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Thailand's Secessionist Muslim Insurgency Escalates

Author: Joshua Kurlantzick, Senior Fellow for Southeast Asia
October 20, 2012
The National

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Originally published in the National.

On a hot spring day, the roads and dirt alleys of the predominantly Muslim province seem quiet, even abandoned. Groups of schoolchildren, the girls in headscarves and the boys in starched uniforms, walk together along the side of the road. Inside some of the small, makeshift houses, men watch football matches on satellite television.

The quietness would be temporary. On September 21, a group of men appeared on the streets and began spraying machine-gun fire into a shop. As a crowd gathered in the aftermath of the shooting, a car bomb hidden nearby was detonated, killing six people and wounding at least 50.

These types of brutal attacks have become routine in this province. On a daily basis, groups of heavily armed men attack local officials, police, soldiers, teachers and any Muslim they believe is not adhering strictly enough to Islamic values. The insurgents explode homemade bombs, climb onto school buses and strafe children with gunfire. Those believed to sympathise with the national government are sometimes decapitated, their headless bodies left in public places, along with warnings to obey a strict form of Islam.

This is Pattani in southern Thailand, just a few hundred kilometres from Phuket and the idyllic international beach resorts of Thailand's west coast. In the country's deep south, where three Muslim-majority provinces abut Malaysia, a brutal insurgency between local Muslim militants who want a separate state and the Buddhist-dominated Thai army and paramilitary forces has raged for over a decade now. (Thailand is roughly 95 per cent Buddhist, but Buddhists are a minority in the three southern provinces.)

Since the war began in earnest in 2001, more than 5,000 people have been killed, and about 11,000 severely wounded, according to statistics kept by Deep South Watch, a monitoring organisation in southern Thailand. In recent months, the region has averaged four violent incidents a day. The shootings, bombings and open gunfights in the streets have devastated the local economy and left towns in ruins. And now, according to both Thai officials and Malay diplomats, the violence appears to be escalating.

In April, insurgents launched three sophisticated car bomb attacks, killing 14 people. On one day this summer, insurgents launched 102 simultaneous attacks across the south, including five bombings and innumerable shootings. The death toll rises each year - 310 people in 2009, 521 in 2010, and 535 in 2011, according to monitoring organisations. The chief of staff of Thailand's army recently acknowledged that the violence was unlikely to end anytime soon. Both sides have begun using extreme tactics. The Thai forces have armed local Buddhists, and in doing so created state-sanctioned vigilante groups. Both sides are accused by human rights groups of using children as soldiers. Government security forces frequently abduct local suspects and torture or kill them, according to reports by Human Rights Watch.

The violence has made southern Thailand the deadliest war zone in East Asia. And yet the conflict in the south has, for years, been almost invisible on the global stage, even though Thailand is a country woven into the world economy by trade and tourism. It is rarely covered in the media in the West or the Muslim world. It is all but ignored in policy circles in Washington, most Asian capitals, and even among many policymakers in Bangkok. And though some Muslims from southern Thailand have attempted to get international bodies to help address their grievances, including the United Nations and the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), they have been largely ignored.

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Though representatives of the OIC have met with some representatives of the southern insurgents, by and large, say several diplomats who were involved with the OIC, southern Thailand is not an important issue for the organisation.

"They see some place like southern Thailand as tangential, it's not in the Arab world," says one.

The three southern provinces along the Malay border have long had differences with Bangkok. They were, until the early 20th century, part of a sultanate. Around then, the Bangkok monarchy - a Buddhist institution - gained control of the region, triggering local anger against what the Malay-speaking minority viewed as a foreign grip. In the 1960s and 1970s, an earlier separatist insurgency emerged in southern Thailand, but the death toll was relatively low, and most of the insurgents put aside their weapons in the 1980s, following an amnesty from the national government.

To this day, no one really knows why the insurgency re-emerged in the early 2000s, and why the new conflicts were so much more violent. Many southerners date the first major attack to 2001, when at the end of the year an unknown entity organised five well-coordinated attacks on police stations in the south, killing five officers. The attacks were shocking, but not completely unexpected. Even during the quiet periods of the 1980s and 1990s, separatist tensions still simmered. For the south's youth, limited economic opportunity, perceived discrimination from Bangkok paired with the capital's exploitation of the region's abundant natural resources and an increased prevalence of drugs all led to a sense of alienation and fuelled the emergence of a radicalised youth population. According to Duncan McCargo, a scholar of southern Thailand at the University of Leeds in the UK, some became involved in growing networks of organised drug gangs, which supported an initial spate of attacks on local officials and created a climate of lawlessness. In addition, in the 1990s, communities in southern Thailand became closely linked to other parts of the Muslim world. With public schools in the south teaching primarily in Thai, many southerners began sending their children to private Islamic pondok schools, some of which were funded by charities from Arabian Gulf nations. Some schoolteachers argued for a renewal of the battle against the Thai state, and some of these institutions began to provide fertile recruiting grounds for militant networks, according to the International Crisis Group (ICG).

