Thailand’s deep south is far different from the islands that put Thailand on the tourist map. Here, the muezzin is heard more frequently than music from bars. The insurgency which has been ongoing in earnest since 2004 has played out mostly in the three southernmost districts of the country — Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat — and occasionally the southern provinces of Songkhla.
The insurgency’s roots in the deep south date back to Thailand’s annexation and conquest of the Malay Sultanate of Patani. The Sultanate of Patani was formed in 1516 and had a tumultuous relationship with Siam, with the deep south of Thailand being formally annexed out of the northern Malay Peninsula after the Anglo-Siamese treaty in 1909. Following the annexation a series of heavy handed, forced assimilation measures stoked tensions and failed to take hold, leaving the area disenfranchised. By the mid-1950s, a separatist insurgency had begun to emerge and in 2004 it exploded, with several groups launching heavy attacks on civilians and Thai security forces.
However, over the last few years the situation in Thailand’s deep south has improved relatively speaking and the conflict is not as heavy as it used to be. These days, there is still tension on the streets but not as much as before. Soldiers with guns still line the streets in some places, armored vehicles are dotted around highways and there are many checkpoints, more so than elsewhere in Thailand by a large margin. But many checkpoints are unmanned now. Despite the slow process of peace talks, things were looking up as the violence continued to decrease.
But a recent event in Yala has worried those who were starting to feel optimistic.
In mid-January a motorcycle bomb killed three civilians, wounded many more and is continuing to have repercussions. The bomb, which has yet to be claimed by a group, is a stark reminder of the violence that rocked the region for years.
In the 14 years since the renewal of the insurgency, there have been 15,164 violent incidents according to one count. Out of the estimated 6,000 deaths caused by the violence in Thailand’s deep south, about 90 percent were civilians. It is then all too clear that the civilians have been affected by the insurgency the most, and have paid a higher price.
Wannakanok Pohitaedaoh, the founder of the association for Children and Youth for Peace in the Deep South, knows the personal cost of the conflict all too well. She has lost four members of her family to the fighting. She highlights the cyclical role of conflict, as “vulnerable children without parents are more easily persuaded to join conflict and seek revenge.” She says the situation has improved, “there used to be daily bombings, now there are much less.” One reason is as now “there is more reporting and awareness of this issue,” which has led to the reduction in attacks. Moreover, when I asked her if she is optimistic about the future she replied, “yes, very.” Despite January’s flare up, she has good reason to be hopeful: on the surface at least, things are getting better.
Some statistics provide backing for her claims. For instance, according to Internal Security Operations Command spokesman Col. Pramote Prom-in, the situation has improved, resulting in 8,700 troops being withdrawn from the region in October 2016. In 2018 3,000 more will be withdrawn leaving 58,000. Safety zones are in development.
While the insurgency might have calmed down, the bombing in Yala and other sporadic incidents make it clear that while things have improved, it may be too early to rejoice. For those analyzing the conflict, the deep south is not out of the woods yet.
The conflict, even if it is in a low intensity state, is taking its toll on the local population and their livelihoods. The list of social externalities of the conflict is as depressing as it is long. If family members are injured, the family faces expensive rehabilitation costs and medical bills. Families of those killed have to deal with loss of earnings, making it harder to send kids to school. There is a link between the conflict and sexual harassment. Children are the biggest victims of roadside bombs. Schools were previously used to radicalize students with madrasas teaching students, particularly vulnerable ones, how to fight.
The role of foreign militants is unclear, due to the secretive nature of the insurgent groups, but it is believed to be minimal. This is a self-supported and sustained insurgency, and not part of a wider global ‘Muslim insurgency’ as has been claimed by some.
According to an anonymous source, corruption is the major obstacle to sustainable peace. At times, when an attack happens, money is sent from the government in Bangkok for local development and for the security forces, and this has a role in prolonging the conflict. Money is sent for development in the region, attempting to improve life for inhabitants and thus reducing local sympathy for the insurgents. More money for local police is also sent to the area and due to corruption, this can be misappropriated Attacks also publicized the demands of both the insurgents and justify the heavy handed tactics of the Thai security forces: both sides appear to be benefiting from the prolongation of the conflict.
While the insurgents have had their strength weakened over the last few years, their presence still remains, particularly in rural villages. This rural support is particularly hard to root out. While many ethnic Malays have adopted the Thai language and taken Thai names, there is still a cultural divide and religion is undoubtedly a part of that. Human rights abuses by Thai forces have extended this feeling of distrust.
One of the major insurgency groups, Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), were responsible for two bombs which were set off in the Big C shopping mall in Pattani, injuring 61 in in May 2017. BRN is an insurgency group founded in 1963, and are currently the strongest group in the region. They were involved in peace talks with the Thai government in 2013, but little came from those talks as only BRN were present at the table and wider insurgent representation is required, such as that of Mara Patani.
Mara Patani is a loose umbrella group of six political liberation organizations in the deep south, including BRN, Barisan Islam Pembebasan Patani, and Gerakan Mujahidin Islam Patani. Mara Patani’s aim is to develop effective dialogue, and it has representatives of each of the six constituent organizations. They are coming to the table, but still want to campaign for independence. Analysts have claimed that Mara Patani has limited control of actors on the ground. While Mara Patani might not be the best representative of the aims of Malays from the deep south, according to Deep South Watch, “currently it is the sole unified voice to attain support from people of various groups, with or without a peace process.” Although there are attempts through Mara Patani to bring a large assortment of groups to the discussion table, these attempts have made little progress.
There are other reasons for the conflict continuing. Regional politics play a large role, and now that the culture of violence has been normalized, it is seen as a longstanding and legitimate means of political action and campaigning. Moreover the heavy-handed tactics used by Thai security forces continue to drive villagers into the hands of the insurgency and provide a steady, if declining, stream of new recruits. This protracted violence will continue to place civilians at risk.
Large reforms and changes in position are required on both sides for any meaningful and positive breakthrough to occur. It is clear that while the military approach taken by the Thai junta can minimize the security threat posed by the region’s insurgency, it can never eliminate it entirely as Bangkok refuses to address the deeply rooted causes for the insurgency. While allowing the secession of the deep south provinces to form their own independent sovereign territory is realistically never going to happen, some form of decentralization could be a more likely solution.
Increased educational and religious freedom in the region would be likely to gain credibility among the local population, and incorporation of local education would also alleviate the previously encountered problems of radicalization in Muslim schools that happened when locals felt forced out of the state education system. A move away from an assimilation-only view of national integration and allowing the flourishing of dual identities, be they ethnic or religious, as has been done elsewhere in Southeast Asia would be another move to reduce current anti-Thai sentiment. Curbing the impunity of the Thai security forces involved in human rights abuses would be another significant step in the improving relations with the local community.
From the Mara Patani side, a halt on attacks, particularly on civilians, and a concerted effort to join constructive dialogue, would be a strong indicator to Bangkok of their willingness to compromise. Mara Patani needs to show strength in unity, as unified commitment from all groups will be necessary for any compromise or agreement with the Thai state. It will not work if one actor is left out to continue the insurgency. The dropping of demands for independence in lieu of decentralization will allow their other requests to be considered. In the meantime, while these problems continue, it is the locals who suffer from the abuses committed by both sides. The mutual goals of reduction conflict in the area should be the aim.
The recent bombing in Yala may not be an indicator of a return to the dark days of the conflict, but it is a bloody reminder of what could happen if the conflict is not resolved and should serve as a catalyst to get the involved parties back to the discussion table.
Maximillian Morch is a freelance journalist and researcher currently based in Southeast Asia.