The prospects for peace in Thailand’s deep south
Thailand’s Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra ardently advocates reconciliation and constitutional reform to heal Thailand’s divisive political wounds. But confronting the slow burning Malay Muslim insurgency in the deep south may be a more complicated challenge.
Storified by Open Briefing · Tue, Aug 21 2012 01:59:52
Captivated bythe colour-coded political firestorms of Bangkok and the tales of ordinary citizens incarcerated under lèse majesté laws foroffending the monarchy,international media finds little time to cover the complex security situationin Thailand’s Malay Muslim deep south provinces. Notwithstanding the fact thatover 5,200 people have been killed and many thousandsmore injured since 2004, the complexity in characterising the insurgency andits continuing, but low level, intensity may contribute to such neglect.
Almost eightyears on from the Tak Bai and Krue Ze Mosque incidents in 2004 and a “newnormal” in deep south violence, the opposition Democrat Party leader AbhisitVejjajiva is calling Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to account for thecontinuing and potentially escalating violence in the provinces of Pattani,Yala and Narathiwat and districts within Songkhla.
While the opening of dialogue with some insurgents is positive, there remains fundamental tensions in the current Thaipolitical environment. The contradiction between intensifying security and opening of “peace talks” may indicate a government administration lacking the ability to develop a viable and consistent policy leading to serious securitymiscalculations. As Shinawatra’s inner circle rapidly map out their new security strategy, there is a danger that the administration will fail to cast off the shadow of her brother’s hawkish security approach, triggering a new surge in violence.
The Malay Muslim and Thai relationship
Founded in 1390, Patani was a former Malay sultanate that historically encompassed the modern day provinces of Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat and parts of Songkhla. Between 1767 and 1902 the Sultanate of Patani exercised full independence. In 1902, Siam (Thailand’s name before the Siam Revolution of 1932, which reduced the absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy) annexed Patani and moved for full scale incorporation in 1909. Today, Malay Muslims of the three deep south provinces make up between 71-83% of the area’s population.
Attempts by the Thai state and Thai Buddhists to assimilate and integrate the Malay Muslim populations have triggered a number of separatist campaigns from annexation to the present day.
Between 1960 and 1980 the Barisan National Pembebasan Patani (BNPP) and a number of other insurgent groups maintained an ethno-nationalist based separatist campaign. Over this period the low level conflict was a direct rejection of the overt promotion of a mono-ethnic Thai state during the post World War II period (though equally important have been poor Thai government administration and economic development inequalities). Demands for regional autonomy or independence have been strongly rejected by successive Thai military and popularly elected governments.
Key insurgent groups
Categorising insurgent movements and the overall estimated 9,000 insurgents intofactionalised camps does betray the complexity of the relationship betweendifferent insurgent generations (older generation insurgents and youngergenerations fighters or “juwae”) and the relationship between identifiedinsurgency groups and on-the-ground militants. However, identified insurgentgroups have played an important role in defining the conflict.
Patani United Liberation Organisation (PULO)
Formed in 1968, PULO havepromoted the succession of an independent Malay Muslim state across the deep south.PULO has identified itself as a “moderate” separatist group focused onMalay nationalism as opposed to Islamic or religious principles. While theorganisation split into two separate factions (old and new PULO) in the 1990s,exiled senior members have now reconciled differences and are alleged to haveheadquarters based in Malaysia. In August 2010, PULO Vice President KasturiMahkota stated: “We have to concentrate on our struggle. The roots arehistorical, not religious. We were occupied by the Thais for over 100 years.Our fight is for the identity and dignity of Patani, we don’t want to involveother.”
BarisanRevolusi Nasional and the Barisan Revolusi Nasional Coordinate (BRN-C)
Originally established in the 1960s, the BRN is anethno-nationalist insurgency group that combined socialism with its insurgencyplatform and generally cooperated with the Malaysian Communist Party. In the1980s the BRN splintered into three factions, which included theBRN-Coordinate, BRN Ulema (focused on organising Islamic clergy) and BRNCongress (the main military wing).