The Thai government fuelled southerners' rage through repressive policies in the early and mid-2000s. After the first stirrings of the insurgency, Thaksin Shinawatra's government, abolished a popular local southern board designed to hear grievances. Worse, rather than making efforts to address some of the grievances aired in the early 2000s by nonviolent southern activists, Thaksin took the opposite approach by centralising power in Bangkok. He rotated larger battalions of troops to the south, including many from other areas of Thailand where the soldiers had never interacted with Muslims. Thaksin had, through speeches, essentially given the security forces free rein in the deep south.

The result of centralisation of power and demonisation of southerners led to disasters such as the October 2004 Tak Bai incident in Narathiwat. When six men were arrested for allegedly supplying weapons to the insurgency, protesters demanding their release amassed outside the station at which they were being held. Dozens of protesters were arrested, and during their transport to a nearby military base in which prisoners were stacked in a lorry five to six deep, 78 people were either crushed or suffocated to death. No senior army or police officer has ever been punished for the incident, but the level of violence in the south increased soon after.

Unlike the 1960s and early 1970s, when the earlier insurgency was led by several groups with well-known leaders, this time the violence has been highly decentralised. A study by Human Rights Watch showed that the insurgents want to drive Thai Buddhists out of the south, as well as possibly institute more use of local languages, stricter forms of Islam, and ultimately obtaining autonomy or a separate state. But no one leader has emerged at the head of the insurgency, and experts such as Don Pathan of The Nation newspaper in Bangkok say that the insurgent cells are diffuse. Some of the insurgents issue warnings and demands to locals in the south and the Thai government, often through leaflets left on cars or in public places, but no one knows whether these demands represent all of the insurgents. The best analysis of the structure of the insurgency, put together by several researchers travelling through the south, found that the insurgents seem to be organised in small cells of six or seven fighters, run by a higher "Military Council" whose leaders are known as BRN-Coordinate, an acronym representing a series of words in Malay. Benjamin Zawicki, a longtime Amnesty International researcher, says: "The secrecy of BRN-Coordinate is such, however, that often the real name of superiors … or even fellow unit members, is not known to other members."

As a result of the diffuse networks of command, breaking up insurgent cells or even trying to negotiate with the militants has proven difficult for the authorities. In recent weeks, the Thai government has convinced almost 100 alleged militants to surrender, and have held talks with some veteran militant leaders. Yet even senior Thai government ministers privately admit that, though there are some 60,000 troops in the south and 66 government agencies involved in addressing the violence, they have no real idea whether the men who surrendered had actually been linked to any violence, or whether the older leaders really had any direct ties to heads of insurgent cells operating today. Five years ago, the Thai military claimed they believed there were as many as 40,000 people in the south linked to the insurgency; more recently, the military has claimed that there are only a few hundred people involved, a disparity that suggests the Thai government has no real clue about the number of fighters.

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For a brief period in the early 2000s, the conflict in southern Thailand did make it onto the world's radar. Shortly after the September 11 attacks, some western terrorism experts attempted to link the southern insurgents to Al Qaeda. A group of terrorism specialists who had never focused on southern Thailand before, including Rohan Gunaratna of the International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research in Singapore, seemed to want to lump all Muslim insurgent groups together, and began issuing reports, full of raw data but with few hard examples, of southern Thailand and the global jihadist movement.

In perhaps the most notable example of this trend, well-known American terrorism researcher Zachary Abuza became interested in southern Thailand and published a series of articles and books, mostly based on Thai security forces' views, which tried to link the south to a global jihad. Abuza argued that there was reason to be suspicious that the southern insurgency was linked to Al Qaeda funding networks, senior Al Qaeda operational leaders, and Al Qaeda local leaders in South East Asia. His reports were taken seriously, at least for a time, by government officials in the United States, where he taught at the National Defense University. This theory was encouraged by hawks in the Thai government, who saw that linking the south to international networks would gain Thailand greater assistance from the US.

Indeed, Hambali, who was said to be the South East Asia head of the organisation, travelled through Thailand and may have ventured to the south. One of the most prominent clerics in the south, a man named Ismail Lufti, who operates a prosperous, gleaming private school that stands out from the run-down schools on most southern streets, was seen in 2002 meeting with two men later linked to bombings in Bali. Meanwhile, a comprehensive study by the ICG, taken two years ago, showed that some Islamic private schools in the south, including several funded with foreign aid, helped "recruits [be] drawn into the [southern] movement".

But several teachers noted that none of the recruiters or students saw the southern conflict as part of some broader Muslim war, or were interested in establishing an Islamic caliphate in South East Asia, another theory proposed by counterterrorism specialists in the West. More often, they just raged at the Thai state's denigration of their legal and linguistic rights, or at the presence of thousands of army troops all over the south. Many of the captured militants showed little devotion to religion at all.

Indeed, as McCargo says, "The standard tactics of global jihadis, such as targeting foreigners … and selecting high-profile targets outside of the immediate conflict zone, have not been used in southern Thailand." The militants have launched no major attacks outside the south, even though high-end resorts patronised by wealthy westerners are close by. By contrast, Jemaah Islamiyah, which is clearly an Al Qaeda-linked terror group that has operated in Indonesia for more than a decade, has attacked western interests such as the Bali nightclub strip and the JW Marriott hotel in Jakarta.

