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Can Thailand Really Hide a Rebellion?
Can Thailand Really Hide a Rebellion?
Behind the Insurgent Attack in Southern Thailand
Behind the Insurgent Attack in Southern Thailand
A Royal Thai Army Signal Corps solider awaits orders. 19 May 2010. FLICKR/null0
Op-Ed / Asia

Can Thailand Really Hide a Rebellion?

Originally published in The New York Times

On Aug. 11 and 12, coordinated bombings and arson attacks in tourist destinations in seven provinces of peninsular Thailand killed four people and injured 35. No group claimed responsibility, and senior officials of the military government almost immediately decided that the bombings were not acts of terrorism. They also dismissed any link to Malay-Muslim militants who have been waging a separatist insurgency for the past 13 years in the four southernmost provinces.

A police spokesman said, “Thailand doesn’t have conflicts regarding religion, ethnicity, territory or minority groups.”

That was an astounding statement in view of the insurgency by ethnic nationalists in the Malay-Muslim majority provinces, where violence has killed some 6,500 people since the beginning of 2004.

The prime minister, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, rushed to imply that blame should be directed at domestic political opponents loyal to two former prime ministers, Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister Yingluck Shinawatra, who opposed a new constitution, drafted by the military, that assured continued power for Thailand’s ruling military clique. Voters approved the draft constitution on Aug. 7, amid heavy restrictions on campaigning against the charter.

Several opponents of the government, including members of the Thaksin loyalists’ Red Shirt movement have been detained, even though the bombings do not conform to the modus operandi of earlier violence associated with pro-Thaksin groups. Neither do they bear significant similarities to the bombing of a Hindu shrine in central Bangkok in August 2015 that killed 20 people.

The bombings do, however, bear the hallmarks of operations by the Patani-Malay National Revolutionary Front, which is known as the B.R.N. and is the main group fighting for the independence of the Malay-Muslim south of the country. The attacks were coordinated over several provinces, often employing two or more improvised explosive devices timed to detonate in sequence. The devices were small and, although lethal, were not designed or deployed to cause mass casualties. Also consistent with B.R.N. operations, there was no claim of responsibility.

Thai police investigators, contradicting the government’s narratives, said the bombs were typical of those used by militants in Thailand’s deep south. On Aug. 15, Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan conceded that the bombers might have been hired from the ranks of southern militants.

Thai authorities have a long record of ascribing acts of violence to domestic political rivals. In 1993, after militants set fire to 33 schools across the three southernmost provinces, some senior officials blamed “the old power clique,” who had lost influence following a recent change in government. Following a car-bomb explosion in the garage of a shopping center on the tourist island Koh Samui in April 2015, senior officials blamed a group of politicians who had lost power after a coup the year before.

These allegations were never substantiated, and the police eventually linked the bombing to other attacks in the deep south. Officials also tried to implicate Red Shirts in the bombing of a Bangkok shrine last year.

Why is the military government so anxious to deflect attention from the Malay-Muslim insurgency? First, officials deny that Thailand is a target for terrorism, especially terrorism arising from a chronic domestic insurgency. One goal is to protect Thailand’s vital tourism industry, which indirectly contributes 20 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.

Second, the military characterizes the insurgency as “disturbances” perpetrated by misguided individuals, which serves to minimize its political implications. Many Thai officials harbor a deep fear of international intervention, which they believe would eventually lead to partition. Further, acknowledging the recent attacks as the work of Malay-Muslim militants would also mean confronting the Thai military’s own counterinsurgency failures. Voters in the three southernmost provinces emphatically rejected the draft constitution, reflecting the region’s antipathy to the military and its centralization of power.

It is true that southern insurgents have largely refrained from attacking Thai targets outside the four southernmost provinces. But there are plausible explanations for why they might have decided to expand their operations now.

