South Thailand insurgency

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It has been suggested that Pattani separatism be merged into this article or section. (Discuss)
Flag of Pattani Raya, a symbol of Pattani separatism
Flag of Pattani Raya, a symbol of Pattani separatism

The South Thailand insurgency is a separatist campaign centered in the three southern provinces of Thailand, with violence increasingly spilling over into neighbouring provinces and threatening to extend up to the national capital in Bangkok. A long series of conflicts has resulted in over 1200 deaths in the past decade, with more than 1000 occurring since an escalation of violence in January of 2004. In July of 2005 the Prime Minister of Thailand, Thaksin Shinawatra, assumed wide-ranging emergency powers to deal with the insurgency.



The Kingdom of Siam exercised a loose sovereignty over the northern part of the Malay Peninsula, including the Malay Sultanates of Kedah, Kelantan, Pattani, Perlis and Terengganu, from the 16th century (see History of Thailand). In 1902, Pattani was formally annexed by Siam. Seven years later, under the Anglo-Siamese Treaty of 1909, the British colonial administration in Malaya forced the King of Siam to cede sovereignty over all of these except Pattani to Britain, while the British recognized Siamese sovereignty over Pattani, which became a monthon (region) of Siam. In 1933 the monthon was divided into the provinces of Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala.

During the 20th century the area was, to some extent, assimilated into Thai society. Most people acquired Thai names, and there was substantial Thai Buddhist settlement in the area. Today Thai is the language of the government and of business; most southerners speak and understand Thai. But some 2.6 million people in the three provinces, as well as some districts in Songkhla province, still speak Malay as their first language, and have remained Muslims despite considerable Buddhist missionary efforts. Over 80% of the population in Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat continue to adhere to Islam. The Pattani Malays have, however, little sense of connection with the Malays of modern Malaysia, and they speak a distinct local version of the language known as Yawi.

There has been a separatist movement in Pattani since at least the 1930s, but under successive Thai military regimes it was firmly suppressed. During World War II, when Thailand under the nationalist regime of Marshal Phibun Songkhram was an ally of Japan, Tengku Mahmud Mahyuddin, a prominent Pattani leader who was the son of the last Raja of Pattani, allied himself with the British in promises that after the war should they win, Pattani would be granted independence. After the war, there was an attempt to establish a "Greater Malay Pattani State" (Negara Melayu Patani Raya), but the British gave this movement no support and hopes of an independent Pattani were shattered.

In the late 1940s when the Phibun regime tried to impose Thai-language education on the area the Pattani leader Haji Sulong Tokmina (who had supported the Japanese during war as a rival to the pro-British Tengku Mahmud Mahyuddin), wanted cultural autonomy but not independence. He was imprisoned in 1948 and killed by police shortly after his release in 1952. There was then little overt secessionist agitation until the liberalization of Thai politics in the 1980s, but separatist groups such as the National Revolutionary Front (Barasan Revolusi Nasional, BRN) survived and maintained a base of support.

Renewed agitation began in the 1990s, led by Malay intellectuals influenced by revolutionary and Islamist ideas from the Middle East. The BRN split into three rival factions, of which the most militant were the BRN Coordinate and the BRN Congress. The BRN Congress is now regarded as the most active group, but there are several others, and competition between these militant groups has helped fuel the insurgency. It is believed that there is now a co-ordinating body called the Pattani United Liberation Organization (Dewan Pembabasan Pattani or PULO), although little is known about the composition or leadership of the various groups.

PULO's platform is highlighted by its Islamic nationalist goals, calling the Thai presence in Pattani "a colonisation" and an "illegal occupation." Its stated aims are to secede from Thailand through military and political means, and to create a state named Patani Darussalam (Pattani, Land of Peace). The PULO flag has four red and white stripes and a black rectangular on the upper left with a crescent and a star.

The current insurgency

The Pattani separatist groups began to use violent tactics only after 2001, under the influence of foreign Islamist groups such as al-Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiyah. A number of Pattani Muslims are reported to have received training at al-Qaida centres in Pakistan, and the Pattani insurgents have forged links with groups such as the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in the Philippines and the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) in Indonesia. Attacks were made on installations of the police and military, schools and other symbols of Thai authority in the region were burned. Local police officers of all ranks and government officials were the primary targets of seemingly random assassinations, with 19 policemen killed and 50 insurgency-related incidents in the three provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat by the end of 2001.

At first the government blame the attacks on "bandits" and indeed some outside observers believe that local clan, commercial or criminal rivalries do play some part in the violence in the region. As recently as July of 2002 in the wake of over 14 policemen dying in separate attacks since the beginning of the year, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra publicly denied the role of religion in the attacks, when quoted as saying he did not "think religion was the cause of the problems down there because several of the policemen killed were Muslim" [1]. Interior Minister Purachai Piemsomboon attributed the attacks on the police to the issue of drug control, as the "police are making serious efforts to make arrests over drugs trafficking."