The BRN-C is considered by many analysts as the core group coordinating currentinsurgency violence, or at least closely connected with a splinter group of militants (identifiedas Runda Kumpulan Kecil, RKK, allegedly responsible for ongoing attacks). BRN-C is distinctly Islamist in itsorientation with strong links to a large network of mosques and Islamicschools.
A 2007 Human Rights Watch report, No one is safe – which outlined the human rights abusesof the BRN-C network and its use of indiscriminate violence against monks,teachers and civilians (both Buddhistsand Muslim) – describes the BRN-C as the backbone of a new generation ofseparatists. BRN-C is understood to be a political division with connections toa highly decentralised network of associated militants with noreal disconcertable core. The networks are primarily made up of 5-10 villagelevel militants who, in some circumstances, are associated with Islamicschools (pondoks). According to the Royal Thai Police there were in mid-2006around 3000 militants in around 500 cells operating under the BRN-C.
Gerakan Mujahideen Islam Pattani (GMIP)
Formed by Afghan veterans as an off-shoot of the older GerakanMujahideen Pattani and with strong links to Kumupulan Mujahideen Malay, itsMalaysian counterpart, GMIP is more often characterised by Thai authorities asa criminal gang than a group of separatist fighters. Initially thought to havedisbanded in 1993, Thai intelligence officials have more recently taken GMIPmore seriously after security forces gunned down two senior members inPattani.
The roots of insurgency
Insurgent groups in the deep south almost never claim responsibility for attacks and do not use violent attacks to publicise political demands. This obliqueness results in difficulty attributing violence to insurgency activities as opposed to more general criminal activity. In a 2007 article, Professor Aurel Croissant described the blurring of the lines between criminality and insurgency:
“For many decades, Thailand has been a hub for Southeast Asia’s drug and arms trade, due to its weak legal system, corrupt political and judicial authorities, and a feeble regulatory financial system … Given the ubiquity of organized and petty crime, small-arms trade, smuggle and drug trade in the South, it would be naıve to assume that criminals and terrorists can be clearly distinguished. Rather a more plausible assumption is that there is a broad grey zone of greed and grievance in which there is no clear threshold between ‘entrepreneurs of violence’ and ‘warriors of convenience.’“ [Emphasis added.]
Notwithstanding this challenge, debate about the deep south insurgency has focused on the relative influence of fundamentalist Islamic political consciousness on insurgency campaigns and the degree to which the insurgency is driven by a global jihadist platform or ethno-nationalism.
A number of commentators, scholars and local academics that reject the global Islamic insurgency framework, point to a lack of Thai political legitimacy, which from a Malay Muslim perspective can manifest in local experience of Thai administration in security and police operations, education, centralised provincial governance and interference in local political and religious organisations. Duncan McCargo in his book Tearing apart the land: Islam and legitimacy in southern Thailand challenges the “clash of civilizations” narrative offered by the security industry:
“A common but troubling reading of the Southern Thai conflict uses the tropes of “Islamic violence” and the global “war on terror” to frame the violence within larger notions of a civilizational clash between Islam and the West. According to this perspective, popularized by terrorism specialists such as Rohan Gunaratne and Zachary Abuza, the Thai conflict forms part of a wider pan-Southeast Asian network of radical Islamic violence. Viewing Thailand as a western-aligned democratic nation, terrorism specialists tend to regard Malay Muslim resistance to the Thai state as animated by a worldwide resurgence of radical Islam aimed at overturning democracy, and instituting some form of caliphate. In a damning indictment, Michael Connors has shown that Gunaratne’s writings are riddled with embarrassing errors of fact and interpretation: Connors advocates a “war on error” to counter the ill informed, sensationalist and muddle-headed work too often published by members of the “insecurity industry.”
