A Thai soldier guards a group of Muslims during prayer. Photo courtesy of The Nation.
In the early morning of January 4, 2004, a group of armed men raided an army depot at the Rajanakarin Camp in the southern Thai province of Narathiwat. They walked away with hundreds of military-grade weapons, and left four Thai soldiers dead in their wake. Around the same time, arsonists set alight 20 provincial schools and two unmanned police posts. A series of similar incidents followed in neighboring Yala and Pattani provinces, prompting then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra to declare martial law in volatile areas within Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat—on top of his already high-handed brutality in the region.
Further angered and suppressed, belligerents in this area escalated violence to new intensities. At the core of this conflict is a separatist movement active among the Thai Malay Muslim community since the 1960s. While the term “Malay” refers only to an Austronesian ethnic group, ethnic Malay identity cannot be divorced from Malay traditions, Malay language, or adherence to Islam. This has pitted Malay identity in direct competition with the Thai identity cultivated under King Bhumibol Adulyadej. This conflict of identity and consequent alienation from the Thai community has prompted violence to erupt in Thailand’s majority Muslim southern provinces of Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat, collectively referred to as Patani.
Since a renewed surge of violence in 2004, the South Thailand Insurgency, as it is know, has incurred over 6,000 fatalities and over 11,000 injuries and has significantly impeded development in the region. The Thai state, meanwhile, refuses to acknowledge the ethno-national and ethno-political grievances at the heart of the conflict, hindering an effective solution to the violence and prompting international organizations—including the Malaysian government and the United Nations Development Programme—to become increasingly involved in the problem-solving effort. Effective dialogue between belligerents and the Thai state is the only way to resolve the South Thailand Insurgency, but this will remain out of the realm of possibilities if Thailand continues to deny the identity issues fueling this conflict.
Map of Patani region. Source: http://books.sipri.org/files/PP/SIPRIPP20.pdf
Patani is a historical region located on the northern part of the Malay peninsula. In the modern day, this region is transnational: Patani includes the southern Thai provinces of Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat, and parts of Songkhla, as well as the Malaysian state of Kelantan.
Patani was an independent Muslim city-state until the sixteenth century when it became a vassal state of Siam, and came under increasingly direct Siamese rule during the Sukhothai and Ayuthaya periods. Following resistance and a series of rebellions in response to this shift, Patani fractured into seven separate regions. These seven regions existed until the Bangkok Treaty of 1909, in which the British (who at that time controlled Malaysia and were creeping northwards) acknowledged Thailand’s sovereignty over the seven regions of Patani. In return, Thailand relinquished the southern territory of Kelantan to British control. By 1933, Thailand had consolidated the seven Patani regions and renamed them Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat. Today, the Patani region is home to roughly 1.8 million Thai citizens, 80 percent of whom are Muslim. The remaining 20 percent are almost all Thai or Sino-Thai Buddhists.
Rise of “Nation, Religion, King”
In the post-colonial, increasingly globalized world, the Thai monarchy saw the need to reinvent itself for the modern era. In the process of reinventing the monarchy, King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s relationship with the monastic community of ordained Buddhist monks—the sangha—became intertwined with the prosperity of the nation. Thus, the role of the sangha was given a national component, and became integral to a healthy state of internal affairs. In later years, King Bhumibol was emboldened to transform the sangha. Guiding Bhumibol in this process was Vajiravudh (Rama VI)’s three pillars of nation, religion, and king. These pillars linked King Bhumibol inextricably to the nation through religion, and served to strengthen the king’s intertwinement with the sangha. In practice, the pillars meant that Buddhism was to facilitate the deification of King Bhumibol. Accordingly, a variety of rituals and holy days were presided over by the king, and royally endorsed public works projects were under taken in the countryside. Rural temples, controlled by the sangha and hence the king, became a link between the village and the national consciousness, thus providing the Thai people with a common experience with king, and laying the framework for a common Thai identity.
“Thainess” vs. “Otherness”
A standardized practice of Theravada Buddhism, in other words, has historically been employed as the ideological underpinning for the civilization and unification of all Thais. It was not just the practice of Buddhism that was standardized, but also the ethnic composition of its adherents. Promotion of the Thai language, too, was used to standardize Buddhist practices. This standardization provided a specific group of people within Thailand’s borders with a collective goal and a common sense of duty towards the advancement of the nation. The goal was to “make them realize [that they belong to] the same nation, religion and king, pledging loyalty to the king and the nation as their refuge and worship Buddhism.” A Thai identity based in these precepts resulted. This is known as “Thainess.”
It is the standardization of the sangha that has facilitated the construction of otherness. Confronted with globalization and modernity, Western notions of nationhood and rigid borders began to change the Thai attitude on who is entitled to benefit from the state. In order to determine this, an identity binary developed: “Thainess” arose situated opposite to “otherness.” Thainess is defined by a collective duty to Vajiravudh’s three pillars as previously discussed, and holds little in common with Western notions of individualized national identity. This group alone is allowed to benefit from the Thai state.
