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The Muslim Insurgency in Southern Thailand

by Carin Zissis, Council on Foreign Relations, New York, February 1, 2007

Croissant predicted in a 2005 article that the violence related to the insurgency would "provoke an authoritarian backlash in the political system" and the "ousting of the sitting government." When Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratglin, a prominent Thai Muslim charged with ending the southern insurgency, counseled the prime minister to negotiate with southern militants, Thaksin ignored his advice. Sonthi went on to lead the military coup.

[We are still waiting for a general charged with ending the insurgency, Tamil or otherwise, to stage a coup in a backlash against violence in Sri Lanka! -- Editorial Committee]

Introduction

Over the past three years, an insurgency in the southern, predominantly Muslim provinces of Thailand has claimed nearly two thousand lives. The rise in violence has been largely blamed on the government of Thaksin Shinawatra: His aggressive response to the insurgency was criticized by the country's military leaders who staged a coup in September 2006. Yet Thailand faced separatist movements long before Thaksin's premiership. Now, the military junta in power seems incapable of either identifying those responsible for the attacks or mounting initiatives which might slow the bloodshed.

Why is there an insurgency in southern Thailand?

Thailand annexed the independent sultanate of Pattani in 1902, making the area the southernmost tip of the country. A policy of forced assimilation enraged the ethnically Malay Muslims, who represent the majority in the region. Many of the region's Muslims adopted Thai names and the national language. But local traditions were secretly cultivated, and between the 1940s and the 1980s, separatists staged a series of opposition uprisings. In the 1980s, the Thai government reversed its assimilation policy under the premiership of General Prem Tinsulanonda. Prem supported cultural rights and economic development in the historically marginalized region, and also worked with the Malaysian government to enhance security in the southern border area.

By the late 1990s, the separatist movement fell quiet. But when Thaksin Shinawatra became prime minister in 2001, a new series of separatist attacks began. His government responded aggressively, causing renewed bloodshed. Many blame his reaction for exacerbating tensions. Joseph Liow Chin Yong, an expert on Southeast Asian Muslim politics at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, says the current violence stems from Thaksin's "policy missteps, one after another."

What was Thaksin’s approach to the southern insurgency?

After becoming prime minister in 2001, Thaksin, a former policeman, tried to expand his influence in the Muslim south, a bastion of support for opponents of his political party. The resulting militant backlash and unrest were "an unintended consequence of [Thaksin's] political strategy," says Aurel Croissant, a professor of comparative politics at Ruprecht-Karls University in Heidelberg. In 2002, the prime minister dismantled the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Center, set up in 1981 under General Prem to serve as a liaison between southern Muslim leaders and Bangkok. He claimed the multi-service agency had no purpose because a separatist threat no longer existed. Thaksin further stoked tensions when he disbanded a joint civilian-police-military task force and transferred security control from the local military to the Royal Thai Police.

His administration said the escalating violence was linked to drug gangs, but could no longer deny the growing southern insurgency after a string of attacks leading up to a raid on an army arsenal in January 2004. Thaksin declared martial law the same month and in April 2004 a standoff (Asia Times) between security forces and insurgents led to over one hundred deaths. But the heavy-handed attempts to control the south failed to quell the violence. In October that same year, mishandling of a demonstration (BBC) by Muslims outside a police station in the village of Tak Bai led to eighty five deaths, most caused by suffocation when protesters were stuffed into army trucks.

Was the 2006 Thai coup connected to the insurgency?

The military seized control from Thaksin in September 2006 after widespread accusations of corruption and associated nationwide protests weakened his grip on power. Although the southern insurgency may not have been the central reason for the coup, it was an important factor. Croissant predicted in a 2005 article that the violence related to the insurgency would "provoke an authoritarian backlash in the political system" and the "ousting of the sitting government." When Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratglin, a prominent Thai Muslim charged with ending the southern insurgency, counseled the prime minister to negotiate with southern militants, Thaksin ignored his advice. Sonthi went on to lead the military coup.

How is the new military government handling the insurgency?

