Thailand's Southern Fix
Thailand's Southern Fix
Op-Ed / Asia 7 minutes

Thailand's Southern Fix

The political sclerosis in Bangkok is distracting Thailand's leaders from the urgent need to find creative solutions to the insurgency in the south, says  John Virgoe.

The return to democracy in Thailand following the military overthrow of the populist prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra in September 2006 has been messy. In the second half of 2008, the country's polity has been riven by a deepening political crisis which has pitted the government (now led by Somchai Wongsawat, and sympathetic to Thaksin) against much of Bangkok's middle-class and the country's traditional establishment and elite.

A by-product of the turmoil in Bangkok itself has been that the bloody insurgency in Thailand's southernmost provinces is becoming a forgotten war. Thais, numbed by the repeated atrocities and in any case unsympathetic towards the grievances of Malay Muslims in the south of Thailand, have lost interest. Yet the conflict remains unabated.

The prime minister, paying his first official visit to the south on 28 October 2008, said that the situation had "improved". There may have been a temporary reduction in the number of attacks - an independent monitoring group recorded "only" twenty-seven deaths and twenty-seven injured in October, the lowest monthly casualty rate of 2008. But the long-term prognosis is not good. The political paralysis in Bangkok means that progress on the security front is not being followed up by efforts to address the root causes of the conflict, which ultimately lie in the Malay Muslims' rejection of attempts to assimilate them into the predominantly-Buddhist Thai state. Moreover, there are worrying signs of foreign jihadist groups taking an interest in the situation - something that could seriously complicate what until now has been a homegrown separatist insurgency.

An armed response

The conflict-zone is a sliver of land on the Malay peninsula, with a population of around 2 million. The discontent here has simmered since the 1902 annexation by Thailand (then known as Siam) of what had been the kingdom of Patani. The latest outbreak of an on/off separatist insurgency after this date started in 2004 and has already claimed 3,300 lives - a casualty-rate seven times that of the "troubles" in Northern Ireland (a place of similar size and population).

The Muslims of this region - ethnically, religiously and linguistically distinct from the majority Thai Buddhist population - have more in common with their cousins across the border in Malaysia (and indeed they lobbied for annexation by British Malaya following the second world war, when that country had returned to colonial rule). The community exists uneasily in a Thailand which has historically preferred to assimilate minorities rather than celebrate ethnic diversity. The scholar Duncan McCargo has observed that the "shared shibboleth 'Nation, Religion, King'", intended to bind Thais together as a nation, "failed to resonate in Patani".

Patani (or "Pattani") separatist propaganda emphasises the distinct identity and the glorious history of the region. Accounts of indoctrination activities in Islamic schools reveal extensive discussion of the history of Patani, with potential recruits motivated as well by pan-Malay sentiment, and the abusive behaviour of the Thai security forces.

Some of the Malay Muslims' main grievances, reflecting the importance of identity politics and resisting assimilation, centre on education and language policy. But schools have become major battlegrounds in more than a figurative sense: there have been numerous brutal murders of teachers, singled out as state agents who indoctrinate Thai-ness into Malay Muslim kids.

After the coup which ousted Thaksin Shinawatra in September 2006, the military-installed government announced its priorities were to bring about reconciliation in the country, and to resolve the conflict in the south. By the time it handed power back to a democratically elected government in February 2008, it was clear it had failed to achieve either goal. There were positive steps, such as an apology for past abuses in the south and some useful changes to security structures, but these were not followed up with actual measures to address Malay Muslim concerns. Indeed, the imposition of draconian security legislation has led to further abuses.

Moreover, the return of democracy did nothing to resolve Thailand's political polarisation. The December 2007 election saw a massive victory by the People Power Party (PPP), a proxy for Thaksin Shinawatra's Thai Rak Thai party, which was disbanded by a court ruling following the coup. But the forces which opposed Thaksin continue to plague the PPP. The first post-election prime minister, Samak Sundaravej, was disqualified from office by the courts for the surprising offence of accepting payment for hosting a TV cookery show. His neophyte successor, Somchai Wongsawat, faces a sea of troubles - in the courts and on the streets - which threaten his government's survival and divert attention from the stumbling economy as well as the conflict in the south.