“Otherness,” by contrast, encompasses everything Thainess is not. Because the three pillars define the Thai conception of nationhood, any deviation from these three pillars disqualifies an individual or group from integrating to and benefiting from Thai society. The South Thailand Insurgency is one particularly aggressive response to this identity binary. In southern Thailand, Malay Muslims cannot integrate because they do not practice Buddhism; those who do not practice Buddhism are not viewed as Thai. Simply put, to be a part of Thailand is to be quintessentially Buddhist. Standardization has changed meaning of religion from one of personal choice to that of identity signifier.
A Thai soldier guards a Buddhist monk as he collects alms. Photo courtesy of USA Today.
The effects of otherness extend beyond the inability to integrate into Thai society: otherness is often viewed as a threat to national stability. King Bhumibol has cultivated a sense of fear and animosity towards those who do not identify with the three pillars, and has convinced each individual Thai that his or her fate is tied up with the state, and that the state’s fate is tied to the monarchy. If the monarchy falls, Thai prosperity will falter. This common understanding has provided the monarchy with masses directly aligned with its ideology, thus protecting the monarchy from threats of otherness. The South Thailand Insurgency attests to the lengths to which many Thais are willing to go to protect their monarchy—the foundation of their identity—and to prevent the fracture of the state. This conflict is also a testament to the difficulty of building a national identity in Thailand—the process is hindered by porous borders, multiple ethnic minorities and religions, and a complicated citizenship process. This means that language spoken, religion practices, and ethnicity do not line up as the Thai state insists they do.
Many consider the current violence in the “Deep South” to be a renewed version of the older liberation struggle of the 1960s and 1970s, which itself was a reaction to Thai state control. Lack of state legitimacy due to rigid ethnic identifiers then as well as now is at the core of the conflict. King Bhumibol’s continued standardization policies and centralization of the Thai state have alienated those who do not subscribe to the “nation, religion, king” trifecta, resulting in a “legitimacy deficit” of the Thai government in minority regions. In Patani, Bhumibol’s policies have transformed Patani’s political and Islamic educational and legal structures into a “quintessentially Thai” system. Because Malay Muslims in this region cannot identify themselves within this structure, grievances and resistance movements have materialized to address the government’s failure to provide Malay Muslims with a niche in Thai society.
Grievances are brought to the attention of the Thai state by a number of Patani liberation movements, with most fighting carried out by small groups of fighters consisting of young men aged 17 to 25. Violence occurs in open areas during the day, and takes the form of drive-by shootings or bombings, and sometimes larger, organized attacks. This has meant that most casualties are civilians. The most active groups are the BRN-C (BarisanRevolusiNasional-Koordinasi), its alleged armed wing the RKK (Runda Kumpulan Kecil), the GMIP (Gerakan Mujahidin Islam Patani), the BBMP (BarisanBersatu Mujahidin Patani), and the PULO (Patani United Liberation Organization). As opposed to the conflict of the ‘60s and ‘70s in which insurgent groups were sharply divided, today’s insurgent groups share a common Islamist agenda, ideology, and goals. Above all, the liberations movements demand the creation of a Malay Muslim state separate from the rest of Thailand. This united front has made the modern iteration of the conflict more difficult to fracture and quell than the last.
Destruction in Patani. Photo courtesy of The Christian Science Monitor
Following the 2004 raid on the Rajanakarin Camp depot, violence in the three southernmost provinces of Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat has increased dramatically. The 2004 Krue Se and TakBai incidents have become synonymous with the recent resurgence in violence, and have fueled grievances among liberation groups in recent years. Then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s unapologetic response to the incidents served to heighten violence towards Thai forces on the part of the liberation groups. Since then, violence has escalated steadily. Because the conflict is ongoing, it is difficult to accurately assess the number of injured and killed. In a July 2014 report, Deep South Watch released the most up-to-date information on number of killed and injured by religious affiliation. Some sources speculate that death tolls have climbed to 8,000 or more.
Insurgency, Not Global Jihad
This conflict cannot simply be described as Buddhism versus Islam, religion versus religion. At this core of this conflict is an issue of identity that happens to have a religious component. The main reason the South Thailand Insurgency cannot be considered part of the global jihad is because the conflict is more strongly contextualized as one of Thai vs. other. And while the conflict undeniably has a religious component, that religious component is only one piece of a larger identity issue. To date, there has been no evidence of external involvement in the bombings and killings in the Patani region. The South Thailand Insurgency is ethno-political and ethno-national at heart, and centers on a local historical claim to the Patani territory. As Islam garners more and more negative press around the world, we must be careful to assume that all conflicts that involve Islam are fundamentally jihadist in nature.
Human Development Indicators
Poor development is both a cause and effect of the South Thailand Insurgency. Development in the area has been particularly hindered since heightened violence emerged in 2004. A comparison of the United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Indicators (UNDP HDI) from the years 2003, 2007, 2009, and 2014 reveals that the three southernmost provinces of Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat have consistently failed to match the national development average. HDI ratings experienced a marked decreased following the violence of 2004. Education, income, family and community life, and participation in political and community activities are areas of particular concern.
