Southern Thailand’s Insurgency Turns Jihadist

Police officers inspect the site of a car bomb attack in southern Thailand’s Sai Buri District in Pattani Province in September 2012. (Photo: Reuters)

Police officers inspect the site of a car bomb attack in southern Thailand’s Sai Buri District in Pattani Province in September 2012. (Photo: Reuters)

Thailand’s Malay Muslim insurgency in the south of the country appears to be going in a worrying new direction, becoming more Islamist in nature. Although the insurgency has a long history, resistance to Thai rule has waxed and waned according to local grievances. Historically, rebellion in the deep south has essentially been nationalist, not religious.

The region is the location of the former Malay Muslim sultanate of Pattani, which dates back, probably, to the 13th century when it was widely known throughout the region as a center for trade and Islamic scholarship. The primary aim of the militants was the preservation of the Malay Muslim way of life and the desire for autonomy. Although the militants have always been Muslim, it would not previously have been accurate to characterize them as Islamist or Islamic militants.

Even in the 1980s during periods of intense violence when many of the militant leaders were also Muslim scholars, the primary aim and legitimizing philosophy was the desire for national autonomy. Traditionally, religion has taken a backseat to nationalism. That began to change in 2004 with a new wave of violence, which many observers have attributed to a harsh crackdown initiated by then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra at the behest of the US administration of George W. Bush as part of the global war on terror, a now-discarded term.

In Southeast Asia, militant Islam often combined with returning Afghanistan alumni to ignite local grievances. During the 1980s, many devout Muslims traveled to aid their co-religionists in the Soviet-Afghan war. During the 1990s, often after a sabbatical in the Middle East, some of these fighters slowly filtered home to join the insurgency although it is uncertain how many returned to Thailand. A heavy-handed Thai response that included many extra-judicial killings further fueled the reinvigorated insurgency.

The Islamization of the Malay Muslim insurgency deepened further in 2012. Buddhist monks and teachers have been regularly targeted. More than 300 schools closed recently as teachers went on strike over the worsening security situation. In September 2012, militants threatened to kill anyone not respecting Friday as the Muslim Sabbath, which forced many businesses to close and many people to remain indoors for the day.

The insurgency is now primarily a rebellion legitimized by Islam. Further complicating the nature of the rebellion are deep links to local criminal gangs, especially those centered on drug and people trafficking. Conflict in the Deep South is an extremely profitable business.

Since 2001 and the New York terror attacks, academics and specialists have probed the insurgency in southern Thailand for links to global Islamic terrorism. Nothing has been proven and the accepted wisdom is that there are no links. This view is generally accurate. There has been no grand bargain between local militants and global Islam, although the view does ignore important regional links to Islamic supporters in Malaysia and Indonesia.

However, creeping Islamization is changing the nature of this previously low-level conflict. Eventually, and regardless of the input of global Islam, the current escalation of the conflict is likely to lead to a widening of acceptable targets.

Time is running out for the Thai authorities. In December, the US Institute for Economics and Peace ranked Thailand eighth, ahead of Sudan and Israel, in a global list of 158 countries where terrorism has had the greatest impact over the past decade. Thailand’s deputy prime minister, Chalerm Yoobamrung, responded with the rather bizarre suggestion that there is no terrorism in Thailand and that the high ranking was actually a misunderstanding. This is despite that Deep South Watch, an independent NGO made up of journalists and academics, has estimated that the violence in southern Thailand has led to 14,890 casualties over the past nine years. Other organizations put the count considerably lower.

Thai politics continue to hamper the search for a solution. Part of the problem is that a flock of different and disparate Muslim groups, each attempting to speak for the full insurgency, makes it difficult for Thai authorities to find anybody to negotiate with. However, Bangkok, far from the region and not convinced of its importance, since it is the territory of the opposition Democrat Party, has shown no particular interest in negotiating if someone appeared to want a solution.

It is thus unlikely that the measures necessary to solve the region’s problems will be agreed upon or enacted anytime soon. The conflict in southern Thailand is going to get a lot worse before it gets any better.

Current travel warnings for Thailand continue to understate the risk. While the current Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade travel rating for southern Thailand is “do not travel,” Thailand’s overall rating is “exercise a high degree of caution” despite a specific warning of the possibility of a terrorist attack in Bangkok. Likewise, the US Department of State provides a general warning of the possibility of terrorist activity in Thailand and lists a selection of the worst recent attacks in southern Thailand, but doesn’t specifically warn against travel to the region. The list includes the killing of four Malaysian tourists in 2010.

