The three Southern Thai provinces of Patani, Yala and Narathiwat provide a scenic backdrop to one of the region’s longest conflicts. The region is a mix of Chinese, Malay, and Thai ethnic groups. The Deep South is the only place in Thailand where another ethnic group, Malays, outnumber the Thais.
The major cities are vibrant, local populations living together in harmony. There are no racist narratives as exist in neighboring Malaysia. The only hint of something amiss is the hundreds of makeshift military camps and checkpoints along the roads, often manned by troops in full combat gear.
This insurgency has its roots from the days of the old Malay Archipelago Sultanate of Pattani that came into being around the 9th Century and was annexed by Thailand in 1909 from British influence. There is still an extremely strong Malay cultural heritage, which many of the older Malays still identify with today.
Commentators on the region suggest that the Thai Government’s repeated attempts to assimilate the region in the period 1902-1944, and again in the 1960s and 1980s played an important role in arousing Malay-nationalistic awareness. More recently, the Krue Se Mosque and Tak Bai incidents in 2004 enraged emotions against the Bangkok government, which led to the escalation of violence to what it is today.
The insurgency has been sustained by local groups over the last 15 years without outside assistance. They have not succumbed to outside forces or doctrines along ‘globalist Jihadi’ lines, as other region insurgencies have. Insurgent narratives have remained clearly based upon local Malay-nationalist issues.
There are now in excess of 58,000 troops with an almost equal number of auxiliary personnel involved in security across the region. Billions of baht and resources have been put into trying to suppress the violence.
Civil and military approaches to stemming the violence have not worked. A local academic close to the ground argues that the strong military presence within the Deep South is itself a major perpetuator of the continued violence and unrest.
Negotiations have been taking place between the military and an umbrella body representing the insurgents, MARA Pattani (Majlis Syura Pattani). However, the results to date indicate that the peace negotiation process has failed. The military have been aiming for transactional results, such as declaring safety areas. However, the real issues behind the conflict have not been discussed.
On the outset of the discussions, many have questioned whether MARA Pattani is a true representative of the fragmented groups on the ground. There are doubts as to whether MARA Pattani can actually exercise any true command and control on the ground.
The talks have been further frustrated by disunity and lack of trust on both sides of the negotiation process. MARA Pattani just recently withdrew from these talks, frustrated the Thai Government is refusing to make any concessions.
In addition to the insurgents, the violent situation in the Deep South is further complicated by unconnected criminal groups along the border region. Their vested interests are best served in a destabilized environment, where narcotics trade, smuggling, and other criminal activities can thrive. Little, if anything has been done by the police or military to curb this, so that these activities can be isolated from the insurgency.
The rural youth, unemployed, idle and using drugs is a major regional problem. This socially weak group is susceptible to influence, and a major source of recruits for the insurgency. Instances of poor treatment and even extra judicial attacks by police and military personnel have also been cited as a motivator to youths in this group to join the insurgency.
Community enhancement and anti-poverty programs have missed these groups, going to elite Malay-Muslim groups instead, as reported by a source close to the ground.
Since 2001, there have been over 16,000 incidents of violence including bombings, fire-fights, roadside shootings, arson and sabotage. More than 8,000 people, mainly civilians, have died directly as a result of this conflict.
A number of insurgent groups are involved. These include the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), which has been primarily interested in cultural and Patani-nationalist goals. Another group primarily composed of much younger Salafi followers, the Runda Kumpulan Kecil (RKK), is much more militant, and believed to be either a breakaway or operational group from the BRN. Others include the Gerakan Mujahidin Islam Patani (GMIP) and the Barisan Bersatu Mujahidin Patani (BBMP). Pioneering groups like the Patani Liberation Organization (PULO) have not been as active on the ground over the last decade. There are almost a dozen other small and fragmented groups.
Getting all these groups unified under one umbrella may be more difficult than solving the conflict itself. These groups have disagreements, easily fragment, and often harbor jealousies.
Most attacks are carried out by small closely knit and independent cells, who don’t communicate with anyone outside their respective groups. They blend in with their respective communities and thus it is extremely difficult to identify cell members.
