuing armed resistance. These groups are working together to form a critical mass of support across a broad cross-section of young Patani-Malays, and calling for people to learn from regional attempts at achieving peace in places like Indonesia and the Philippines. Unlike previous generations of activists, this new generation of civil society advocates is focused on sustaining longer-term efforts to educate and mobilize communities in order to give meaning and longevity to an eventual peace process. The rise of civilian-led political action in Southern Thailand is a milestone and signal from the Facebook generation that people living in southern Thailand are determined to become stakeholders instead of distant spectators to any eventual peace process. It is yet to be seen whether the parties now at the table are prepared to listen to them and see their efforts to invigorate civil society as a constructive part of the broader process of dialogue.

James Bean is a PhD candidate with The Australian National University’s School of International, Political, and Strategic Studies. Email: [email protected]