It is true that travel warnings are not a universal panacea for protecting tourists in southern Thailand, but given recent developments it would be prudent to update travel warnings to include the rest of Thailand and the northern states of peninsular Malaysia (which have often provided a safe haven for Thai insurgents).

Remarkably, the Thai insurgency has never veered near the coastal enclaves that are packed both with wealthy tourists and westerners who own beach properties in Phuket and other areas. There is precedent for caution. In 2001, an Abu Sayyaf raid kidnapped about 20 people from Dos Palmas, an expensive resort north of Puerto Princesa City on the island of Palawan in the Philippines, which had been considered completely safe.

The most valuable of the hostages were three North Americans, Martin and Gracia Burnham, a missionary couple, and Guillermo Sobero, a Peruvian-American tourist who was later beheaded. Martin Burnham was killed in a shootout between the militants and Philippine authorities a year after the kidnapping. Gracia Burnham was eventually freed.


6 Responses to Southern Thailand’s Insurgency Turns Jihadist

  1. This article seems way off the mark. The writer offers scant evidence and then declares ‘The insurgency is now primarily a rebellion legitimized by Islam.’ No it isn’t. It’s not legitimized by anything. Unidentified men are going around on motorbikes murdering innocent people, often in drive-bys. These attacks might be in retaliation for Thai military crackdowns; arrests and such, which disrupt local drug trafficking operations, but they can in no way be legitimized. There are also well planned bomb attacks apparently targeting police and soldiers. Separatists who would like to see the 3 provinces secede or gain full autonomy? Who knows? Nobody in command in Thailand seems to have a clue. Then there are the remarkably successful guerrilla attacks on fortified Thai positions in order to steal weapons. Are these fighters smuggled across from Malaysia and back out again after? They seem to disappear into thin air. Nobody in the region will ever forget the Thai government’s refusal to atone for huge blunders it has made in the past which resulted in the cruel deaths of hundreds of innocent people. Or that it also stubbornly resists any hint of autonomy for the southern states and continues to force Bangkok conceived, top down decrees upon people who apparently would very much like to use their own ideas to govern themselves in their own region. To me this holds more water as a primer for the ongoing conflict than any imagined Jihadist movement.

  2. “The primary aim of the militants was the preservation of the Malay Muslim way of life and the desire for autonomy.” “Buddhist monks and teachers have been regularly targeted. More than 300 schools closed recently as teachers went on strike over the worsening security situation. In September 2012, militants threatened to kill anyone not respecting Friday as the Muslim Sabbath, which forced many businesses to close and many people to remain indoors for the day.” Me think evidence enough. Sharia law next?

  3. This writer’s analysis is deeply flawed. For example, what evidence is there that there are “deep links” between this violence and human trafficking groups–all I know of are accusations by the Thai government that they are involved in drug and oil smuggling; why not cite your evidence if you have it? Also, what evidence is there that some of these insurgents are returned from Afghanistan? He makes no mention of the BRN, the organization involved with the earlier secessionist movements and thought to be a sort of cover organization for the present violence if in name only.

    I also see little evidence the author is familiar with studies such as the Lowy Group’s monograph or the the Center for Strategic Research report or research such as Bran. He misses that there was an amnesty granted in the 1980s, during which violence subsided and continued throughout the 1990s. The Lowy Group’s monograph identifies the leaders of the old insurgency as the leaders of the new, the “Old Guard” and not individuals who were fighting in Afghanistan. The Lowy Report, which I think is the best available research on who the insurgents are, does not mention nay links to Afghanistan or returned fighters at all.

    The “crackdown” began in 2001 under Thaksin but because violence had already re-emerged in the South, not as part of a “global war” on terror. Violence had already began to escalate again in 2001. Then, in 2004 began after the January 4, 2004 raid on a military base in Narathiwat by an estimated 100 assailants. Most consider this the beginning date of the new insurgency, although locals in the South often date to back to the 2001 attacks. Afterward these attacks, dozens of protesters were arrested and stacked in trucks: 78 people suffocated to death, and no one was every brought to justice within the Thai police or military. Violence increased significantly after this event.

    The author states about links to international terror networks that “nothing has been proven and the accepted wisdom is that there are no links. This view is generally accurate.” How presumptuous to comment on the accuracy of such studies when his own article shows little or no familiarity with them.

  4. Southern Thailand’s Insurgency Turns Jihadist: It is time for martial law; strict curfews, and unfortunately restriction of some freedom until civil society is restored. This is the price to establish democracy for all – not just for the Jihadist with their own agenda forcing it on to others.

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