While terrorism in Europe and South Asia grips the headlines, the obscure but savage insurgency in southern Thailand remains an afterthought even for many politicians in Bangkok. On May 9, the insurgents hit a supermarket in Pattani with a double-tap attack, detonating a small bomb at 2:10 pm and another soon after. Human Rights Watch suggested that the insurgents, who injured 61 civilians, including children, might have committed a crime against humanity. The Thai government, however, has diverted its attention elsewhere and ignored the crisis in the south, instead addressing the ongoing dispute between Qatar and Saudi Arabia and reviewing the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
The insurgency remains difficult to resolve in part because of the insurgents’ secrecy. Though none doubt that the insurgents, who claim to champion the national interests of Thailand’s Malay, Muslim minority, desire independence for the south, few can confirm or even identify who represents them. The Thai government is now negotiating with apparent representatives of the insurgency, yet experts have noted a divide between younger military commanders in southern Thailand and older political leaders, many of whom reside far from the battlefield in Malaysia. Negotiations exclude the National Revolutionary Front (BRN), which spearheads the insurgency in the south, undermining the credibility of the peace process and the Thai government’s commitment to it.
The Thai military insisted that negotiations would continue after the bombing, which the BRN likely perpetrated. “The attack is not getting in the way of the peace talks, which we are pushing forward,” said Major General Sith Trakulwong. “Despite the violence, the peace talks will go on.”
Yada Chuaychamnak, a Buddhist from Pattani, has grown frustrated with the Thai government. “The coup government is still dogmatic and projects useless policy for the south,” she told The Diplomat, referring to the junta of General Prayut Chan-o-cha, who seized power in a 2014 coup d’état. “The government still refuses a third party to be a facilitator as the BRN requested in an announcement on April 10 this year. The BRN refused the Thai government’s peace-process plan as well and called for a third party, such as an INGO or the international community, to join negotiations as an observer and witness. Also, the BRN requires a neutral mediator to be a leader of the negotiations, which the Thai Army cannot do.”
The mediascape of southern Thailand has hindered the ability of Thais such as Chuaychamnak to express their views, for journalists tend to rely on the Thai government’s narrative. “The study of source attribution reveals that frequently cited informers are mostly authority figures, particularly police officers and members of the government,” wrote researcher Phansasiri Kularb in Reporting Thailand’s Southern Conflict: Mediating Political Dissent. “In line with existing studies, it is apparent that the coverage of the southern conflict principally relies on the authorities’ accounts.” The insurgents, meanwhile, rarely speak to journalists to maintain their aura of mystery and secrecy. This strategy thus frees the Thai government to promote its worldview that the Thai Royal Army and Police are fighting terrorism.
“Insurgency violence is basically a form of communicative action between non-state actor and state security apparatus,” Don Pathan, one of few journalists with access to the insurgents, told The Diplomat. “What’s interesting about this conflict is that the audience is largely confined to the combatants and the state security apparatus. For the time being, the strategy of the insurgents is to discredit the security agencies and to make the area ungovernable as much as possible.”
The Thai government has exacerbated the difficulty of separating civilians from the state by encouraging sectarianism in the south. “Thai Buddhist militarism is most particularly visible in the three southernmost provinces, where the state has situated its forces within local wat [temples],” observed Michael J. Jerryson, a professor at Youngstown State University, in Buddhist Fury: Religion and Violence in Southern Thailand. “The joint presence of armed forces and monks within the wat symbolizes the collapse of any distinction between Thai Buddhist and the state.” Such overlap between civilian and state can contribute to the impetus behind attacks such as the one on May 9, which targeted apolitical, innocent Buddhist and Muslim shoppers to send a political message to the Thai government and military.
In the face of these difficulties, Bangkok appears to lack interest in resolving the insurgency through either a military victory or political settlement. Instead, the military dictatorship has redoubled its efforts to muzzle the press and quash dissent, inserting itself into everyday life. Officials have prioritized foreign policy over national security, looking to improve their military relationship with the United States and planning for Prime Minister Prayut’s visit to the White House. Meanwhile a May 22 bombing in Bangkok indicated that the south will prove far from the Thai government’s only dilemma in terms of security. With other concerns dominating Bangkok’s attention it was only on June 5, almost a month after the supermarket bombing in Pattani, that the government saw fit to increase patrols along the Malaysian-Thai border.
Thailand’s military prefers governance to war, explaining its challenges with the insurgency. “The core pursuits of the Thai military are playing politics and engaging in business activities (including illegal activities, such as smuggling); when the occasion arises, commanders are not averse to killing a few dozen unarmed civilians,” Duncan McCargo, a professor at Leeds University, argued in Tearing Apart the Land: Islam and Legitimacy in Southern Thailand. “The Thai military had no strong grasp of counterinsurgency techniques or strategy, subjects which were not really taught at the Chulachomklao Military Academy.” Rather than confronting the difficulties that it faces in the south, the military dictatorship has opted to avoid or ignore them, reinvigorating the insurgency.
In an effort to counter the insurgency through soft power, the Thai government is seeking to strengthen the south’s economy. These measures will likely prove pointless without tackling the insurgency itself, though. By excluding the BRN from the peace process, the Thai government can never hope to defeat it, for history has shown that the Thai military lacks the discipline and skill to best an insurgency on the battlefield. Instead, Thai officials and soldiers should reinvest in peace. According to Pathan, the ongoing peace talks will fail “without BRN participation because this movement controls virtually all of the combatants on the ground.”
Unless Bangkok changes its strategy to compensate for its failings, the military dictatorship can only hope for more of what it has now: an insurgency that shows no signs of stopping.
Austin Bodetti is a freelance journalist focusing on conflict in the Muslim world. His writing has appeared in AskMen, The Daily Beast, The Daily Dot, Vox, and Wired UK.