Report 170 / Asia 3 minutes

Recruiting Militants in Southern Thailand

While Thai leaders are preoccupied with turmoil in Bangkok, the insurgency in the South continues to recruit young Malay Muslims, especially from private Islamic schools.

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Executive Summary

While Thai leaders are preoccupied with turmoil in Bangkok, the insurgency in the South continues to recruit young Malay Muslims, especially from private Islamic schools. These institutions are central to maintenance of Malay Muslim identity, and many students are receptive to the call to take up arms against the state. This is not a struggle in solidarity with global jihad, rather an ethno-nationalist insurgency with its own version of history aimed at reclaiming what was once the independent sultanate of Patani. Human rights abuses by the Thai government and security forces have only fuelled this secessionist fervour, and policies that centralise power in the capital have undermined a regional political solution. Changing these policies and practices is essential as the government tries to respond to the insurgents’ grievances in order to bring long-lasting peace to the region.

The Islamic schools in which pious young Muslims are recruited and radicalised are generally the larger, more modern and better-equipped institutions in a complex educational system that ranges from secular state school to traditional Muslim boarding schools (ponoh). The classroom is the point of first contact. Recruiters invite those who seem promising – devout Muslims of good character who are moved by a history of oppression, mistreatment and the idea of armed jihad – to join extracurricular indoctrination programs in mosques or disguised as football training. As recruits are drawn into the movement, they take an oath of allegiance followed by physical and military training before being assigned to different roles in village-level operations.

Islamic schools are not the only place where young Malay Muslims are radicalised, nor should all such schools be stigmatised as militant breeding grounds. Even in schools where insurgents are active, not all school administrators, teachers and students may be aware of what is happening, let alone consent to it. But these schools are rich in opportunities for recruiters. Religious young males – the natural foot soldiers of the insurgency – are found in academies numbering thousands of students. These crowds provide natural cover, especially for a movement that draws heavily upon teachers to do its covert recruitment.

The Thai security forces and some independent analysts believe that the insurgency is largely under the leadership of the National Revolutionary Front-Coordinate (Barisan Revolusi Nasional-Coordinate, BRN-C). It uses a classic clandestine cell network, in which rank-and-file members have no knowledge of the organisation beyond their immediate operational cluster. It also appears to be highly decentralised, with local units having a degree of autonomy to choose targets and carry out political campaigns. This structure has allowed it to remain active despite crackdowns by security forces.

Policymakers should be cautious of quick fixes to what is a highly complex conflict. This struggle, nominally between a Thai Buddhist state and a Malay Muslim insurgency, targets civilians of all religions. More than 3,400 people have been killed since the violence surged in 2004. There are more dead Muslim victims than Buddhists, and many of the slain Muslims were marked as “traitors” to Islam. Insurgents draw on local culture to invoke traditional oaths to discipline their own ranks, though such practices alienate them from the religious purists attached to the global jihad. Ancient charms and spells are applied to protect fighters from harm, co-existing with YouTube videos and propaganda circulated on VCDs. Despite the leap into cyberspace, the insurgency has, for the most part, restricted itself to the geographic boundaries of the three southernmost border provinces.

As earlier Crisis Group reports have stressed, the movement shows little influence of Salafi jihadism, the ideology followed by al-Qaeda and the Indonesia-based regional jihadi group Jemaah Islamiyah. Some insurgents follow a mystical variant of Shafi‘i Islam and are actively hostile to the puritanism of what they term “Wahhabis”. Although a few Malaysians have been arrested in southern Thailand for trying to join the struggle, there is no evidence of significant involvement of foreign jihadi groups. While politically distinct, the movement uses the language of Islam and jihad to frame its struggle, as such words resonate with its membership and the constituencies it seeks to sway.

Even as the political battle between the government and supporters of ousted former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra – in itself violent – plays out in the capital, Thailand needs to address the political grievances that have long fuelled resentment: the disregard for Malay ethnic identity and language, the lack of account­ability for human rights abuses, and the under-representation of Malay Muslims in local political and government structures. Without such measures, harsh suppression and attempts at instilling Thai nationalism in Malay Muslim radicals through re-education will only generate more anger that will in turn ensure a steady flow of recruits committed to an enduring struggle.

Bangkok/Brussels, 22 June 2009

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