On rare occasions, multiple cells might be mustered to carry out coordinated attacks. These attacks range from violence perpetuated against selected individuals, economic sabotage, attacks on symbols of Thai sovereignty, to mischievous activities laying tacks on major highways to disrupt traffic.
The prime modus operandi is to hit and hide. Thus, there is really very little any security force can do to protect all targets within the region. Insurgents have almost an unlimited choice of targets to select and tend to attack the easy ones. Recently attacks on unprotected targets outside the region have disrupted tourism and gained international media attention.
The result of a massive military presence is an equally massive bureaucracy with all the organizational weaknesses this entails. Regular rotation of commanders is preventing the army from moving along the learning curve and applying what they have learned in operational tactics. Most commanders come from outside the region and have little understanding of the language and appreciation of the culture of the local people. This along with the ‘clean-shaven Thai’ cultural norms prevailing within the army is a major impediment to understanding the insurgents.
The army has developed massive infrastructure to deploy from. However, this infrastructure is configured more towards conventional jungle and urban warfare. The insurgents don’t fight in this way and the army is fighting an unseen ‘enemy’. Army infrastructure, patrols, and roadblocks are just givens the insurgents move around with ease.
Over the last few years, the army has introduced soft power initiatives in an attempt to win ‘hearts and minds’ of the local population. As has been seen elsewhere this strategy takes years to implement and yield any positive effect. Some initiatives such as the army developing micro-infrastructure at the village level and the deployment of frontline female personnel in some areas have shown some success. However, the biggest impediment is the apathy of those in local organizations the army is reaching out to. There is a massive trust gap that has to be broken, which requires total sincerity and patience to achieve anything positive.
We are now at a crossroads where the conflict could very easily change its nature.
First, the youth of the region have no legitimate outlets to express their views, ideas, and problems. This provides a fertile recruiting ground.
Malay culture itself is slowly becoming influenced by Salafi ideas. It’s not the same straightforward Malay culture it was a generation ago. This cultural shift is opening up the potential for new catalytic narratives to be viewed sympathetically in the future, as some radical narratives are in Malaysia.
Given close ties between these communities, there is some danger that these narratives will be seen as solutions for the younger generation, who think very differently from the older generation. They may not show popular support for Patani-Nationalistic ideals, as the older generation did. However, if these new narratives take hold, then the current conflict will become much more complex.
Secondly, potential targets are well protected in the region by the military. Choosing targets outside the region is a much easier option. This occurred a number of times. The bonus for the insurgents was that these attacks were much more widely reported by the international media, thus publicizing the cause. Continued high profile presence of the military in the south will propel this conflict outside the region much more in the future.
Thirdly, the Thai government has been criticized for not taking a sincere approach to discussions. The insurgent representatives are not composed of those who have real influence on the ground. This is not conducive for any potential breakthroughs.
One of the biggest impediments to solving the conflict is the massive presence of the army itself. The army is a major contributor to many parts of the local economy, particularly through indirect employment. It would not be easy for the army to dislodge from the region and redeploy somewhere else. The army is looking like a symbol of oppression.
Opposition to the army presence is becoming more vocal. The Federation of Patani Students and Youth (PerMAS) on International Peace Day called on the army to remove sources of fear and revoke martial law.
Various interests have painted this as a religious-based conflict, especially with the attack upon monks and Buddhists over the last decade. However, history shows that this struggle is more about ethnic identity than Islam, where many separatist leaders have called themselves ‘Bangsa Patani’ rather than Muslims. Outside interests like the United States have tried to widen the perspective of the southern problems, which thankfully have been rejected by various Thai governments over the last few years. Now Malay-Muslims will be more exposed to influences who want to widen the perspective of the conflict.
Fortunately, as a group, the Malay-Muslims of the Deep South tend to be introspective and cautious of outsiders. It’s not easy to gain trust, even other Thai-Muslims from outside the Deep South. Outsiders suggesting solutions will be viewed suspiciously.
The BRN itself is looking into revamping its political wing to enhance its influence over the ‘hearts and minds’ of the new generation. On the 15th Anniversary of their struggle, a message was released pledging a renewed vigor to continue the struggle until the goals of BRN are achieved.
The Deep South has the potential to be a prosperous region. However, without a real solution, the region will become a never-ending story of tragedy.
The article originally appeared in the Asia Sentinel