One of International Crisis Group’s first reports on violence and conflict in southern Thailand made a similar assessment:
“The rise of more puritanical strains of Islam in southern Thailand is often cited as contributing to the violence, particularly given Muslim anger at the deployment of Thai troops in Iraq. But while Islamic consciousness and a sense of persecution and solidarity with fellow Muslims has grown over the last two decades, it would be a mistake to view the conflict as simply another manifestation of Islamic terrorism. The violence is driven by local issues.” [Emphasis added.]
“… the nationalist-separatist struggle in Southern Thailand is rapidly transforming into a politico-religious conflict. Insurgent ideologues are increasingly politicizing and mobilizing the target audience, using religion rather than nationalism.“
Evidence of transnational training and religious instruction in Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia and Saudi Arabia, the likely (albeit minimal) presence of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) and the alleged growing popularity of Wahhabist based Islamic teaching are interpreted as suggesting a dominance of religious motives within southern Thailand’s s insurgent groups. Accounts of insurgency from younger generation militants may reinforce this perspective:
“We are different from the previous generation, who camped out in the mountains as an army of guerrilla fighters with clear structure and chain of command. That made them easy to be identified, tracked down, and suppressed by Thai security forces. Our new strategy is more community-based, operating from a cell in each village. … Islam has become much more important for our fight [compared to the previous generation] as the guiding principle. My generation is much more educated in Islam. The guidance of Islam is uniting us together, and keeping all of us true to our cause – that is to fight to liberate our land from the infidel occupation.” [No one is safe (Brussels: Human Rights Watch, 2007), 20-21]
The counter argument to Islamic radicalism outstripping ethno-nationalism revolves around the nature of violence not fitting the tactical patterns of groups with transnational links to global militant Islamic organizations. Even though tourism accounts for 7.1% of Thai GDP (2011) there have been very limited, large scale attacks on Western tourist targets that are within convenient striking distance from the deep south. Suicide bombing are non-existent. Claims of responsibility for attacks which have included arson attacks on Thai government schools, killings of teachers and beheadings have not been forthcoming. Indiscriminate attacks often resulting in large Malay Muslim casualties and may suggest that the more crude and unsophisticated attacks are rooted in the narcotics trade, smuggling or criminal syndicates.
While there is evidence of fundamentalist Islamic teaching in the deep south and some militants who justify the insurgency in terms of “expelling the Thai infidels,” the weight of evidence points to the roots of insurgency as largely based on localised conflict and ethno-nationalism.
Critical events and insurgent responses
When Thaksin Shinawatra and his Thai Rak Thai (TRT) Party came to power in 2001 there was a fundamental shift in Bangkok’s approach to the deep south: a shift which likely triggered or catalysed a change in the nature and intensity of the insurgency.
The earlier strategies of political containment, part and parcel of the conservative, royalist military and elected regimes through the 1980s and 1990s and tied to the concept of “virtuous monarchical rule” had come to end. The reality of co-option and control of the Malay Muslim political elite, teachers and Islamic leaders within the Thai administrative and parliamentary system – an important ornament of monarchical rule – could no longer be denied and left the deep south with a belief that no one represented Malay Muslim interests. Their representatives were perceived as more Thai now than Malay Muslim.
Thanksin’s dismantling of special administrative arrangements for the deep south and installation of the unpopular and distrusted police force to manage security was the beginning of a Thai state security posture against which insurgents sought to justify an increasingly violent revolt. Emergency law decrees continued reinforcement of security forces and repeated overuse of detention powers reinforced a circle of violence.
Limitations on Shinawatra’s Pentagon II Strategy
In Tearing apart the land: Islam and legitimacy in southern Thailand McCargo suggests that:
“… since the conflict is essentially about the perceived illegitimacy of the Thai state in the deep south, any solution needs to focus primarily on the legitimacy crisis. Thai-style virtuous legitimacy will not wash in Patani, while representative legitimacy on Thai terms has been tested and discredited. The only way forward is to try some form of participatory legitimacy … In other words substantive autonomy.”
