Thailand’s simmering security crisis gathers steam

Thailand’s simmering security crisis gathers steam

A quiet but increasingly deadly struggle is taking place in Thailand’s deep south. JOHN BLAXLAND reports.

Why has the security crisis in southern Thailand’s three southernmost insurgency-affected provinces of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat proved to be so intractable and drawn out? And why have the Thai authorities struggled with finding a viable solution to the problem? What is it that makes the situation there so hard to understand and so long-lasting?

Numerous scholars have attempted to dissect the problem, identifying a wide range of often conflicting factors as the root causes. But they can’t all be right; or can they? The problem is so intractable, it seems, because of the confluence of factors.

Thailand, like its mainland Southeast Asian neighbours, is an overwhelmingly Theravada Buddhist country. Superficially, there is a veneer of being Western in parts, but the culture and the beliefs are not like those in postmodern, liberal, agnostic and multicultural countries in the West. In Thailand, one’s karma matters enormously, delineating one’s inherent merit and place in the social order. The predominantly ethnically Malay, religiously Muslim and linguistically Yawi-oriented people of the so-called ‘deep south’ don’t fit readily in this model—except as a group considered with pity, if not disdain, by the Bangkok elite.

The Thailand that the vast majority of this constitutional monarchy’s subjects feel proud of is a land that has a history of having been encroached upon by external powers in the past two centuries. The country has grappled with insurgencies in its peripheries over the years. Consequently, the Thai people of the central plains, who dominate the central government in Bangkok, have been loath to see the unitary power of the state diffused in some federated model akin to that found in neighbouring Malaysia.

Unitary approach

For most of Thailand, the unitary approach has proved workable—although Red Shirt leaders in north and northeast Thailand may beg to differ. In southern Thailand, however, the unitary model has failed to resonate with an ethnic and religious minority who share little in common with their Thai Buddhist counterparts.

Since before the Anglo-Siam Agreement of 1909, which saw the Sultanate of Patani remain on the Siamese (later Thai) side of the demarcation line with British Malaya (now Malaysia), the people of Thailand’s deep south have chafed at rule from Bangkok. In 1948, as the Malayan Emergency was unfolding, local Patani leader Haji Sulong launched a campaign for autonomy and respect for language and cultural rights and the recognition of Sharia law. Violent clashes that followed left dozens of police killed, along with several hundred local Muslims. A state of emergency was declared and 5000 or so fled to Malaya. Haji Sulong was killed by police in 1954, but the conflict simmered for decades with the National Revolutionary Front (Barisan Revolusi Nasional, or BRN) formed in 1960.

A generation of separatist fighters also emerged under various banners, including the Pattani United Liberation Organisation (PULO) in 1968. By 1975 PULO was able to muster 100 000 people in Pattani to protest against central misrule. The clash in December 1975 saw 11 Muslims killed, heightening distrust between Buddhists and Muslims.

Communist insurgency

The 1970s and 1980s also saw Thailand plunge into a communist-linked insurgency. The Communist Party of Thailand, with ties primarily to China but also with its Malayan counterparts, flourished in the deep south until 1976 when the effective implementation of Thai counterinsurgency methods suppressed most of the unrest. PULO still managed to carry out a series of actions that saw several killed at their hands in the 1980s and 1990s. But by the time of the implementation of Thailand’s 1997 ’people’s’ constitution, the deep south was considered pacified.

In reality, however, the sine waves of repression and liberalisation, of deals and broken promises, and of confidences built and breached, meant that the insurgents appeared to have been suppressed, but they had learnt an important lesson. They recognised that to succeed, they needed to avoid providing obviously identifiable targets for the security forces to destroy—as PULO and BRN had done in earlier years. No longer would the separatist insurgents provide convenient and easy-to-target leadership structures for security forces to focus resources on and to eliminate. From this point on, it appears, the insurgent network would be diffuse, obviating the need for hierarchy or significant infrastructure.

The election of Thaksin Shinawatra and the onset of the so-called global war on terror in 2001 altered the equilibrium. It was at this time that the search for international terrorist links surged. To the surprise of those looking for signs of a global conspiracy, the local dynamics didn’t readily fit in the Salafist Sunni extremist mould of Al Qaeda. Instead, the sense of identity and grievance in Thailand’s deep south had its own unique characteristics.

