In 2004, violence returned to the Southern tip of Thailand and the conflict continues today with almost daily violence, having killed over 5,000 people and injured over 8,000. The insurgency is being fought to gain independence of the Patani region from Thailand. However, the conflict is untypically faceless compared with other conflicts around the world, with insurgency groups not claiming responsibility for their attacks and having no visible leadership. With no leadership to approach, this makes political negotiations impossible for the moment and violence will continue until there is some popular momentum for peace.
Secessionist impulses have existed since the Sultanate of Patani was formally included in the Siamese Kingdom in the early 20th century, and violence returned to the region in January 2004. Simultaneous raids on military posts by insurgents were followed by harsh government reactions to further attacks, including the events at Krue-Ze Mosque in April 2004 and the death of 78 men in police custody following a demonstration in Tak Bai, Narathiwat, in late October 2004. The violence shows no signs of abating and continues on a daily basis with assassinations and bombings of government employees, military personnel and civilians, and the destruction of regional infrastructure, such as public health centres, schools, buses, trains, mobile telephone networks and power supply infrastructure. Since 2004, over 5,000 people have died and 8,000 have been injured, a majority of whom were civilians, and human rights abuses by insurgents are steadily increasing in both quantity and intensity.
At its core this conflict is about identity, and social and cultural grievances amplify the economic deficiencies that the region is also experiencing. While bureaucrats in Bangkok and many of the citizens of the Deep South see residents of the area as Thai, the insurgents and their sympathisers see themselves as Malay. Identity is not focussed singularly on a Muslim-Buddhist divide, but that Southerners associate with other practices and in general are attitudinally and behaviourally different to other Thais , for instance speaking the Malay language at home, sending children to Islamic schools, or finding offence in perceived transgressions such as drug use, alcohol consumption, prostitution, gambling or karaoke. Nonetheless religion does continue to play an important role in the conflict. While Islam plays an important role in part of the identity of the Malays, it is important to emphasise that this is a political insurgency driven by local issues, and not an example of jihadi terrorism.
The insurgency cannot be seen as a cry for development or a better standard of living, but it feeds off a sense of Malay nationalism rooted in the Patani homeland – altogether this creates a sense of being ruled by foreigners and undermining the Patani national right to self-determination. This feeling is underlined by a lack of locals in official positions in the region. While there have been several Muslims in prominent Thai positions, and they are not underrepresented at the national level in parliament or government, due to rotating bureaucratic structures local governance is managed by people who do not understand the religion, language, and culture of the majority of the Deep South’s citizens.
Key actor: BRN-Coordinate
The main organisation operating today is thought to be BRN-Coordinate (Barisan Revolusi Nasional- Coordinate). This very loosely structured and hyper-secretive group not only does not take credit for any of its attacks, but has also refrained from issuing any concrete demands or negotiable political goals. The general aim, however, appears to be merdeka – the Malay word for sovereignty or independence – for the territory of the former Sultanate of Patani, though some factions may settle for autonomy within the Thai state.
All insurgent organisations are so cellular that military success is unlikely, and equally so disparate that they render dialogue impossible. Members mostly do not even know the name of their group, and often the real name of superiors; further, membership is secret and the insurgents do not claim responsibility for attacks.
The renowned scholar and former National Reconciliation Commission secretary, Gothom Arya, deems the current insurgency to be a hybrid of bottom-up, disparate cells and a top-down hierarchy, whereby the leadership gives flexible instructions which are adapted to local structures by individual cells; the initiative for certain attacks is at the cell level though training, ideological formation and preparation for each attack is at the organisation level.
Key actor: The military
The strong-handed military response in the South has contributed strongly to the violence. While in past decades, when insurgents were camped in the jungle and launched coordinated attacks from there, such a military approach may have been useful, today’s cellular structure is embedded in everyday village life with volunteers not fighting full-time but well integrated into their surroundings. Military intervention, thus, always effects the lives of non-participating civilians, too. With an abysmal track record of human rights, the population in the Deep South may feel increasingly alienated, and look to the insurgents to relieve them of this oppressive system, embedding the conflict more deeply.
The hard-fisted handling of the situation has been facilitated by the joint effects of martial law and the emergency decrees, de facto allowing security personnel a free hand in their actions. Not only do the military and the security personnel commit human rights abuses, they are not even held accountable for this abusive behaviour. The emergency legislation has created a context of impunity in which they will not be prosecuted for any transgressions, such as arbitrary arrests, disappearances, torture or extrajudicial killings, frustrating the Malays further and underlining their perception of a status as second-class citizens. In this context, the police are seen as particularly harassing and a large majority of malpractice complaints have named police as the abusers.
Key actor: Paramilitaries
The situation is compounded by an increase, supported by the Queen herself, in paramilitary organisations; though these are cheaper and more flexible, mostly they are “inadequately trained and equipped, confuse already difficult command and control arrangements and appear in some cases to make communal tensions worse” (International Crisis Group 2007, i).
Violence in the Patani conflict is perpetrated by both insurgents and the military. The military has had a reputation for sometimes perpetrating human rights abuses during its military action against suspected insurgents, often also affecting civilians. The insurgents on the other hand have a more clandestine violent approach. Different from most other civil war situations, there are seldom direct clashes with the military. Instead the insurgents frequently use bombing attacks in public places to emphasise their presence. Furthermore, the most common form of violence is drive-by shootings, with insurgents targeting, military personnel, police, and often also civilians, whom they accuse of colluding with the authorities, e.g. non-Islamic schools.
Due to the inherently political nature of this conflict drawing on a crisis of identity, a political solution to the problem must be found, rather than approaching it as a military question. Also, a reliance on development policies alone will prove to be of limited usefulness considering that economic grievances are only one facet to this problem.
First, Thailand’s commitment to human rights must be upheld by repealing or revising emergency legislation and prohibiting further abuse. Judicial prosecution of violations should be rigorous. Furthermore, it is pivotal that the region be demilitarised to a certain degree, particularly disbanding the unaccountable paramilitary groups. Local ceasefire mechanisms could also be instated, should some cells of the insurgent organisations be prepared to step forward.
To pay homage to the different identity of Malays in the South, Malay could be made a parallel official language in the region, and its introduction into schools alongside Thai would help foster this identity. Furthermore, an open dialogue on the presence of Islamic schools should be embraced in order to ensure that children receive a culturally appropriate but also sufficiently broad education.
Lastly, new governance structures will need to be found in the region for a long-term peace to settle, however, it is unlikely that progress will be made in the near future on any of these fronts as the Thai government has little incentives to prioritise the conflict and national politicians are not greatly affected by the localised violence.