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A silent war

Forgotten Conflicts - Southern Thailand

A silent war Sumeth Panpetch/IRIN

Tourism has boomed in Thailand over the past decade, but how many of the backpackers island-hopping around its palm-fringed shores are aware that a brutal insurgency is raging in its deep south?

Among the many peculiarities of the conflict in Thailand's four southernmost provinces, which has claimed more than 6,300 lives since 2004, perhaps the oddest is that it rarely makes headlines outside the country. This is despite huge civilian losses, despite the extraordinarily high number of teachers killed, despite the regular bombings, the burnings and the beheadings. Outside Thailand, it would seem, no one knows about it, nor wants to know.

Nearly 1,000 kilometres away in Bangkok, successive governments have also shown little inclination to try to address the political roots of the Malay-Muslim insurgency, preferring simply to throw more troops or money at what they often treat, rather disdainfully, as a distant security threat.

But for the millions of Thais living near the Malaysian border in Yala, Narathiwat, Pattani and parts of Songkhla province, the problem is very near and very real.

“The fear may subside, but it’s always there,” Jatenipit Sukkayna, whose village was bombed twice by insurgents last year, told IRIN. “You learn to live with the fear. What other choice do we have?”

While the bulk of deaths linked to the conflict have been since 2007, the root of insurgents’ grievances goes back centuries, to when the area was an independent polity. 

Patani (as it was then spelt), a coastal sultanate encompassing much of what is now southernmost Thailand, converted to Islam with the arrival of traders. Under a 1909 deal with Britain, it was annexed by the Buddhist kingdom of Siam, which divided the region between modern-day Thailand and Malaysia.

What some Thai government officials have dubbed terrorism and separatism, local fighters (ethnic Malays) say is a nationalist struggle to restore their rightful homeland.

Four in five of the 1.8 million people living in the deep south region identify as Muslim, in a country that is more than 93 percent Buddhist overall. 

“This is a liberation organisation, to release us from the clutches of a foreign nation,” Mohamed, an advisor to the political wing of one of the main rebel factions, the National Revolutionary Front (BRN), told IRIN.

“We didn’t come here. We are from here. We want to be free from aggression and oppression. We have a long history here, [yet] we feel as if we are being instructed what to do, how to live.”

Southern Thailand car wreckage
File photo, 27 July 2014
Police examine car wreckage after a bomb in front of a hotel in Betong District, Yala Province


A trite phrase often bandied around in conflict reporting is that civilians bear the brunt of the carnage. In southern Thailand, however, it is disproportionately the case. A study of the first three-and-a-half years of the insurgency showed that 89 percent of those killed were civilians.

There has been no let-up in civilian targeting since. A report last year looking at the first decade of violence said separatists had torched or bombed more than 300 schools and killed 171 teachers. Monks and imams are also regular victims, as is anyone perceived to have any sympathy with or connection to the Thai government.

Southern Thailand children playing
Sumeth Panpetch/IRIN
Fatihah Dahoh, 9, (front) a student from Ban Paku Village, Tung Yang Daeng District, Pattani Province, plays near the scene of her burnt down school – which was one of six schools set afire province-wide - on 12 October 2014.

The fear instilled in the general population from this type of insurgency – which has seen up to 150,000 police, military and paramilitary personnel deployed in response – is particularly pernicious and has left deep scars that will take generations to heal, even if an unlikely peace could ever be found.

See: Thai conflict’s mental health legacy

“We don’t know when the violence will end,” Jumnong Kaewnawee, a psychiatric nurse at Khok Pho’s district hospital in Pattani province, told IRIN en route to visit the family of a schoolteacher killed in a roadside bomb in August 2014.

“It’s just my job to help people get through another day.”

That attack was one of almost 800 acts of conflict-related violence last year, an average of 66 per month, according to Deep South Watch (DSW), a local NGO that tracks conflict data.

This year, the killing has continued unabated. On 11 July, four separate bomb blasts rocked Songkhla and Narathiwat provinces, leaving seven dead and a dozen injured

"We don’t know when the violence will end.” - Jumnong Kaewnawee


It is far easier to establish the roots of the conflict – generations of discrimination against the ethnic Malay population by Bangkok and clumsy attempts to force the southern provinces to assimilate – than it is to understand the vagaries of the current situation.

And why exactly an insurgency that was active in the 1970s and 1980s but seemed to peter out in the 1990s should suddenly explode again with such ferocity in 2004 is also unclear.

Academics point to a combination of the rapid social change facing traditional Muslim communities that saw a bolder, more lethal brand of insurgent emerge and the short-sighted policies of telecoms tycoon turned prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who set about dismantling the south’s security apparatus after he was elected in 2001, allowing police to use repressive measures to settle local disputes.

Whatever the reasons, three events in quick succession in 2004 saw the conflict escalate way beyond anything the region had ever witnessed before and set in motion the endless cycle of attack, counter-attack and retribution we still see to this day.

The opening salvo was a raid by insurgents on 4 January on an army camp in Narathiwat province in which four soldiers were killed. Thaksin’s response was to extend martial law throughout Yala and Pattani as well as Narathiwat, and to introduce draconian security measures, including the detention of suspects for up to seven days without charge. Allegations of government-sanctioned torture followed as did the accusation of official involvement in the “disappearance” of lawyer and human rights activist Somchai Neelapaijit.