With the opposition Democrat Party still attached to royalist morality and virtuous security concepts and the Pheu Thai Party still harbouring many of the security beliefs of Thaksin’s TRT Party, continued political competition over finding a solution to the insurgency of the deep south may encourage ongoing violence.
There is a question as to how far Shinawatra can push existing political boundaries erected around the deep south, which have to date discouraged any real discussion of regional or administrative autonomy. Withstanding the recent “peace talks,” undertaken during an expansion of security arrangements, the current political environment may limit the ability of Shinawatra to push political boundaries on autonomy and administrative arrangements.
“Reconciliation” legislation and constitutional reform agendas proposed by Shinawatra’s Pheu Thai Party have significantly inflamed political tension. Talk of amnesty and compensation for political violence between 2005 and 2010 and proposed modernisation of Thailand’s constitution had resulted in both United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD “red shirts”) and People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD “yellow shirts”) taking to the streets to protest and counter protest. The proposed amnesty for Thaksin’s corruption convictions, which would pave the way for Thaksin to make a permanent return to Thailand has been particularly contentious.
In this environment, Shinawatra’s relationship with the predominantly royalist aligned military may not be sufficiently stable to allow a radical departure from existing security approaches in the deep south. The reconciliation bills and constitutional reform may have already placed substantial pressure on the government’s relationship with the military. Anything that could be characterised as diluting Thai sovereignty, even reductions in army presence in the deep south, could further compromise the relationship.
BRN-C and other insurgent groups may have little faith that Shinawatra’s administration can exercise sufficient control over the military to bring about sincere negotiations. Reports continue that the military remains ardently opposed to autonomy for the deep south provinces and any attempt to establish a platform to discuss this issue may cause greater fissures in an already tense relationship between the Shinawatra Government and the military.
The current political turbulence in Thailand has limited the type of security response the Thai government can implement. While greater governmental and agency coordination in security, law enforcement, government services and administration sounds uncontentious, curfews and new safety zones may be interpreted as a continuation of Thaksin’s security measures. Existing emergency laws that embolden police powers of detention and arrest, which when excessive and zealously applied, already have a tendency to reinforce perceptions in parts of the Malay Muslim population that such activity is more about harassment than security. Low conviction rates and judicial skepticism at arrest practices may suggest that this perception has some evidence.
Resolving the problems with the existing Thai security complex in the deep south to address the grievances of the Malay Muslim population may not be enough to stem the violence. Younger militants and the BRN-C may not be ready to come to the table and negotiate with Thai authorities. If, in their strategic estimation, the Thai state is not desperate enough or in a substantially weakened bargaining position, the militants may continue the violence until such a power dynamic exists.
In the eyes of some insurgent groups, there may exist a critical threshold in violence which must be reached before regional autonomy or independence may be successfully negotiated for. Casting Thaksin as an insurmountable road block to reconciliation and negotiation may give the insurgency sufficient time to consolidate its position. Prasert Pongsuwansiri, a Democrat MP from Yala, cited websites in a parliamentary debate linking the 31 March 2012 Yala bombing to unsuccessful talks between Thaksin and separatist representatives in Malaysia.
The Thai government inevitably seeks for all security and administrative policy approaches to satisfy the dual objectives of winning the hearts and minds of Malay Muslims and suppressing the violent expression of separatist tendencies. Finding this balance in the current political climate will be difficult. There must be a question mark over whether Shinawatra has the political space to open up serious peace talks across the full spectrum of insurgent groups.
Even if Shinawatra can compensate for her brother’s failing in the deep south and establish dialogue with all insurgent groups, it is unlikely that the military and the opposition Democrat Party strongholds in the south will allow her to compromise or truly negotiate a level of regional autonomy that may satisfy the insurgent groups. Shinawatra’s inner circle will instead be relegated to tinkering at the edges of existing security responses and frameworks, and the violence will continue.
Dossier opened: 3 August 2012
Dossier closed: 21 August 2012
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