Arrow Left Arrow Right Camera icon set icon set Ellipsis icon set Facebook Favorite Globe Hamburger List Mail Map Marker Map Microphone Minus PDF Play Print RSS Search Share Trash Twitter Video Camera Youtube
Can Thailand Really Hide a Rebellion?
Can Thailand Really Hide a Rebellion?
Report 241 / Asia

Thailand: The Evolving Conflict in the South

After a decade of violence, the capabilities of Malay-Muslim insurgents in Thailand’s Deep South are outpacing the counter-measures of successive governments in Bangkok that have been mired in complacency and protracted national-level political disputes.

Executive Summary

After a decade of separatist violence in Thailand’s Malay/
Muslim-majority southern provinces, insurgent capabilities are outpacing state counter-measures that are mired in complacency and political conflict. While Bangkok claims to make a virtue of patience, more sophisticated and brutal insurgent attacks increase the death toll. Successive governments have opted to muddle through South East Asia’s most violent internal conflict, their responses hostage to outmoded conceptions of the state, bureaucratic turf battles and a bitter national-level political struggle. In 2012, a new security policy for the region acknowledged for the first time the conflict’s political nature and identified decentralisation and dialogue with militants as components of a resolution. But fulfilling this policy demands that Thai leaders depoliticise the South issue, engage with civil society, build a consensus on devolving political power and accelerate efforts toward dialogue. Dialogue and decentralisation may be difficult for Bangkok to implement, but the necessary changes could become even more challenging over time.

The intractable power struggle between supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, deposed in a 2006 coup d’état, and his opponents in the army, bureaucracy and palace has overshadowed the conflict in the South. Yet, the region remains another arena for political games­man­ship. Civilian officials there and in Bangkok have been hamstrung by the need to respect military prerogatives and have searched in vain for a formula that can tamp down the violence without committing to political reforms. Deployment of some 60,000 security forces, special security laws and billions of dollars have not achieved any appreciable decline in casualties or curbed the movement.

For the past two years, violence has largely persisted below a threshold that might have generated public pressure for new approaches. Periodically, though, spectacular attacks thrust the conflict into national consciousness. A number of these have taken place in 2012, including the 31 March coordinated car-bombs in Yala and Hat Yai. Media broadcast of closed-circuit television (CCTV) video showing an audacious daylight strike that killed four soldiers in July in Mayo District, Pattani Province, confronted the public with brutal images that challenged official assurances that the government was on the right track. As overt political turmoil in Bangkok receded, the Deep South again became a hot topic for editors, bureaucrats and politicians, but this renewed attention has not yet prompted fresh thinking or new will to tackle the problem.

The Yingluck Shinawatra administration, which came to office in August 2011, placed its hopes for progress on Police Colonel Thawee Sodsong, a Thaksin loyalist chosen to lead the reinvigorated Southern Border Provinces Administrative Centre (SBPAC). Through determination and unstinting cash hand-outs, Thawee won a degree of personal approval within in the region. But the 31 March bombings coincided with first reports of Thaksin’s fumbled attempt to start a peace process with exiled militant leaders and allegations that the two events were linked. With Thaksin denying he talked with rebel leaders and violence and recriminations mounting, the dialogue process appeared to be back at square one. Faced with continued insurgent violence, the cabinet approved a high-level “war room” to coordinate the work of seventeen ministries with responsibilities in the Deep South. This did not blunt the bureaucratic impulse to tinker with organisational charts, however, as security officials called for re-sub­or­di­na­tion of the civilian SBPAC to the military-dominated Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC).

The contours of a political resolution to the conflict in southern Thailand have long been in the public domain, but Bangkok has been unable to commit to a comprehensive and decisive approach. A promising three-year policy issued by the National Security Council in early 2012 recognises a political dimension of the violence and codifies decentralisation and dialogue as official strategy, but its implementation is likely to be impeded by political and bureaucratic infighting. The government should reverse the militarisation of the Deep South, lift the draconian security laws and end the security forces’ impunity, all of which help stimulate the insurgency. Thai leaders should also forge a broad national consensus for bold action to resolve the conflict, including decentralisation of political power, earnest engagement with civil society and sustained efforts to cultivate a peace dialogue with the insurgency. Talking to its representatives, changing the way the Deep South is governed, delivering justice, and recognising the region’s unique culture are all elements of a comprehensive approach to reducing the violence.

As Bangkok dithers, the insurgents are growing bolder and more capable. They are conducting attacks that are attracting, if not deliberately seeking, more attention. Thailand has been fortunate that the militants have considered it in their strategic interest to contain the fight within their proclaimed territory, but the violence has evolved at a pace that is starting to challenge the ability of the government to respond on its own terms. Without more creative thinking and deft action, Bangkok risks losing the initiative.

Bangkok/Brussels, 11 December 2012

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.