Bangkok Struggles to End Separatist Violence in Southern Thailand

Posted in Asia | 01-Oct-05 | Author: Adam Wolfe

Investigation officers are seen reflected on a bullet-riddled glass window of a police truck in Pakalusong village, south Thailand's Pattani province, October 4, 2005.

While the world looks to suture the recent Aceh peace agreement onto the violence that is bleeding southern Thailand, the region's Muslim insurgency is eyeing the benefits of globalized terror networks. Bangkok has tried a variety of responses to the separatist violence -- everything from imposing martial law to dropping 100 million origami birds inscribed with peace messages onto the region -- but nothing has curtailed the violence, which has killed some 900 people since January 2004. With every attempted tactic, Bangkok seems to reinforce the differences between the Muslim, Malay-speaking south and the Buddhist, Thai-speaking majority.

Bangkok insists that the insurgency is an internal problem that it can deal with, but the separatist groups have ties to international Islamist militant organizations and the situation is gathering the potential to destabilize the greater region. At this juncture, it appears that the violence will increase -- and possibly destabilize parts of the region -- before Bangkok or the separatists can be convinced to sit across the table from each other in formal peace negotiations.

Background on Southern Thailand

The regions of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat were part of an independent sultanate, the ancient kingdom of Pattani, until annexed by Thailand (then known as Siam) in 1902. The residents speak Yawi, a Malay dialect, and are Muslims, having adopted Islam in the 13th century. In these ways, the region is very different than the rest of the country, and because of this it has always failed to attract much attention from the central government, helping to further increase the income disparity between the south and the rest of the country.

For decades, southern separatist groups have quarreled with the government. In the seventies and early eighties, Muslim separatists were involved in drug smuggling and other operations with the remnants of Malaysia's communist insurgency based on Thailand's southern border, ostensibly to finance their attacks against the government (though many of the militants have historically been more attracted to banditry than waging war against the government).

The separatist groups also conducted several attacks against public schools, government-run clinics and police stations in the region because they were seen as anti-Islamic tools of the state. In February 2002, Thai security forces killed Saarli Taloh-Meyaw, the leader of the Pattani United Liberation Organization (P.U.L.O.), but maintained that there was no organized, violent separatist movement. Bandits and criminal gangs were blamed for the bloodshed, which in many cases was, and to a large extent still is, the cause.

On January 4, 2004, thirty armed separatists raided an army depot in Narathiwat, stealing over 300 guns and killing four Thai soldiers. Eighteen nearby schools were set on fire at the same time. The next day, two police officers were killed by a bomb they were trying to defuse. Another bomb injured a police officer, and two more were dismantled that day. It became clear soon after the incidents that a new chapter in the conflict between the Muslim separatists and the Thai government had begun. The following weekend, the Thai government imposed martial law on the three southern-most provinces, and for the first time admitted, publicly, that it was battling a Muslim, separatist insurgency.

Since then, the violence on both sides has only increased. There are frequent killings, in addition to attacks on government and Buddhist buildings. Public beheadings of Buddhists (360,000 of the 1.3 million southern residents practice Buddhism) have lead to gun training sessions for the remaining Buddhist population (it's estimated that over 34,000 have fled) being taught in Buddhist temples by Thai military officials. The counter-offensive launched by Bangkok has also been responsible for at least its share of deaths in the region. Most notoriously, in October 2004, 78 people from the small town of Tak Bai died by suffocation while in police custody after being rounded up at a protest that turned violent. On April 28, 2005, Thai security forces killed more than 100 poorly armed militants after separatists launched a series of raids on security posts.

There is evidence that the separatists are using more sophisticated bombs and techniques as they learn from successful attacks. The security forces have apologized for the most egregious violent acts of suppression, but do not appear to be backing away from putting violent repression at the center of the counter-insurgency strategy. The government's latest attempted strategy gives more power to the prime minister to contain the separatist movement, which is likely to create a more powerful backlash.

The Government Response

Thai Prime Minster Thaksin Shinawatra's government is the country's first stable, democratically elected government. He was the first prime minister to serve out his four-year term, and in February his Thai Rak Thai (T.R.T.) party gained an even greater majority. However, in July his public approval rating dipped below 50 percent for the first time. His taking a more direct role in the southern conflict is, at least in part, designed to reverse his sinking popularity.