The successive prime ministers, preoccupied with their political woes and needing to retain the backing of Thailand's powerful military, have been willing to let the army take the lead in the south. The army commander General Anupong Paochinda has pursued a vigorous approach which has involved reorganising the command structure, putting more boots on the ground and conducting "sweeping" operations to round up suspects. All this has led to a reduction in the number of attacks in 2008, though there have been more "spectacular" large-scale attacks, including an assault on a train in June 2008 which killed four people and halted all rail services for a week. But any improvement seems likely to prove temporary. In any case, any tactical advances have come at the price of increased human-rights abuses, and a policy of mass detentions which risks increasing resentment and radicalisation.

A policy vacuum

To the extent the insurgents are temporarily on the defensive, now would be a good time to take decisive steps to address the root causes of the conflict.  These include accountability for past and continuing human-rights abuses; language, cultural and education rights; and demands for more self-government. But the government seems unwilling or unable to focus on this agenda: unwilling because some may genuinely see the conflict as a purely military problem, unable because of the distraction of Bangkok politics. Since taking office, the current government has made no policy initiative on the south.

This policy vacuum is leading to dangerous freelancing. In July 2008, one retired general presented a supposed ceasefire announcement from self-proclaimed insurgent leaders on Thai TV, to general surprise; the real insurgents continued their attacks without a break. In September, there were claims of a breakthrough in peace talks hosted by Indonesian vice-president Jusuf Kalla; these turned out to be equally fictive when both the Thai government and the rebel groups denied taking part. It transpired that both the retired Thai general and Jusuf Kalla had been bamboozled into dealing with minor rebel figures. This sort of thing raises false hopes in the south, undermines the government's credibility and shows a lack of coherence in approaches to the region.

Another dangerous development is the increasing interest in the conflict being shown by jihadist groups in Malaysia and Indonesia. The insurgency is entirely self-grown, and there is no evidence that the southern insurgents have received any support from foreign jihadist groups. There is nothing in the curriculum of the insurgents' indoctrination classes to support the idea that they are part of a wider Islamist jihadi movement. On the contrary, the agenda appears exclusively localist, with little discussion of the suffering of Muslim brothers in Palestine or Chechnya of the kind that is a prominent part of jihadi discourse in Indonesia. The traditional and Sufi practices of members of the insurgency - such as the use of magic charms and oaths - would be anathema to the strict Salafists of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI). Moreover, conversations with young recruits reveal strong antipathy to the Wahhabi brand of Islam to which JI adheres.

The ethno-nationalist nature of the insurgency is no cause for complacency, however.  Instead, it should be a reason to address the conflict quickly, while it is still amenable to a political approach. Justine Rosentall has argued that movements can morph, as lack of progress leads to frustrations and foreigners arrive to press their own agendas, as happened in Chechnya and is happening now in Algeria. This will not happen easily in the case of the Malay Muslim insurgency, with its localist focus. But it could happen if the government neglects the search for political solutions and frustrations mount.

A number of foreign jihadist websites are starting to give more attention to what they describe as the jihad in "Pattani Darussalam". Against the evidence, they claim that the struggle is a genuine Islamic one, not one "poisoned by nationalism". With religious conflicts in Indonesia - in the Moluccas and Poso - essentially at an end, southeast Asian radical groups are actively looking for new jihads to fight, raising the possibility that foreign jihadists will travel to the region. Indeed, two Malaysians were arrested there in June 2008 while attempting to steal a motorbike. They told the police that they had wanted to wage jihad and had been recruited and indoctrinated, one in Johor and one near Kuala Lumpur - both far from the Thai border. But there is no evidence that they had successfully linked up with local insurgents.

No time to lose

A separatist movement with a political agenda is potentially susceptible to political solutions. Those solutions may not be easily achievable and are complicated in the case of southern Thailand by the absence of an identifiable, above-ground political leadership with whom the Thai state might negotiate. But there are nonetheless political measures which could be taken unilaterally by the government, such as granting official status to the Malay language and ensuring accountability for human-rights abuses by the military. Such measures, coupled with effective security actions (which do not further radicalise the population as do, for example, mass detentions), could help deradicalise the bulk of the population and reduce support for the insurgency. By contrast, an Islamist jihad requires an entirely different mix of policy measures, and is less susceptible to a final settlement.

It may seem unrealistic to argue that the Thai government should undertake a serious policy initiative on the south at a time when it is locked in deep political conflict in Bangkok. But unfortunately, waiting for an end to Bangkok's political crisis may mean waiting a very long time. The south cannot afford to wait.

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