How Militarization and Cycles of Violence Fuel Separatism in Southern Thailand

Muslims in Thailand’s four southern provinces have lived under emergency rule, first imposed by the civilian government of Thaksin Shinawatra, since 2005. (Image Source: udeyismail)

In the early hours of 3 August, rebels encircled a small Thai military outpost in Narathiwat province on the land border with Malaysia, before launching pipe bombs and opening fire with M-16 and AK-47 assault rifles. After a 15-minute gun battle, one Thai soldier was dead while four others had been injured before the insurgents fled across the Kolok River. Authorities suggested the attack may have been revenge for the killing of a suspected rebel by government troops in Pattani the previous day.

The night-time assault was one of a series of incidents of localized violence in the past few months, which typify the sporadic nature of the insurgency in Thailand’s Deep South. Muslim rebel groups in Thailand’s four Malay-speaking southern provinces have fought for independence for decades, with their motivation rooted in the conquest of the region by the Kingdom of Siam in 1785, and the 1909 Anglo-Siamese Treaty which first marked the border between Thailand and neighbouring Malaysia.

Violence is far from the scale of past years, with the last surge coming in the mid-2000s when then-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra ordered a military crackdown. An ongoing ‘‘State of Emergency’’ and intermittent peace talks with rebel factions have since kept the conflict under controlthough the current dialogue process, between the government and the Barisan Revolusi Nasional, stopped at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, placing this uneasy partial stalemate at risk.   

Pattern of insurgent attacks

Amidst the pandemic, violence has remained at a low level, with fighters linked to Barisan Revolusi Nasional and a collection of smaller factions engaging in shootings and bombings, usually targeting security forces. It is often the case that one incidentsuch as a military raid, or rebel ambush—will spark a wave of retaliatory violence before the conflict recedes only to later re-emerge somewhere else in the affected regions of Narathiwat, Pattani, Songkhla, and Yala, triggering another response.

A series of connected incidents in recent months evidence this trend. On 21 June, the military shot dead two suspected insurgents holed up in a hotel at a beach resort in the Yaring district of Pattani. Authorities said the men were tracked down after their involvement in an ambush in April that had killed three civilians as they traversed a highway in a nearby district. A motive for that incident was not uncovered, though police suspected it was in retaliation for the shooting of a rebel days earlier.

Guerilla-style attacks by Barisan Revolusi Nasional rebels have continued amid the COVID-19 pandemic, often targeting police and army forces on rural roads. (Image Source: udeyismail)

On 5 July, another stand-off between soldiers and rebels triggered a similar chain of incidents. Eight suspects being pursued by soldiers besieged the Ma’had Subulussalam Islamic School in Pattani, and two were shot dead after a 17-hour gunfight. The military maintains that it offered rebels the chance to surrender. The six fighters that fled and evaded capture were linked by police to a mine explosion the next day in nearby Songkhla province, which killed one soldier and left another three wounded.

Other incidents tagged on rebels in the Deep South are more random, targeting vital infrastructure. In August, a cargo train sustained minor damage in a bombing in Narathiwat, while in the past, cash machines and electricity pylons have also been targeted, causing economic disruption in the region.

Local violence and peace efforts

It is unclear to what extent orders are given by the Barisan Revolusi Nasional leadership. Although it represents most fighters on the ground, thought to number in the low-to-mid hundreds, separatists based in the south operate more like cells: ideologically coherent with but logistically separate from the main organization. Past talks between Bangkok and the umbrella Mara Patani group launched in 2013 ultimately failed because the senior negotiators could not control fighters on the ground, with rebels operating autonomously in local contexts and maintaining their campaign of armed assaults.

Barisan Revolusi Nasional would likely exert more influence over rebels than Mara Patani managed, if peace talks resume or if a ceasefire is signed. Yet the extent to which attacks would stop is unclear as rebels in Southern Thailand do not form an organized and well-trained force with a hierarchy and command structure, for example like the militarized Muslim separatist groups in the Philippines that now govern an autonomous region following a peace deal. Such an agreement in Southern Thailand, where attacks are small-scale and rebels do not hold territory for bargaining, is difficult to envisage.  

Lifting the Emergency Decree

The ‘‘State of Emergency’’ in the region, which was been in place for 16 years and was extended on 20 September for another three months, acts as a container for the violence. It was first imposed by the civilian administration of Thaksin Shinawatra in July 2005, and his policy of militarizing the south has been maintained by a succession of both elected and military governments, after coups in 2006 and 2014. There has been no change under the current quasi-civilian regime of Prayuth Chan-ocha.

Previous talks, held with the Mara Patani rebel grouping from 2013, failed to make progress as separarist attacks undermined the Malaysia-hosted peace process. (Image Source: Prachatai)

While the Emergency Decree has avoided a major escalation or the northerly spread of the conflict, it has raised local tensions, and made communities in the Malay-speaking south fearful of suspicion by association. The law permits authorities in the south to detain suspected rebels for up to 30 days without charge, and among the triggers of rebel attacks are allegations of torture and mistreatment of detainees at the hands of the military. Cases have been documented by human rights groups but the Thai military denies using illegal methods or extracting forced confessions during interrogations.

For many Muslims in the south, emergency rule—which treats them differently to other citizens of Buddhist-majority Thailand—has been counter-productive and should be lifted to aid peace efforts. The military views it the other way around. Last month, spokesman Col. Kiattisak Neewong told the Bangkok Post that as the area is ‘‘under the influence of insurgent groups’’ and sees regular attacks, ‘‘special laws’’ are needed to ‘‘keep peace and order’’ before the emergency measure can be lifted.

Political dialogue stalled

Efforts to secure peace at the negotiating table are halted. Face-to-face meetings between the Thai government and Barisan Revolusi Nasional negotiating panels, in a Malaysia-facilitated process, have not taken place since two rounds of talks in Kuala Lumpur in January and March 2020. Limited virtual discussions have been held, but not since February 2021, with the COVID-19 pandemic—resurgent in both Thailand and Malaysia in recent months—preventing crucial in-person dialogue from resuming. Momentum must be regained if the core issue—the future status of the four southern provinces—is to be resolved. Despite an erosion of trust in the Deep South and cycles of violence at the local level, the insurgency remains small enough for talks to gain the upper hand. Further delay only brings risk.

A version of this article is also published on Geopolitical Monitor.

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