Thaksin as prime minister

In 2001 Thaksin became Thailand’s prime minister. He was a former policeman whose party failed to gain parliamentary seats in the deep south. Not being beholden to the established powerbrokers there, Thaksin decided in 2002 to abolish the Army-dominated Southern Border Provinces Administration Centre as well as the civil-military police unit known as CPM 43 and hand over security responsibility to the local police. The handover from the military to the police saw the abandonment and subsequent destruction of the Army’s circle of informants—a network of contacts that had enabled the central authorities to remain abreast of issues of concern before they got out of hand. With the Army’s informant network gone, the authorities were effectively blind to what was going on behind the scenes.

An Army unit armoury was broken into by separatist insurgents in Narathiwat on 4 January 2004, and this was a key turning point. With 400 military weapons and stocks of ammunition taken, the insurgents escalated the simmering conflict dramatically. But what happened next would set off an even more spiteful and ugly fight across the three provinces of the deep south for the next decade and beyond.

To dismiss the conflict as principally about organised crime or interagency rivalry is to misread a vastly more complicated story.

In late April 2004, soldiers attacked and killed a group who had chosen to make a stand from inside the historic Krue Sae Mosque. By the end of the encounter, 32 had been killed. The lack of restraint by government security forces was appalling. Then to make matters worse, in October, 1500 unarmed Muslim protesters were beaten, detained and transported to a military facility near Tak Bai. In the process, 85 died at the hands of government troops, with seven shot and 78 suffocated after being piled on top of each other, hands tied, and transported in the back of trucks. With Thai commanders feeling honour-bound to shield their subordinates from external judicial scrutiny over misdeeds, there was little prospect of those directly responsible being held to account. The sense of injustice festered further.

The decade since has seen organised crime proliferate in the area, with people smuggling, drug trafficking and other crime expanding. Added to the mix is the rivalry between the police and the military and their paramilitary spin-offs, each with reputations to be made and maintained. But to dismiss the conflict as principally about organised crime or interagency rivalry is to misread a vastly more complicated story.

Thanks to information freely available through the internet and the diffusion of insurgent training and expertise with explosives and weapons, Thailand’s insurgents have learnt to master the art of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), adapting and improving as they go. Avoiding set patterns that would be readily discernible, the insurgents have alternated their preferred techniques and targets from among schoolteachers, Buddhist monks, military, police, paramilitary, shopkeepers, students, accomplices and government collaborators.

Tit-for-tat exchanges

While there have been plenty of Muslims killed in tit-for-tat exchanges, the intimidation of Buddhists has, it seems, been the principal driver for the insurgents. Retaliations have perpetuated the resentment and the violence. The end result has been the virtual cantonment of Buddhists in armed and patrolled villages and major towns. Despite government efforts to encourage Buddhist Thais to live there, in effect they are being slowly squeezed out from many parts of the south.

While earlier generations of insurgents have elicited substantial demands, the current crop of insurgents has studiously avoided declaring a manifesto—to the enduring frustration of the government security forces eager for some clarity as to its objectives and benchmarks. With little in terms of a political agenda to negotiate over and, in the absence of a readily identifiable and genuine leadership to engage with or target, the government’s efforts have continued to be frustrated.

The May 2014 military coup, one would have thought, might have led to a renewed and perhaps more efficient and effective counterinsurgency campaign. But negotiations with the BRN initiated by Malaysia have broken down—in part, it seems, because of the BRN’s lack of genuine influence. Insurgents have returned to targeting women and Buddhist priests and the vehicle-borne IEDs have grown from 5 kg to 50 kg of explosives.

This stepped-up violence has seen up to 50 deaths a month by mid-2014. The separatists’ military wing has proved to be innovative, adaptive and lethally unpredictable. Yet politically they have continued to be strategically cautious, conservative and ideologically anchored—and also not driven by the harshest of ideological spin-offs witnessed in places like Iraq and Syria.

Today, the Thai authorities have a great challenge on their hands to resolve their Bangkok-centred political crisis, while finding a way through the morass which is the Deep South. Some additional concessions from the central authorities appear to be the only way of breaking the political impasse. Yet the measures most likely to satisfy the separatists’ demands are the ones the central authorities are least willing to concede.

Southern provinces of Thailand showing the Malay-Muslim majority areas (Wikimedia Commons).

John Blaxland is a professor in International Security and Intelligence Studies at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University. He is the author of The Australian Army from Whitlam to Howard (CUP 2014). Twitter:@JohnBlaxland1.

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