Senior members of Thailand's national security council have admitted as much, with National Intelligence Agency director Suwaphan Tanyuwattana recently declaring that he did not think southern insurgents received backing from Islamist militants. Or, as several southern teachers and activists told me, among young southerners, there is no cult following for prominent Middle Eastern clerics or terrorist leaders, since they look only to Malay leaders (including some Malaysian politicians) for cues.

When no major links to Al Qaeda emerged in the south, much of the world seemed to lose attention. Meanwhile, the few experts on Thailand that exist in the West have been primarily focused on the ongoing political conflict in Bangkok and the centre of the country, which since 2006 has resulted in a coup, numerous street protests, and the violent demonstrations and army actions that resulted in at least 80 deaths in Bangkok. The international media have no regular correspondents based in southern Thailand, a sharp contrast from Afghanistan or other major conflict zones, and the southern Muslims - unlike former fighters in East Timor or in Palestinian Territories today - have no global champion or diaspora network to speak for their cause and to bring their grievances to a broader audience. Most western news organisations, lacking any global story in the south or a compelling southern Thai leader, run only an occasional story about the violence. "Some people in Malaysia pay attention to these news stories, but anywhere else in the region, no one does," says one Malaysian diplomat. The Thai insurgents do not seem interested in changing this dynamic with reporters: they rarely issue public statements via the internet or television, or provide spokespeople who can meet with or at least telephone reporters.

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After Thaksin was removed as prime minister in a coup in 2006, Thailand's elites fought for several years over control of Bangkok. Finally, in 2011, a party led by Thaksin's sister Yingluck, and actually commanding a majority of Thai voters, won parliamentary elections, giving it a strong mandate, though it was mistrusted by many army officers. Since taking office, the Yingluck government has adopted some new approaches to the south. Some top Thai politicians, including the deputy prime minister, have finally broached the idea of giving the southern provinces their own elected governors and significant autonomy, which was previously a red line no major Thai politician would cross.

This dramatic shift from previous Thai policy could, if correctly implemented, cut down the militants' appeal and reduce grievances in the south, and also possibly make Bangkok politicians who had just written off the violence begin to once again try to work for solutions. "The military-directed policy toward the south isn't working," wrote the Bangkok Post after the autonomy proposal was released. "It is past time to debate a new approach to the country's greatest security problem."

The government has not only accepted the surrender and provided amnesty to about 100 former fighters, it has also conducted more regular talks with men it believes are representatives of insurgent cells to get a better sense of their core demands. In sharp contrast to the bravado of previous Thai military leaders, the current army chief has won credit among southerners for at least admitting that the situation is severe, has many components, and will not be resolved easily anytime soon. Although the armed forces continue to detain suspects with little due process, the number of disappearances and reports of torture have diminished since the mid-2000s, and the army has rotated into the south a wider range of officers with more advanced counterinsurgency training, better understanding of local conditions, and at least some familiarity with Thai Muslims. In addition, the Thai government has tried to work more closely with neighbouring Malaysia, across the border, to prevent militants from easily slipping back and forth, according to several Malaysian diplomats.

And yet, even as the current Thai government seems to be moving closer to policy changes that could address southern grievances, the violence has, in recent months, reached its highest levels in recent years, while the insurgents also seem to have become better-coordinated and more confident.

Southern Thailand politicians and local officials offer differing explanations for the spike in violence. Among the most optimistic, usually officials who support the national government, the spike is an attempt by insurgent cells to press their advantage before coming to the peace table, a time-honoured strategy used by insurgents around the world. These officials argue that, with a populist government in Bangkok, supported by a large majority of rural Thais, the Yingluck govenrment is better-placed than any previous Thai government to understand the economic and political grievances of poor southerners.

Given that few people with top-level experience in the insurgency have actually surrendered or even agreed to talk, this explanation for the surging violence seems unlikely. Though the populist party running Thailand today is genuinely popular among the rural poor, it is not so beloved in the south - in the last parliamentary election, when Yingluck's party got an absolute majority of seats, it took only one seat in the entire southern region.

Instead, many teachers, local officials and analysts suggest a more menacing and depressing conclusion. After a decade of violence and with the Thai economy slowing down due to falling exports, young men in the south have become wedded to the insurgency as a way of life. Joining insurgent cells allows them access to money - insurgents often shake down local merchants and are allegedly involved in drug trafficking and other crimes - social status, and a way of venting their enormous resentments against Thai Buddhists, the state and their lack of relevance in Thai society as a whole. The insurgents also have attacked southerners who attempt to avoid violence and make money through traditional jobs such as rubber tapping. As each generation of young men in the south has been drawn into the insurgency, and as some teachers, local clerics, and other powerful southerners treat the insurgents with great respect, generation after generation of southerners see the battle as the best option not just for their politics, but for their own social well-being. And that is a hard cycle to break.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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