One of the bloodiest days in recent Thai history occurred a few months later, on 28 April, when 111 people died, 105 of them insurgents, after a synchronised rebel attack on 11 police posts and army checkpoints. Security forces rounded off the day by storming the famed Krue Se mosque in Pattani and killing all 32 militants inside. An international enquiry eventually concluded that excessive force had indeed been used.

But if one incident in 2004 came to represent the excessive repression of the Thaksin era and the impunity enjoyed by his security forces it was in Tak Bai, Narathiwat, on 25 October. A demonstration outside a police station was quashed violently with seven protesters shot dead. More than 1,000 people were detained and bundled into trucks. By the time they arrived at an army camp five hours later, 78 had died from suffocation or organ failure. No one has ever been charged with any wrongdoing.


Attempts have been made to buy peace by paying off Muslim leaders in the southern provinces and investing in the region. Most recently, Thaksin’s younger sister Yingluck Shinawatra, prime minister from August 2011 until May 2014, set aside $2 billion to boost the economy of the south. She also sanctioned peace talks, even going as far as to mention political decentralisation “based on pluralism... under the spirit of the constitution of Thailand.”

ST paramilitary
Sumeth Panpetch/IRIN
Paramilitary “rangers” patrolling a road used by public school teachers in Bannang Sata District, Yala Province in southern Thailand. There are an estimated 60,000 security forces.

Eventually, almost nine years (and more than 5,000 deaths) after the Tak Bai incident, her overtures made some headway and the Thai government and a rebel faction agreed to the first official negotiations, in February 2013. Unfortunately those efforts, like many unofficial attempts over the preceding decade, came to nothing.

The oft-cited reason for the breakdown of talks in 2013 and their subsequent paralysis is Bangkok’s preoccupation with central government turmoil. The last two years have certainly seen one major political upheaval after another: massive street protests and sit-ins in late 2013, a dissolved parliament in December 2013, a constitutional court decision in May 2014 removing Yingluck from power, and then a military takeover.

But Thailand’s wider political machinations are a convenient smokescreen to hide the larger problems thwarting any meaningful peace process.

None among the alphabet soup of acronyms known to fight in the name of the Malay Muslim cause – be it the BRN, the GMP, the PULO, the BRN-C or the RKK – claims responsibility for any of the attacks.

The conflict has also drifted far from its roots and is complicated by the involvement of criminal gangs, Buddhist vigilante groups and others with a stake in what transpires. The result is that the government doesn’t have a meaningful partner with whom to begin negotiations.

Even if the government – now a military junta led by a former general and commander-in-chief Prayut Chan-o-cha – could find interlocutors capable of speaking for the collective will of the rebels, it is unlikely to have a unified position itself on what it should bring to the table. Thailand is being torn apart by a bitter political schism. On one side are the royalist elite, Bangkok’s bourgeoisie, the judiciary and the military, while on the other are Thaksin and Yingluck loyalists from an emerging provincial middle class, supported by the working class, rural voters, and the police.

The 87-year-old king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, revered by many Thais almost as a deity, is ailing and has spent much of the past year in hospital, adding to the political uncertainty. Junta leaders have meanwhile pushed back elections until September 2016, with no one expecting any meaningful move on the southern conflict before then.

ST bomb
Sumeth Panpetch/IRIN
Thai soldiers examine the site where a road-side bomb hit a jeep carrying their colleagues in Yarang District, Pattani Province. Three soldiers were killed and one injured


“The only solution is autonomy. You cannot avoid that.” - Srisompob Jitpiromsri, Deep South Watch director

In a letter to the government clarifying its demands in 2013, BRN said it wasn’t seeking territorial secession from Thailand, but was calling instead for cultural and territorial autonomy. Requests included the creation of a special administrative region, Patani, and a quota of seats reserved for Patani-Malays in the Thai parliament and police force.

Junta leaders publicly rule out any discussion of autonomy. “As Prime Minister Prayut said when he was army chief, Thailand must be unified. We cannot divide the land or the ruling of the land,” Colonel Pramote Promin, spokesman for the junta’s Internal Security Operations Command, told IRIN in an interview.

One of the five preliminary demands BRN presented to the Thai delegation in April 2013 was that it be recognised as a liberation organisation rather than as a separatist group. But another demand, stickier for the Thai state, is that it recognise the “existence and sovereignty of the Patani-Malay nation.”

"As Prime Minister Prayut said when he was army chief, Thailand must be unified. We cannot divide the land or its ruling." - Colonel Pramote Promin

According to the Thai constitution, the Buddhist king is in “a position of revered worship” and any such challenge to his indivisible realm would be extremely hard for many Thais to swallow, for both political and religious reasons.

“In its current state, the peace dialogue is going nowhere,” Matt Wheeler, Southeast Asia analyst for the International Crisis Group, said in last month's update on the conflict.

“The military government’s authoritarianism and centralisation of power cast doubt on its ability to make the necessary compromises, while the separatists lack the commitment, political capacity and coherence needed for negotiations to succeed.” The report also noted, “worrying indications militants may have expanded operations beyond the traditional conflict zone of the four southernmost provinces.”

For the time-being, imagining how a peaceful future might emerge in Thailand’s deep south is hard, restricted to hypothetical speculation about what peace talks might one day look like.

“The junta is not interested in political solutions,” Duncan McCargo, a long-time commentator on the conflict, told IRIN. “The negotiations are going to be purely pro-forma until we get another elected government.”

That, incidentally, could be a while. Prayut is looking increasingly comfortable as Thailand’s unelected leader and the next polls, if indeed they do happen, are still more than a year away.

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