Last year, the International Crisis Group, an independent conflict-prevention organization, noted the possibility that the insurgents, faced with stalemate and diminishing returns from routine attacks in the deep south, might strike in tourist areas outside the traditional conflict zone. The senior leaders of the B.R.N. have rejected the military government’s faltering peace process, which to them seems designed to maintain a semblance of talks without the substance of negotiations. Now, the referendum result may have revealed the futility of expecting to engage with an elected government in Bangkok, since the draft constitution entrenches the military government’s power for at least another six years.

If, as available information indicates, Malay militants perpetrated the recent attacks, then the conflict has entered a disturbing new phase. For 13 years, the insurgency has had little effect on the lives of most Thais outside the deep south. Now, a wider insurgency risks stoking militant Buddhism and sectarian conflict.

Early last year, in spite of a ban on political gatherings of five or more people, large Buddhist demonstrations were held against a halal-industry zone in Chiang Mai and the construction of a new mosque in Nan Province in northern Thailand. Last October, a monk in Bangkok urged that a mosque be burned for every monk killed in the deep south.

It would be shortsighted and self-defeating of the generals running Thailand to insist on dismissing these latest attacks as a partisan vendetta unconnected to the conflict in the south. They should recognize the insurgency as a political problem requiring a political solution. That means restoring the rights of freedom of expression and assembly to Thai citizens, engaging in genuine dialogue with militants, and finding ways to devolve power to the region.

Members of a bomb squad inspect the site of an attack by suspected Muslim militants in Yala province on 6 November 2019. AFP/Tuwaedaniya Meringing
Q&A / Asia

Behind the Insurgent Attack in Southern Thailand

On 5 November, insurgents in southern Thailand staged their deadliest attack in years, killing fifteen people. Crisis Group’s South East Asia Senior Analyst, Matt Wheeler, explains what happened and what it means for the stagnant peace-dialogue process.

What happened, and why is it significant?

On the night of 5 November, at least twenty gunmen attacked a security checkpoint in Lam Phaya sub-district in Yala, Thailand’s southernmost province, killing fifteen people and wounding four others. Many of those killed were Village Defence Volunteers, civilians whom the interior ministry pays to perform part-time security duties in villages across the insurgency-plagued region. Also among the victims were a former sub-district chief, a police adviser to the defence volunteers, the sub-district physician and civilian bystanders; the dead include both Muslims and Buddhists. Militants bombed a nearby power pylon, felled trees and scattered nails to delay security forces and rescuers responding to the attack. The assailants fled, taking with them small arms captured from the victims.

Ethnic Malay Muslim militants have been fighting the state for decades in the Muslim-majority south of Thailand, which otherwise is mostly Buddhist.

Ethnic Malay Muslim militants have been fighting the state for decades in the Muslim-majority south of Thailand, which otherwise is mostly Buddhist. The militants seek independence and an end to what they see as Thai colonialism. Their insurgency is rooted in ethnic Malay nationalist resistance to Thai rule that followed the extension of Siamese sovereignty over the Patani sultanate at the beginning of the twentieth century. Violence has largely been confined to the country’s three southernmost provinces, Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala, as well as the four south-eastern districts of Songkhla province. Muslims account for roughly 85 per cent of the population in these areas. The insurgent movement is distinguished by its secrecy and reluctance to assert an organisational identity. Insurgents tend to identify simply as juwae (fighters) rather than as members of a particular militant group. It remains a parochial nationalist insurgency – distinct from transnational jihadist movements – in which Islam is foremost a marker of Malay cultural identity.

The 5 November attack is remarkable for two reasons. First, it was the deadliest since late 2001, when the longstanding insurgency reignited after a lull in the 1990s. Although insurgent ambushes, bombings and assassinations have claimed more than 7,000 lives since then, militants have never before killed so many in a single raid. Secondly, it took place amid a decline in the pace and intensity of militant violence over the past several years. From a high of 892 fatalities in 2007, the death toll fell to 218 in 2018, the lowest since 2004. It remains to be seen whether the 5 November attack was an aberration or sign of renewed insurgent potency.

What signal are militants sending with this attack?

