The Insurgency in Southern Thailand Is a Total Mystery
Rebels target civilians and police but rarely explain themselves
The insurgency in Southern Thailand remains an enigma to the Thai government, the international community and many analysts and observers.
For one, the Malay Muslim rebels have rarely explained or revealed themselves. This makes their goals, ideologies and leaders befuddle the Royal Thai Army and the Royal Thai Police, which struggle with waging a counter-insurgency campaign already.
Just about everyone accepts that the rebels want autonomy or independence for Patani, an Islamic historical region that includes the Malay-majority provinces Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala.
But during a recent trip to southern Thailand, I wanted to find out more. What I learned is that while the insurgency is opaque, it is deeply rooted and shows no signs of being defeated.
“Some analysts see the militant movement as a reconfigured version of earlier separatist organizations, probably led by a shadowy group known as BRN–Coordinate,” political scientist Duncan McCargo wrote in his book on Thailand’s insurgency Tearing Apart the Land: Islam and Legitimacy in Southern Thailand.
“Others view the militants as a largely ad hoc network organization, with little formal leadership. These two readings can also be seen as opposite ends of a continuum, with the truth lying somewhere in between: the militant movement evidently combines organized and ad hoc elements.”
Two revolutionary movements, the Patani United Liberation Organization and the Patani Malay National Revolutionary Front, a.k.a. BRN, have led the insurgency for decades. However, the Thai government weakened them in the 1980s and the 1990s, arresting and killing dozens of members.
By the early 2000s, the rebels seemed to have lost the war, while the Thai government continued to ignore the south and its grievances.
Rebels attacked again 2004. The RTA and RTP responded with violence that, according to human rights groups, violated the law of war. Since then, war crimes by the conflict’s participants have continued.
Duangsuda Sang-umphai, one of the few Buddhists living in Southern Thailand, remembered how the rebels had attacked her family.
“In 2004, my father was shot dead,” she recalled. “Over the next two years, both my grandfathers were shot and beheaded. My family was attacked because our community decided to be neutral — neither pro-rebel nor pro-military. This meant that we didn’t have military protection, so we were a soft target.”
Such attacks have forced the south’s Buddhists into military- and police-patrolled enclaves, which the Thai government can prevent rebels from attacking. The rebels nonetheless succeed in that, as more Buddhists settle among the enclaves, Patani’s demography comes to favor Muslims in cities, towns and villages.
Many Buddhists fear that the insurgency will overwhelm the Thai government in the countryside, and some analysts believe that it already has.
“The awareness of continual murders, bombings, and arson attacks became the acceptable norm for the locals so long as the violence did not occur in their immediate (geographic or emotional) vicinity,” religion scholar Michael K. Jerryson wrote in his book Buddhist Fury: Religion and Violence in Southern Thailand. “This was their coping mechanism for dealing with their fears.”
Buddhists and Muslims in the south have come to accept the insurgency as normal, yet their acceptance advantages the rebels, who can control how and when residents of Patani live. “We don’t go out at night,” my interpreter warned me. “You should finish your interviews before 6:00.”
It wasn’t encouraging that the rebels had bombed my hotel twice, once only three years ago. “Oh, you’re staying at the CS Pattani,” a documentarian had told me in Myanmar. “I was there when it blew up.”
The rebels have varied their attacks on Buddhists and Muslims, civilians and soldiers, but few know why. Little can explain the relationship between the rebels, Islam and nationalism. Links between the fighters in Thailand and exiles in Malaysia and other countries are unclear. Equally vague are the connections between the BRN, PULO and other revolutionary movements.
PULO, which supported nationalism and secularism, spearheaded the insurgency during the Cold War but lost much of authority and prestige in the 1990s. The BRN, once nationalist and secularist like PULO, now maintains an ambiguous and notorious relationship with radical Islam.
But analysts question how much the different rebel groups matter — especially now that the insurgency has changed over time.
“Although former PULO members are very clearly involved in the insurgency, it is not clear whether they are fighting in PULO’s name or whether they have joined forces with newer and more radical organizations,” analyst Zachary Abuza observed in Conspiracy of Silence: The Insurgency in Southern Thailand.
“Clearly their experience in cross-border operations and their control or ownership of land that can be used for training has been important for the younger insurgents. Perhaps PULO’s most important role in the insurgency has been as an Internet-based advocate.”
PULO hosts a website in English, Malay and Thai plus an option to contact its members. I tried emailing a spokesman, but no one responded, so even PULO’s relevance online seems questionable.
The BRN refused to meet me when I contacted its members through Don Pathan, one of the few journalists who can access the rebels. McCargo and Sascha Helbardt, a professor at the University of Passau, had to spend months in southern Thailand to meet current and former rebels. Yet when I spoke to them, they told me the BRN proved as much a mystery to them as to me.
Analysts and proponents of the global war on terrorism such as Arabinda Acharya and Rohan Gunaratna have attempted connecting the BRN and other revolutionary movements in southern Thailand to international terrorist organizations, including Al Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiyah.
McCargo and Acehnese mediator Shadia Marhaban consider these attempts sensationalist, arguing that the rebels have few or no connections with terrorist organizations, that Islam as an ideology interests the rebels little, and that domestic problems caused the insurgency.
But the rebels’ secrecy has distanced them from the Muslim Malays who might support them. Because the rebels speak to so few, they are accountable to none — even when they kill outsiders or Malay Muslim civilians by accident or on purpose.
“When insurgents asked what politics has achieved for me, I asked what violence has achieved for them,” said Suhaimee Dulasa, former head of the Patani Federation of Students and Youth. “The masses refuse the insurgents because they kill civilians. Violence has brought the insurgents no benefits even if they can challenge Thai authorities and even though they are fighting for freedom.”
“Independence cannot come by blood because the insurgents are nothing compared to the Thai Army.”
I had seen the RTA up close, and it failed to impress me. Even so, car bombs and drive-by shootings seem useless against a modern military. “Some insurgents support us and are working with our organization,” Dulasa added. “The army thinks that we are the political wing of the insurgency. Maybe some of our members are insurgents, but our movement depends on non-violence.”
With the peace process as mysterious as the rebels themselves, non-violent resistance may best serve Malay Muslims caught between vengeful rebels and vindictive soldiers.
After speaking with the rebels many times, Pathan concluded that they plan to fight non-stop.
“The goal is still independence,” he messaged me. “Those self-proclaimed BRN who joined the MARA Patani forum and came to the negotiating table, or the informal pre-talk sessions, are people who are willing to settle for something less than complete independence. But the BRN, the group that controls the vast majority of the combatants on the ground, is not shying away from complete independence.”
The rebels remain as nationalist as before, and Pathan questioned how much terrorist organizations had influenced the BRN.
“In this globalized world, all of us, whether ordinary people or combatants, are affected by globalization,” Pathan continued. “The banner of struggle for the Malays of Southern Thailand is still very much an ethno-nationalist one. Jihadist groups like the Jemaah Islamiyah and Al Qaeda have tried to exploit the conflict here but never succeeded because the narrative and political context are too different.”
According to analysts, as young fighters in Thailand replace old veterans who have retired, surrendered or left the country, the rebels’ historical leadership may lose influence over the insurgency. The rebel youth may become more radical.
“The leaders still have control,” countered Srisompob Jitpiromsri, who heads a non-government organization that monitors the conflict. “The present generation wants independence as much as the past one. There is nothing to separate them.”
Unless the rebels or the Thai government change their opinions sometime soon, the insurgency seems likely to continue, and the rebels are happy to continue it. One of Southeast Asia’s best hidden examples of sectarianism may last long enough to become its oldest.