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Tearing Apart the Land

Islam and Legitimacy in Southern Thailand

by Duncan McCargo, 2009

Now the number of tourists visiting Thailand is beginning to drop, perhaps because they have sensed what many Western governments, focused on crises in Pakistan,Iraq and North Korea, have ignored: Thailand, once known as one of the most stable democracies in Asia, has been in political and economic crisis. The scale and speed of the meltdown have been staggering...

In Tearing Apart the Land, Duncan McCargo offers a thorough explanation of why unrest began in the region, and why it has spread. The southern provinces essentially formed an independent state until the turn of the 20th century, and ever since had chafed at Bangkok’s rule – in the 1960s and 1970s, separatists launched a spate of violent attacks – although by the 1980s and 1990s Bangkok seemed to have largely pacified the region, by channelling more state money and creating government structures designed to respond to southerners’ complaints.

Thaksin reversed much of this.

Book Review by Joshua Kurlantzick, Center for Foreign Relations, New York in Vol. 32, No. 6, London Review of Books

In recent decades, Thailand has been running one of the world's most successful national marketing campaigns. Building on its reputation for hospitable people, beautiful beaches and splendid food, the tourism ministry has created an image of Thailand as an exotic paradise where travellers are ushered from spa to floating market to Buddhist ruin, all beneath a never dimming tropical sun. In 2008, the country had more than 14 million visitors--neighbouring Cambodia had two million--and tourism was the country's biggest source of foreign exchange. Once sleepy islands like Koh Samui and Koh Chang have traded fishing for sea bass for fishing for package tourists; even the smallest Thai towns seem to have boutique hotels offering wifi and fancy coffee.

Now the number of tourists visiting Thailand is beginning to drop, perhaps because they have sensed what many Western governments, focused on crises in Pakistan,Iraq and North Korea, have ignored: Thailand, once known as one of the most stable democracies in Asia, has been in political and economic crisis. The scale and speed of the meltdown have been staggering...

In Tearing Apart the Land, Duncan McCargo offers a thorough explanation of why unrest began in the region, and why it has spread. The southern provinces essentially formed an independent state until the turn of the 20th century, and ever since had chafed at Bangkok’s rule – in the 1960s and 1970s, separatists launched a spate of violent attacks – although by the 1980s and 1990s Bangkok seemed to have largely pacified the region, by channelling more state money and creating government structures designed to respond to southerners’ complaints.

Thaksin reversed much of this. He dissolved the longstanding local council
charged with dealing with these complaints, and increased the presence of the security forces, while a generation of southerners fell under the sway of militant leaders, and took up the separatist cause. In 2001, several policemen were shot dead, apparently by snipers. The insurgency grew rapidly. According to McCargo, ‘the security policies of the Thai state in the south were a lamentable catalogue of criminal blunders, negligence, incompetence, lack of co-ordination and sheer misdirection . . .

The militant movement consistently gained the upper hand in the southern border
provinces, placing the Thai security forces firmly on the defensive.’

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From Cornell University Press blurb:

Since January 2004, a violent separatist insurgency has raged in southern Thailand, resulting in more than three thousand deaths. Though largely unnoticed outside Southeast Asia, the rebellion in Pattani and neighboring provinces and the Thai government's harsh crackdown have resulted in a full-scale crisis. Tearing Apart the Land by Duncan McCargo, one of the world's leading scholars of contemporary Thai politics, is the first fieldwork-based book about this conflict. Drawing on his extensive knowledge of the region, hundreds of interviews conducted during a year's research in the troubled area, and unpublished Thai- language sources that range from anonymous leaflets to confessions extracted by Thai security forces, McCargo locates the roots of the conflict in the context of the troubled power relations between Bangkok and the Muslim-majority ?deep South.?

McCargo describes how Bangkok tried to establish legitimacy by co-opting local religious and political elites. This successful strategy was upset when Thaksin Shinawatra became prime minister in 2001 and set out to reorganize power in the region. Before Thaksin was overthrown in a 2006 military coup, his repressive policies had exposed the precariousness of the Bangkok government's influence. A rejuvenated militant movement had emerged, invoking Islamic rhetoric to challenge the authority of local leaders obedient to Bangkok.

For readers interested in contemporary Southeast Asia, insurgency and counterinsurgency, Islam, politics, and questions of political violence, Tearing Apart the Land is a powerful account of the changing nature of Islam on the Malay peninsula, the legitimacy of the central Thai government and the failures of its security policy, the composition of the militant movement, and the conflict's disastrous impact on daily life in the deep South. Carefully distinguishing the uprising in southern Thailand from other Muslim rebellions, McCargo
suggests that the conflict can be ended only if a more participatory mode of governance is adopted in the region.