Surayud Chulanont, the interim prime minister installed by coup leaders, has taken a more conciliatory approach to the insurgency. He apologized for Thaksin's hard-line policies, called for dropping charges against the October 2004 Tak Bai protesters, and pledged to recruit more Muslims into official roles in the three troubled southern provinces of Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat. The military government again established the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Center to restore links between leaders in the south and Bangkok as well as a civilian-police-military task force. The junta and separatist groups held a series of peace talks hosted by Malaysia, the country to the south which Thai's southern Muslims consider "a brother country," says Croissant.

However, despite the interim government's shift away from Thaksin's hard-line policies, insurgency-related violence -- involving arson, bombings, and shootings -- not only continues but appears to be on the rise. Human Rights Watch reports that separatists increasingly target civilians, particularly Buddhists living in the Muslim-majority states. Insurgents carried out more than 180 attacks in December 2006, killing or wounding some 170 civilians.

Why isn’t the new government’s approach working to end the insurgency?

Experts say Thaksin's stance set in motion a rise in bloodshed that will take time to control. "Once the spiral of violence starts it is difficult to stop," says Croissant. Liow predicts "the problem will get worse before it gets better" and that Thaksin's policy mistakes "set the government behind several decades in terms of critical intelligence gathering" necessary for effective counterinsurgency operations. Despite the government's conciliatory remarks, no one in the police or military has been sentenced for human rights abuses carried out at Tak Bai, limiting the chances to quell Muslim distrust of the central government and stoking the longtime desire for greater independence in the Muslim provinces. "One thing that hasn't changed is [Bangkok's] reluctance to talk about autonomy for the south," says Kevin Hewison, director of Asia Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

But the inability to identify who is orchestrating insurgent attacks also represents a crucial obstacle to controlling the insurgency. No group has claimed responsibility for the attacks or made specific demands. "Keeping quiet has worked to [the insurgents'] advantage, baffling the Thai security forces, and giving them a mysterious aura," writes Zachary Abuza, a Southeast Asia terrorism expert at Simmons College in Boston.

Which insurgent groups did the government negotiate with?

With no specific groups stepping forward to demand concessions, the government has attempted to solve the problem by negotiating with longstanding separatist groups. Liow says this signals that the insurgents "have the upper hand" over the Thai state and have no need "to reach out for the olive branch that is being offered." While the responsible faction remained silent, the military government engaged in inconclusive peace talks with the following groups:

  • Barisan Revolusi Nasional-Coordinate (BRN-C). Possibly the largest and best organized of the separatist groups, the BRN-C is the only active faction of an organization founded in the early 1960s to fight for an independent, religious state. The group recruits members from Islamic schools. The BRN-C also exercises control over some parts of a separatist youth movement known as Pemuda, which may be responsible for some of the attacks, according to a 2005 International Crisis Group report.
  • Pattani United Liberation Organization (PULO). Part of a second wave of more secular separatist groups, this guerilla organization was established in 1968. A splinter called New PULO split from the group in 1995, but the two factions allied again two years later.
  • Bersatu. An umbrella organization of various southern terrorist groups, Bersatu was founded in 1989. The coalition counts PULO and BRN among its members. This merger may have resulted from their weakening during the 1980s.
  • Gerakan Mujahidin Islam Pattani (GMIP). Established in part by Afghan veterans in 1995 to support a separate Islamic state, GMIP likely has connections to a Malaysian counterpart called Kumpulan Mujahideen Malay.
Do the insurgents get support from outside of Thailand?

Foreign support -- whether in the form of arms, money, or ideological influence -- for the southern separatist movement remains difficult to ascertain due to a lack of clarity over the groups responsible for attacks. Malaysia plays a historical role in the southern separatist movement, not just because its proximity has allowed insurgent leaders to slip across the border, but because the majority of Thai Muslims are ethnically Malay and some groups have argued that joining Malaysia would be preferable to remaining a part of Thailand.

Croissant suggests that educational opportunities extended to Thai Muslims by Islamic nations have functioned as a kind of Trojan horse for outside influence. Thai Muslims, long denied equal educational opportunities, study abroad in the Middle East and Pakistan. Many return to Thailand to instruct in southern religious schools, causing a surge in more radical Islamic teachings in recent years. But while Thai militants may increasingly use the language of jihadi extremism, the movement remains local, writes Liow in a report published by the East-West Center. He says ascribing the character of the current insurgency "to the seductive appeal of radical Islam is a gross simplification" of a complex situation involving "politics, nationalism, history, and identity."