Life in Thailand’s southernmost border provinces, Narathiwat, Yala, and Patani has taken on a sense of normality over the last 12 months that belies a media-preoccupied insurgency that has largely disappeared.
There is an atmosphere of indifference to the presence of the Thai military and paramilitary forces and daily media reports of violence. But the rituals of Covid-19 safety procedures have taken over from the inconvenience of military and police roadblocks, which appear mostly semi-abandoned these days.
The armored troop carriers purchased and widely distributed to units around the region, only a little over a year ago, are starting to look old and weathered from being parked for long periods of time. Many makeshift garrisons look semi-abandoned next to unused barriers along the rural roads. The only signs of any rebel actions are media reports of shootings and murders with dubious provenance.
The Deep South has witnessed the opening of many new businesses. Thai returnees from working in Malaysia have opened new restaurants and coffee shops, building innovative brands of fusion food in the major towns of Patani and Yala. Nightlife is vibrant for those interested in dining, open to the late hours of the mornings.
Thailand’s CP Group is actively building halal supply chains, logistics and brand franchises in the region. CP Group has launched a large range of halal versions of its product range and a network of franchised and specially-branded, Five Star Salam chicken restaurants in the region.
The road between Yala and Betong, the province’s southernmost district, is now full of tourist attractions boasting brisk business on weekends from local tourists, who would have otherwise just driven straight through. Betong itself is abuzz with activity bracing for the durian season and coming Songkran festival, with large groups expected to view the sunrise from the mountains in places like Talay Mok Aiyoeweng, with its new array of guest houses, home stays and rafting expeditions. Last weekend, more than 4,000 people came to Patani to run in the TIST Half Marathon, organized by the local university, with most hotel rooms around town booked out for the event.
What is most visible within the region is that the people are now openly expressing Malay culture through language, commerce, dress, worship, and cultural confidence, which gives the appearance that the region is independent and self-sufficient under Thai sovereignty. This appears to be the generally accepted view of the majority living within the region, according to a number of community thinkers across the provinces, who spoke to Asia Sentinel.
Other pointers towards confidence in the future by the Malay communities is the extent of property development, growing tourism infrastructure being developed, and growing investment in developing local businesses.
Meanwhile Facebook and Twitter removed thousands of fake accounts, pages, and groups, alleged to be linked to the Thai Army. According to his tweet, the head of security policy at Facebook, Nathaniel Gleicher confirmed that the military had used fake accounts posing as individuals from the southern provinces to criticize separatist movements and support the monarchy and the military.
Allegedly false information was spread across a number of pages and groups, giving the appearance the information was true. Some of these posts called for violence against insurgents. This follows Twitter closing 926 accounts in October last year that were allegedly controlled by the army. Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has ordered an investigation on the claims made by Facebook.
According to locals who spoke to Asia Sentinel, there is criticism that the media has been blowing up incidents within the south, associating them with the ongoing insurgency. The DeepSouthWatch.Org database which collates all reported incidents within the region, in January only linked 13 of 40 incidents directly with the insurgency.
Most of the incidents were murders by shootings, with only three bombings. Many of the alleged perpetrators of these incidents have outstanding warrants on them. Many incidents have alternative narratives involving crime, drugs, territorial disputes, jealousies, and other rivalries, quite separate from the insurgency.
Organizations such as the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) are not directly controlling events on the ground. Fluid cells of activists, some of whom are not formal members of any peak revolutionary organizations, carry out acts independently, according to their own agendas, rather than according to any grand plan.
The BRN is over-claiming influence on the ground. They are now more a political, rather than a direct-action organization, although individual members and associates may be involved. This leaves violent acts totally unexplained, where speculation can only assign cause and blame, rather than any real evidence.
The Thai Fourth Army is bogged down with a mass commitment of personnel, infrastructure, and real estate. Many roadside bases and vehicles are relics of past failed strategies, rather than for any active anti-insurgency operations. The greatest problem for the troops on the ground is that they can’t see or identify the insurgents. They don’t hide along the roadways and jungle as sighted daily troop operations appear to suggest. They are at home, carrying on normal lives, perhaps jumping into their double lives on occasion.
Thus real interaction between the army and any insurgents is all but nonexistent. The insurgents have modified Sun Tzu’s classic, The Art of War, from hit and run to hit and hide, a classic Malay strategy. The army lacks any real human intelligence (Humint) capability to infiltrate these cells at the grass roots.
The deep south for the army is a budget sinkhole, or from their point of view a budget opportunity, a region where all sorts of new equipment and ideas are brought and tested. It is also the training ground for officers looking to bolster their service records for fast-track promotions. Most officers and enlisted personnel do their tour of duty without seeing any action.
The various actors within this phantom insurgency find the current situation very convenient. The reputation of the BRN is enhanced by the impact of incidents, which they don’t directly control. This reputation of the BRN also assists the army justify its operations and budgets. Army presence in the south, then goes on to give a justification for the continuation of the BRN and its activities. This is the viscous circle of the deep south.
However, in reality, the communities within the deep south are now indifferent to this insurgency. Communities are looking for normality; socially, culturally, and economically. The deep south now distinctly doesn’t resemble the rest of Thailand, where Malays stand proud of their cultural freedom.
There will continue to be incidents. Negotiations between the Thai Government and the artificial umbrella group representing the insurgents, MARA Patani, will continue. Hopes will rise and fall through the media, where reports will talk of promise and later report talks are going nowhere, like an ongoing drama. The real underlying reasons behand the struggle have not even been broached as yet, nor have areas of common agreement. The fundamental flaw in any discussions is that the communities within the deep south are not represented. That’s the dilemma of the phantom insurgency, with the real stakeholders omitted from the process.
The deep south is waiting for an economic boom to happen, after the borders are re-opened with Malaysia. Malay tourists from Malaysia will flood new tourist attractions and towns. Malay entrepreneurs will expand their markets into Malaysia and Indonesia with a host of new products they are producing. Fields of rich oil and gas reserves are waiting to be exploited within the next generation, ensuring economic growth and prosperity. The big question is, whether this phantom insurgency will just disappear, or will the vested interests on both sides keep things going?
Originally published in the Asia Sentinel