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Homepage > Regions / Countries > Asia > South East Asia > Thailand > Southern Thailand: Insurgency, Not Jihad

Southern Thailand: Insurgency, Not Jihad

Asia Report N°98 18 May 2005


Violence in Thailand's southern, mainly Malay Muslim provinces has been steadily escalating since early 2004, exacerbated by the disastrously heavy-handed policies of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. There is widespread concern in the region that left unchecked, the unrest could turn into a mass-based insurgency, or even a regional jihad, although to date there is no evidence of external involvement in the bombings and killings that have become almost a daily occurrence.

The rise of more puritanical strains of Islam in southern Thailand is often cited as contributing to the violence, particularly given Muslim anger at the deployment of Thai troops in Iraq. But while Islamic consciousness and a sense of persecution and solidarity with fellow Muslims has grown over the last two decades, it would be a mistake to view the conflict as simply another manifestation of Islamic terrorism. The violence is driven by local issues.

There is no question that the Muslim south is one of the poorest parts of Thailand, but the grievances are political, and even well thought-out development policies will not deal with the unrest effectively unless those grievances are addressed. However, almost every step the government has taken has exacerbated the problem.

The origins of the current violence lie in historical grievances stemming from discrimination against the ethnic Malay Muslim population and attempts at forced assimilation by successive ethnic Thai Buddhist governments in Bangkok for almost a century.

Armed separatist groups have been active there since the late 1960s, with particularly virulent violence in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The largest and most effective group of several operating then was PULO (Patani United Liberation Organisation), which called for an independent Islamic state but whose thrust was more ethno-nationalist than Islamist.

The Thai government managed to stem the unrest with political and economic reforms that undercut support for armed struggle, and hundreds of fighters accepted a broad amnesty. The insurgency looked to be all but over by the mid-1990s.

But new strains then appeared, with four particularly significant groups emerging or re-emerging, and major violence erupting in early 2004. The major groups active today include:

  • BRN-C (Barisan Revolusi Nasional-Coordinate, National Revolutionary Front-Coordinate) the only active faction of BRN, first established in the early 1960s to fight for an independent Patani state. Thought to be the largest and best organised of the armed groups, it is focused on political organising and recruitment within Islamic schools;
  • Pemuda, a separatist youth movement (part of which is controlled by BRN-C), believed to be responsible for a large proportion of day-to-day sabotage, shooting and bombing attacks;
  • GMIP (Gerakan Mujahidin Islam Patani, Patani Islamic Mujahidin Group), established by Afghanistan veterans in 1995, committed to an independent Islamic state; and
  • New PULO, established in 1995 as an offshoot of PULO and the smallest of the active armed groups, is fighting for an independent state.

In an effort to understand the current violence and who is involved, this report focuses in detail on three recent major outbreaks. The first, on 4 January 2004, involved carefully coordinated attacks in which militants raided an army arsenal, torched schools and police posts, and the following day, set off several bombs.

The second, on 28 April 2004, involved synchronised attacks on eleven police posts and army checkpoints across Pattani, Yala and Songkhla, and ended in a bloody showdown at the Krue Se Mosque when the Thai army gunned down 32 men inside. By the end of the day, 105 militants, one civilian and five members of the security forces were dead.

The third, on 25 October 2004, began with a demonstration outside a police station and ended with the deaths of at least 85 Muslim men and boys, most from suffocation after arrest as a result of being stacked five and six deep in army trucks for transport to an army base.

There are several explanations, none mutually exclusive, for why violence has escalated. Two of the most plausible are the disbanding of key government institutions, and the fear and resentment created by arbitrary arrests and police brutality, compounded by government failure to provide justice to victims and families. Rapid social change has also contributed to insecurity and frustration in Malay Muslim communities and a feeling that their way of life, values and culture are threatened.

Government missteps in handling the problem include:

  • failure to diagnose it accurately;
  • dismantling effective crisis management institutions;
  • excessive use of force;
  • failure to properly investigate and punish abuses by members of the security forces;
  • deployment of officers with little or no understanding of local cultural sensitivities or Malay language skills;
  • reliance on weak intelligence;
  • frequent rotation of senior political and security personnel and failure to coordinate some ten security forces and intelligence agencies in the region; and
  • dismissal of proposals for amnesty and less intrusive methods of regulating religious schools in favour of a more robust military response.

Beyond security measures, the government needs to understand and respond to the political grievances from which perpetrators of violence are drawing strength. The establishment in March 2005 of a National Reconciliation Commission, despite its mainly non-Muslim, non-southern composition, is the first encouraging step in this direction. In order to address immediate sources of tension, however, the government should, at a minimum, undertake a number of additional steps designed to break the cycle of violence by a measured response that acknowledges the need for more than police and military actions.


To the Royal Thai Government:

1.  Conduct full and transparent enquiries into the 74 deaths on 28 April 2004 that have yet to be investigated, in particular the nineteen alleged extra-judicial executions at Saba Yoi.

2.  Try the four generals implicated in the Krue Se and Tak Bai deaths in April and October 2004 and named by the investigative commissions. Those responsible should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, not merely subjected to disciplinary actions such as transfers.

3.  Establish a special commission to investigate the rash of disappearances in the southern provinces, many of which are suspected to be the result of kidnappings by state officials, with particular attention to the case of Somchai Neelaphaijit.

4.  Re-examine army and police rules of engagement in the south to better ensure human rights protection.

5.  End the unofficial policy of sending corrupt and errant officials to the southern provinces as a punishment post, thoroughly screen officials being transferred from other regions, and provide them with adequate cultural awareness training.

6.  Hire, where possible, local Malay Muslims in the local administration and security forces, and reinforce the recent commendable initiative of the Southern Border Provinces Peace-Building Command (SBPPBC) to take on an additional 30,000 locals by providing training to help elevate Malay Muslims to senior positions.

7.  Reinstate some form of the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Centre (SBPAC) to coordinate policy and monitor its implementation, with a civilian head mandated to remove corrupt or abusive officials.

8.  Make a serious commitment to identifying, understanding, and creating the mechanisms for addressing political grievances, perhaps initially by broadening and deepening the consultative processes of the National Reconciliation Commission.

Singapore/Brussels, 18 May 2005

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