“A historical anomaly” is the starting point for analysing Thai history of the last two centuries: that is, unlike other Southeast Asian nations, Thailand has never been colonised. This is the theory of Yale University historian Eugene Ford. Paradoxically, this anomaly contains the roots of what has been called “an anomaly in the history of jihadism”: the Islamic insurgency in the deep south of the country, in the mainly Muslim provinces of Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala, which are ethnically and culturally separate from the rest of Thailand. This insurgency killed 7000 people and injured approximately 12,000 between January 2004 and the end of 2016. Yet, to many observers, the conflict is a localised, “low intensity” one. It cannot be defined as religious, but ethno-nationalist.
“This is not a clash of civilisations,” assures Worawit Baru, from Prince of Songkla University in Pattani. The problem is cultural. “The only solution is a form of autonomy, similar to that seen in Catalonia. But Thais don't see the south as part of Thailand; they see it as a colony.”
Thais refer to the deep south as “down there”, the basket where the bad apples in the civil service and police are picked. Its inhabitants are “foreigners” or “khaek”, a derogatory term. Down there is also the poorest region in a nation where approximately 20% of the population lives in poverty or semi-poverty (approximately 32% in the south).
According to “Jihadism in Southern Thailand: A Phantom Menace”, a report by the International Crisis Group (ICG) published in November 2017, “there is no evidence of jihadists making inroads among the separatist fronts fighting for what they see as liberation of their homeland”. Despite the decline of Islamic State in the Middle East and the consequent risk of the spread of jihadism to Southeast Asia, the report identifies signs of cautious optimism in Thailand. “Malay-Muslim society is not a sympathetic milieu for transnational jihadism; the country’s Muslim religious leaders overwhelmingly reject the Salafi-jihadist ideology espoused by ISIS and al-Qaeda.”
“Isis wants to create a caliphate; here they just want their ancestral land back. The members of the insurgency speak Malay to underline their ethno-nationalist nature,” confirms Haraih Shintaro, a Japanese sociolinguist based in Pattani.
The origin of these anomalies dates back to 1909, when the principality of Pattani was assimilated into what was then called the Kingdom of Siam. This was the reward for having given a free hand to the French and British in Laos, Cambodia, and Burma. In this way Thailand, by demonstrating its resilience, managed to escape colonisation.
The first signs of insurgency appeared in the 1960s and ’70s and were probably linked to regional communist movements. They all but disappeared in the ’80s when the Thailand Communist Party declined. In the meantime, the Barisan Revolusi Nasional Melayu Patani (BRN) was founded, an independence movement that is now the most powerful armed group in the deep south and seems to have links to the Indonesian group, Jemaah Islamiyah (close to al-Qaeda).
In early 2000, the insurgency suddenly rose again as quickly as it had declined, for reasons historians cannot pin down. According to some, it was linked to drugs and arms trafficking. The trigger for the current situation came in January 2004. Following a violent demonstration in Narathiwat province, Thai security forces arrested hundreds of demonstrators and locked them inside military trucks. Eighty-five of them died from thirst, suffocation or heart failure. The same year, martial law was imposed (and is still in force) in the three southern provinces; a course of action which raised the death count. In the end, both the government and the rebels contributed to achieving this result: the former by undertaking extrajudicial killings, while the latter by targeting the symbols of central power, such as civil servants, monks and teachers.
Since then, all Thai governments, up to the current military junta in power since 2014, have tried to establish dialogue with the Islamic groups, but both sides have spent more time fighting than seeking an agreement. Talks with Mara Pattani (an “umbrella” organisation that includes six insurgent groups) provided a glimmer of hope in 2015. But the BRN was not part of the talks. And without that group, as Abdul Karim Khalid, the official spokesman, recently stated, "There will be no peace or security".
“There are too many groups. The government only has contact with some of them, with the risk that the others can be manipulated,” explained professor Ibrahem Narongraksakhet from the Prince of Songkla University in Pattani.
His words were almost prophetic: in January 2016, the Prime Minister, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, declared that the authorities were investigating an alleged visit to a religious school in Narathiwat province by foreigners linked to Isis. The conflict escalated just a few months afterwards. While attacks had previously been confined to the three provinces and Western targets had been avoided, a series of bombs exploded in tourist destinations on 11 and 12 August, killing four people and injuring twenty or so (including ten Westerners). For the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC) of the Thai army, all the clues pointed to the Barisan Revolusi Nasional.
The year of mourning for the death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died on 13 October 2016, marked a brief respite: the number of violent episodes fell to approximately 500 (down from 4000 in 2007). But the attacks resumed in 2018, and the deputy prime minister and defence minister Prawit Wongsuwan claimed that Islamic State was seeking to establish a cell in the country.
The ICG report also states that Isis is setting itself up as an alternative to Thai-Malay ethno-nationalism. Many of the approximately ten thousand activists have attended Islamic schools in Indonesia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the Middle East and have come back radicalised. The greatest risk of contagion comes from Malaysian jihadists seeking refuge in Southern Thailand, while the porous border between the two countries allows the flow of weapons to reach militants in Malaysia. According to Zachary Abuza, professor at the National War College in Washington, Thailand risks becoming an Islamic terrorist hub in Southeast Asia.
“Direct talks between the leaders of the insurgency and the government are a priority,” concludes the ICG report. “A decentralised political system could help address the principal grievances in the south while preserving the unitary Thai state.” The “Conflict Resolution” that has failed almost everywhere else in talks with Islamic Extremists, may be successful in Thailand because – as an article in “The Diplomat” explains – “the Thai military prefers governance to war, since its main activities are ‘politics and business’”. In view of this, the government advanced a form of soft power by progressively reducing the active military forces (approximately 33,000 in 2018). A political action offset, however, by an increase of 11,000 units among the local militias, including also the Chor Ror Bor, the village protection force, which is the predominant group in the region.
In short, the Thai army wants to avert the extremism triggered in Myanmar by the brutality of Tatmadaw, the armed forces, against the Rohingya, an ethnic Muslim group residing in Rakhine State, considered as “illegal immigrants” from Bangladesh. The operations denounced as “ethnic cleansing” are not only delegitimizing the government of Aung San Suu Kyi (with the, perhaps calculated, risk of legitimizing the power of the military), but are also amplifying calls for revenge from Isis and al-Qaeda. “Everything points towards the fact that Islamic State is slowly and steadily creeping into the Rohingya situation,” writes Rohan Gunaratna of the School of International Studies in Singapore.
This opens up the worrying prospect of an Islamic State in the Bay of Bengal, from southern Myanmar and Thailand to Malaysia and the Straits regions. This would be a nightmare scenario for the Chinese government and its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) plans in Southeast Asia. It would also dash hopes for the Kra canal, which aims to cut across the Thai southern isthmus (just north of the three separatist provinces) joining the Indian Ocean with the Pacific.