While earlier attacks were typified by drive-by shootings in which patrolling policemen were shot by gunmen on passing motorcycles, this quickly escalated to well coordinated attacks on police establishments, with police stations and outposts ambushed by well-armed groups who subsequently flee with stolen arms and ammunition. In 2002, 75 insurgency-linked attacks amounted to 50 deaths among police and army personnel. In 2003, officials counted 119 incidents. The mounting scale and sophistication of the insurgency eventually prompted the government into a recognition that there was a serious issue in the southern provinces.

On January 4, 2004, unidentified gunmen raided an army ammunition depot in Narathiwat Province in the early morning, and made off with over 100 rifles and other ammunition. In the midst of doing so, all four senior-ranking soldiers guarding the installation were murdered. This incident quickly escalated into large scale violence, with insurgents killing 600 people in a series of bombings and shootings aimed mainly at the police and the military, but also many civilians. Some bombings were directed at non-Muslim Thai residents of the area, leading to an exodus which has damaged the regional economy and increased its isolation from the rest of Thailand. Much of Thailand's current prosperity, based on tourism, has passed the south by, and it remains one of the poorest parts of the country.

The Thai response to the insurgency was hampered by a lack of training in counter-insurgency methods, lack of understanding of local culture, and rivalries between the police and the army. Many local police are involved in the local drug trade and other criminal activities, and army commanders from Bangkok treat them with disdain. The army responded to insurgent attacks with heavy-handed raids on Muslim villages, which only resulted in reprisals. Insurgents provoke the inexperienced Thai government into disproportionate responses, generating sympathy among the Muslim populace.

The growth of the Pattani insurgency coincided with the election of Thaksin Shinawatra as Prime Minister of Thailand in January of 2001. Although there is no overt secessionist party in the south, voters in the southern province overwhelmingly voted for the Democrat Party and against Thaksin's Thais Love Thais party, at both the 2001 and 2005 elections, leading Thaksin to treat the area as "enemy territory." Thaksin sent more troops and police into the area, reducing support from moderate Muslims.

In 2002, Shinawatra stated, "There's no separatism, no ideological terrorists, just common bandits." By 2004 he had reversed his position, and has come to regard the insurgency as the local front in the global War on Terrorism. Martial law was instituted in Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat in January of 2004, and violence increased, with 200 Muslims killed by troops during the year. In April, troops killed over 100 Muslim men in Yala province who attacked well-defended police stations with only light weapons, in what police described as "suicidal" attacks.

The insurgency continues, with a bomb attack in Songkhla on April 3, 2005, and a major attack being launched on the provincial capital of Yala in July. In response, Thaksin issued a decree giving himself sweeping powers to direct military operations, suspend civil liberties, and censor the press. This action sparked protests from liberal sections of the Thai media and opposition parties.

Estimates of the strength of the insurgency vary greatly. In 2004 General Panlop Pinmanee said that there were only 500 hard-core insurgents. Other estimates say there as many as 15,000 armed insurgents. Thai analysts believe that foreign Islamist groups are infiltrating the area, and that foreign funds and arms are being brought in.

A striking aspect of the South Thailand insurgency is the anonymity of the people behind it and the absence of concrete demands. Although Thailand held relatively free elections in February of 2005, no secessionist candidates contested the southern electorates, and the militant groups appear to have no interest in politics. In July, the chairman of the Narathiwat Islamic Committee was quoted, "The attacks look like they are well-organized, but we do not know what group of people is behind them."

The Tak Bai incident

In October of 2004 the town of Tak Bai in Narathiwat province saw the most publicized incident of the insurgency. Six local men were arrested, accused of having supplied weapons to insurgents. A demonstration was organized to demand their release and the police called in army reinforcements. The army used tear gas and water cannons on the crowd, and shooting started in which seven men were killed.

Hundreds of local people, mostly young men, were arrested. They were made to take off their shirts and lie on the ground. Their hands were tied behind their backs. Later that afternoon, they were thrown by soldiers into trucks to be taken to an army camp in the next province of Pattani. The prisoners were stacked five or six deep in the trucks, and by the time the trucks reached their destination three hours later, in the heat of the day, 78 men had suffocated to death.

This incident sparked widespread protests across the south, and indeed across Thailand, since many non-Muslim Thais were appalled at the army's behaviour. Thaksin, however, gave the army his full support, and no-one has been charged with any offence in relation to the Tak Bai incident. His first response was to defend the army's actions, saying that the 78 men died "because they were already weak from fasting during the month of Ramadan."

See also

External links


  • David K Wyatt, Thailand: A Short History (Yale University Press, 2003)
  • Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker, Thaksin: The Business of Politics in Thailand (Silkworm Books, 2004)
  • Nirmal Ghosh, "Mystery group runs insurgency in Thai south," Straits Times, 25 July 2005
  • "Tak Bai victims and relatives file lawsuits" The Bangkok Post, 23 October 2005
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