Thaksin's government has tried a variety of methods to contain the southern separatist threat -- none, so far, have had the intended effect. The police and the army were each given a chance at being in charge of the response, development funds have been promised and threatened with withdrawal, and martial law has been imposed. Of the several initiatives launched this year, one does seem to have some promise of success.

In March 2005, the National Reconciliation Commission (N.R.C.) was created to recommend steps to end the conflict. The N.R.C. has had some success in convincing the government that it needs to focus on the sources from which the separatist movement draws strength, instead of only on military responses. It convinced the government to release a full report on the killings at Tak Bai last October. The commission also has received widespread praise from the West and A.S.E.A.N. countries. Still, the N.R.C. is not scheduled to release its full report until early 2006 and has no direct role in drafting government policy. Thaksin continues to ignore the N.R.C. when it suits his convenience.

On July 17, without judicial approval, the Thai Cabinet issued an emergency decree that grants the prime minister sweeping new powers over the three southern provinces. Thaksin now has the power to order the detention of suspects for seven days without trial, censor the media, tap phones and expel foreigners. The emergency rules also grant immunity to security forces in emergency zones -- a direct dismissal of the N.R.C. recommendations. The net effect of this shift from martial law to rule by emergency decree is more likely to harden the conflict rather than bring about its end. The southern conflict is not strictly military in nature. The decree does nothing to bring the southern, Muslim population into the process of ending the violence, as the N.R.C. has recommended -- the emergency powers only drive another wedge between the south and the rest of the country. Predictably, there has not been a decrease in violence since mid-July.

The Conflict's Significance Outside Thailand

Malaysia's government has been put in an awkward spot by Thailand's southern conflict. There is domestic pressure to support the separatists, who draw their ancestry back to Malaysia, and the northern state of Kelantan has launched a fundraising campaign to assist Thais fleeing the violence.

Still, maintaining diplomatic relations with Thailand is very important for Kuala Lumpur. When 131 Thai Muslims fled across the border in late July, Malaysia was reluctant to repatriate them. This has increased tensions between the two states. Kuala Lumpur's suggestion that the A.S.E.A.N. states should take up the issue of southern Thailand's conflict was sharply dismissed by Bangkok, and Malaysia has said it will not return the refugees until Thailand can provide assurances that their human rights will be protected. This bilateral tension could spread to the greater region, where the balance of power is in a fragile transition. [See: "India's Project Seabird and the Indian Ocean's Balance of Power"]

Thailand's reaction to Malaysia has been typical of Bangkok since the present conflict began in January 2004: every suggestion that an outside moderator be brought in has been met with a harshly worded assurance that Bangkok can resolve the separatist problem on its own. The recent Aceh agreement in Indonesia has been floated as a model for negotiations between the separatists and the government, but Bangkok has dismissed this in addition to all other calls for outside mediation.

However, if the links between Thai separatists and international Islamist militant groups should become operational, pressure on Bangkok to accept outside help in ending the conflict may prove convincing. While the groups like P.U.L.O. have received financial support from abroad, there is no evidence that any foreigners are fighting alongside or training the separatists, and the groups claim that all their weapons have been obtained locally. As the conflict continues, this may change. There is evidence that the separatists are growing in sophistication, and this may eventually lead to globalizing their conflict by tapping into the existing Islamist militant networks.


There is little reason to believe that the conflict in southern Thailand will be resolved in the midterm. The Thai government is still attempting to suppress the separatist movement without outside assistance, even though every attempt thus far has failed. The latest plan of giving the prime minister more direct control over the situation seems destined to join its predecessors in the wastebasket of failed strategies.

The Muslim separatist movement is still a localized one, though it does have some contact with international Islamist militants. Should it choose to exploit these relationships, and globalize the conflict, the Thai government will not be able to defend its policy of sovereignty before peace in the face of the overwhelming diplomatic pressure that will follow. Pressure from the West and A.S.E.A.N. countries to accept outside mediation can also be expected to increase after the N.R.C. releases its final report in early 2006. Until then, more bloodshed can be expected in southern Thailand.

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