Any effort to assign particular motives to the Lam Phaya attackers is speculative at this stage. The strongest insurgent group, Barisan Revolusi Nasional Melayu-Patani (Patani Malay National Revolutionary Front, or BRN) is highly secretive and rarely accessible to the media. It never claims responsibility for its actions. The attack may best be understood as a demonstration by militants of their ability to conduct operations and inflict losses, in spite of the decline in violence in recent years. It also highlights that, whatever the government may say, the insurgent campaign is far from over. Apart from the high death toll, the raid was wholly typical of attacks that have been routine in the region since 2004: coordinated use of small arms and improvised explosive devices; diversionary attacks; theft of weapons; and hit-and-run tactics.

A more immediate possible motive may be retribution for the 25 August death in army custody of an insurgent suspect, Abdulloh Isomuso. Abdulloh was detained for interrogation on 20 July and fell into a coma the following day. The case is emblematic of the persistent human rights abuses that feed Malay Muslim grievances and the failure of authorities to hold officials to account.

Another possibility is that militants are seeking leverage in advance of prospective dialogue with Thai authorities. BRN would not want to enter talks with the government perceiving it as a spent force.

What is the state of play in the peace-dialogue process?

The official peace-dialogue process that brings together the Thai government and the Patani Consultative Council (Majlis Syura Patani, better known as MARA Patani), an umbrella group of Malay nationalist organisations in exile, is moribund. Talks have been stalled since April 2018, and MARA Patani formally suspended its participation in February 2019 until after the Thai general election the following month. After the suspension, the head of the separatist delegation, Shukree Haree, resigned, questioning Thailand’s sincerity in conducting dialogue. Shukree has not been replaced. General Udomchai Thammasarorat, former chief of the Thai dialogue delegation, did not meet with MARA Patani during his year-long tenure, which ended on 1 October. His successor, former National Security Council director-general Wanlop Rugsanaoh, has given no indication that dialogue will soon resume. The process is beset by Thai concerns that MARA Patani does not represent fighters inside Thailand and militant suspicions that Thai authorities are using the dialogue primarily as a public relations exercise.

Malaysia, which shares a border with Thailand and is home to many exiled Patani Malay militants, serves as facilitator of the dialogue.

Malaysia, which shares a border with Thailand and is home to many exiled Patani Malay militants, serves as facilitator of the dialogue. Although militant leaders and Thai officials alike agree that Kuala Lumpur must be involved, at least some in each cohort question whether Malaysia can be an impartial mediator. Many militants in exile resent the reported Malaysian pressure on BRN to join the MARA Patani process. For their part, some Thai officials suspect that Malaysia’s sympathies lie with the militants, given that so many are in exile there.

BRN’s refusal to participate has badly impaired the Thailand-MARA Patani dialogue. Though there are individual BRN members in MARA Patani, the mainstream of BRN has refused to join. The group is not opposed to talks in principle, but it adheres to a 2013 list of five conditions for participation in peace talks, among which are mediation by a disinterested third party and inclusion of international observers. Thailand, however, rejects these conditions.

Senior Thai officials have also discounted the possibility of political autonomy or decentralisation in southernmost Thailand, with some insisting on a resolution tantamount to BRN’s capitulation. Since the coup that brought a military junta to power in 2014, the Thai government has further centralised authority. The formal return of parliamentary rule in June 2019 has done little to change the complexion of the government, which remains dominated by junta figures who regard decentralisation as a slippery slope toward partition and a threat to national sovereignty.

How can the peace process be revived?

The existing dialogue process appears to have reached a dead end, but Thai authorities are quietly seeking back channels to militants outside MARA Patani. This development is encouraging, given that resolution of the conflict in southernmost Thailand will inevitably require the participation of BRN’s majority faction. But a meaningful, substantive dialogue will require a reboot of the process on terms acceptable to both sides. Such an approach must grapple with the need for an impartial mediator, while still according a role to Kuala Lumpur, and clarify which entities on each side can offer credible guarantees. Only then will it be possible to begin the arduous work of achieving a political compromise that can bring an end to the violence.

Map of Thailand

CRISISGROUP