In a world where the news media focuses on the failed states of the Muslim world, such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen, Thailand often escapes attention. Though a Buddhist-majority country, Thailand suffers from one of the longest-running Muslim insurgencies in Asia. Malay irredentists and secessionists describing themselves as Islamists have hit southern Thailand with beheadings and car bombs, nightmarish tactics rarely seen outside the Middle East. Even so, analysts and journalists must appreciate Thailand as an outlier in the history of jihadism.
A report released this month by the International Crisis Group, Jihadism in Southern Thailand: A Phantom Menace, offers several insights into the enigmatic insurgency along the Malay-Thai border. “To date, there is no evidence of jihadists making inroads among the separatists fronts fighting for what they see as liberation of their homeland, Patani,” says the report. “But the conflict and a series of ISIS scares in Thailand are fanning fears of a new terrorist threat. Such fears are not irrational, though are largely misplaced and should not obscure the calamity of the insurgency and the need to end it.”
Even scholar Rohan Gunaratna, who heads the International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research and often proves quick to label any conflict in the Muslim world an outgrowth of terrorism, has admitted: “Despite the rhetoric about ‘global jihad,’ the conflict in southern Thailand, however, remains predominantly local. It could best be bracketed as an old-fashioned ethno-nationalist struggle, though layered over religion as it involves Muslims in southern Thailand fighting for their identity.” The insurgents identify less as Muslims than as Malays.
Unlike in Iraq and Syria, where insurgents, Islamists, rebels, and terrorists have global or regional aspirations and love to broadcast their opinions online, southern Thailand’s insurgents like to operate under a media blackout. Despite employing Islamist, jihadi rhetoric, they avoid the political trappings that underpin the Islamic State (ISIS), which tells whoever will listen about its struggling attempt at a worldwide caliphate. Because southern Thailand’s insurgents have only national goals, they have no need for the international community, instead drawing from the support of the local community.
In keeping with the unique nature of southern Thailand’s insurgency, the thesis of the Crisis Group’s report advocates a solution that has failed other countries dealing with Muslim rebels but could succeed here: conflict resolution. “Direct talks between insurgent leaders and the government are a priority,” the report states, “a decentralized political system could help address the principal grievances in the south while preserving the unitary Thai state.” According to the Crisis Group, Thailand needs peace talks, not counterinsurgency. If only Thailand’s military government, one of the few left in the world, agreed.
Some Malays in southern Thailand sympathetic to the insurgency have looked to secessionism in Catalonia, a region of Spain, for inspiration. Catalonian advocacy groups and nongovernment organizations have served as models for Malay activists’ political party platforms to achieve autonomy or independence. The Catalonian example has run into its own challenges, though. Several Catalonian officials wanted for trying to secede from Spain fled to Belgium only to surrender to authorities there. Given that the Thai–Malays inhabit a military dictatorship, they have even fewer options.
The Crisis Group worries that political repression could inspire jihadism in southern Thailand. “Southernmost Thailand appears on the surface to offer conditions favorable for jihadist expansion: a Sunni minority that constitutes a majority in the conflict zone; a Muslim insurgency with a narrative of dispossession at the hands of non-Muslim colonizers; and a protracted conflict with frequent repression and violence by Thai authorities,” reads the report. “Thai officials, analysts, and even some in the militant movement have expressed concerns about prospects for jihadist influence.”
For contemporary examples of how much worse the problem can get, scholars should look no further than two of Thailand’s own neighbors: Myanmar and the Philippines. The Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s military, has relied on a small-scale Muslim insurgency similar to Thailand’s to justify a campaign of ethnic cleansing rife with war crimes against the Rohingya, the country’s largest Muslim minority. Observers fear that this brutality could radicalize the hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing Myanmar, who have become a cause célèbre for many Islamist resistance movements and terrorist organizations.
Across the South China Sea, the Armed Forces of the Philippines only just retook Marawi, a city held by one of Islamic State’s Southeast Asian affiliates. Now, regional authorities suspect that ISIS may try to mastermind suicide attacks in revenge, with Australia even warning its citizens about travel to the country. Unlike in Myanmar and Thailand, ISIS has found a foothold in the Philippines, foreshadowing the difficulties that Thailand may find itself confronting if it continues its current style of counterinsurgency. The peace process in the Philippines, like its half-hearted counterpart in Thailand, is faltering.
The Crisis Group’s report offers some cause for cautious, narrow optimism. “Thailand lacks a legacy of jihadist movements and networks that, elsewhere in Southeast Asia, have pledged allegiance to ISIS and al-Qaeda,” it notes. “The leaders of existing militant fronts are antagonistic to these groups and their Southeast Asian affiliates because they see association with international terrorists as a threat to their goal of Patani self-determination.” For now at least, southern Thailand’s insurgents dislike Islamists and terrorists as much as officials in Bangkok, Manila, Naypyidaw, and Washington.
Both sides must understand the mutual benefit of preventing jihadism’s expansion into Southern Thailand. “Malay-Muslim militants and the Thai state alike have a common interest in keeping out ISIS and other jihadist groups,” concludes the report. “While for now, the conflict has not led to the pervasive disorder that jihadists have exploited elsewhere, it could evolve in ways that generate more promising conditions for jihadist intervention.” Only peace talks can keep jihadism from Thailand.
As insurgents and counterinsurgents in southern Thailand weigh how best to proceed, they must consider the implications of the Crisis Group’s conclusions. Since the outset of the insurgency in the early 2000s, neither side has come close to winning. Maybe they both can at the negotiating table. Otherwise, they may be facing a decades-long Muslim insurgency similar to China’s and India’s.