It has been suggested that poor development is heightening regional grievances and exacerbating the conflict; development is then further hindered, fueling further dissent. But while development averages in Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat remain below the national average, UNDP HDI data reveals improving development indicators in 2014. This could be due to the increased involvement of international organizations in the region, discussed in the section below.
A number of solutions have been implemented to facilitate resolution to the South Thailand Insurgency. Thailand, however, has taken a back-seat role in the problem-solving effort. The two most comprehensive peace processes, the Southern Thailand Empowerment and Participation (STEP) Project and the Ramadan Peace Initiative, were organized by the United Nations Development Programme and the Malaysian government, respectively. The STEP Project, implemented in March 2010, seeks to address grassroots development issues in Patani as a way to increase interaction with the local government and pave the way for national-level advocacy. STEP has progressed to its second and final phase, and is slated to be completed by December 2017. The Ramadan Peace Initiative, meanwhile, provided a neutral forum for talks between Thailand’s National Security Council (NSC) and the BRN-C. The talks were held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and ended in the signing of the General Consensus on Peace Dialogue Process on February 28, 2013. The two parties met again in March, April, and May 2013, vowing to keep the dialogue channels open and actively work towards peace in the region. But since Thailand’s coup in May 2014, the domestic political situation has not been conducive to furthering the peace process.
On November 3, 2014, Thailand’s military government vowed again to end the violence in the three southernmost provinces, this time within one year. Questions have arisen around the feasibility of this plan considering the lack of confidence in Thailand’s new government, and the fact that peace talks started during the Ramadan Peace Initiative have stalled. And despite the violence plaguing the region and the reorganization of government, Narathiwat is still slated to be become a Special Economic Zone in 2016. The Thai government’s hope is that by developing the economy, security issues will be resolved and the violence will be quelled as the economy grows. But because this solution still does not address the fundamental issue of the conflict—identity—it holds a high potential for failure.
According to International Crisis Group, “a highly centralized administrative structure, the persistence of rigid conceptions of national identity and an old-fashioned bureaucratic outlook” inhibit resolution to the South Thailand Insurgency. Furthermore, according to the International Crisis Group these influence analyses of the problem as well as policy formation and implementation, thus making it difficult for Thai leaders to acknowledge the political dimension of the conflict. To do so would call into question state legitimacy based on the three pillars or nation, religion, and king. These misguided priorities have seriously inhibited the peace process in southern Thailand. Government spending in the region reveals that the focus remains on counterinsurgency and military capabilities rather than community and infrastructure development: as the violence escalates, so does counterinsurgency spending. Since 2005, counterinsurgency spending in the Patani region alone has fluctuated between 9.9 and 17.5 percent of total military spending. Some reports indicate that average per-capita military spending in Patani is around twice as much as average per-capita military spending nationwide.
Looking to the Future
The nature of the solutions proposed by the Thai state suggests that Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and his government (as well as prime ministers who came before him, and particularly Thaksin Shinawatra) refuse to acknowledge the ethno-political and ethno-national components to South Thailand Insurgency. In other words, there are no signs that Thailand is adjusting its adherence to the mantra “nation, religion, king” in order to accommodate minority groups. Some speculate that if the Thai government did adjust its definition of Thai identity or even allowed Patani to secede, other suppressed groups—both domestic and regional—would follow with their own liberation movements. This is unlikely for a number of reasons. First, the trifecta championed by the Thai state provides a direct contrast to minority identity that does not exist in other countries. Other minorities (like Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim minority group) may find it difficult to similarly contextualize their conflict as one of “state identity” vs. “other” because this rigid framework does not exist. Secondly, Malay Muslims constitute the second largest minority in Thailand (the first being ethnic Chinese) and are concentrated in a region on Thailand’s fringes. This has allowed the Malay Muslim community to over time create a united front against the Thai state. Other minorities in Thailand lack the same ability to unite due to their smaller and geographically fractured populations.
Although the South Thailand Insurgency is unlikely to threaten the existence of the Thai state, the conflict presents a severe humanitarian and national security issue and therefore deserves to be dealt with promptly and effectively. Dialogue is the most effective problem-solving tool in this situation, but there are few indications that the new Thai government is willing to cooperate in this way. In mid-November, 2014 a program to arm villagers against insurgents went into effect in southern Thailand, highlighting once again the government’s focus on weapon-based counterinsurgency. Thai authorities distributed approximately 2,700 military grade weapons—reportedly HK-33 assault rifles—to civilians in Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat. Scholars as well as sources on the ground with knowledge of local opinion believe that the plan is bound to backfire and increase violence in the region, not quell it. This kind of “problem solving” must end. The Thai government instead must demonstrate flexibility and inclusion by supporting Muslim representatives in government and easing its assimilationist policies in the south. Only when a political space for discussion and the airing of grievances is created and maintained can the violence plaguing the Patani region end.
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