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The dangers of the Thai Deep South

By Murray Hunter - posted Wednesday, 15 May 2019


The three Southern Thai provinces of Patani, Yala and Narathiwat provide a scenic backdrop to one of the region’s longest conflicts. The region is a mix of Chinese, Malay, and Thai ethnic groups. The Deep South is the only place in Thailand where another ethnic group, Malays, outnumber the Thais.

The major cities are vibrant, local populations living together in harmony. There are no racist narratives as exist in neighboring Malaysia. The only hint of something amiss is the hundreds of makeshift military camps and checkpoints along the roads, often manned by troops in full combat gear.

This insurgency has its roots from the days of the old Malay Archipelago Sultanate of Pattani that came into being around the 9th Century and was annexed by Thailand in 1909 from British influence. There is still an extremely strong Malay cultural heritage, which many of the older Malays still identify with today.

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Commentators on the region suggest that the Thai Government’s repeated attempts to assimilate the region in the period 1902-1944, and again in the 1960s and 1980s played an important role in arousing Malay-nationalistic awareness. More recently, the Krue Se Mosque and Tak Bai incidents in 2004 enraged emotions against the Bangkok government, which led to the escalation of violence to what it is today.

The insurgency has been sustained by local groups over the last 15 years without outside assistance. They have not succumbed to outside forces or doctrines along ‘globalist Jihadi’ lines, as other region insurgencies have. Insurgent narratives have remained clearly based upon local Malay-nationalist issues.

There are now in excess of 58,000 troops with an almost equal number of auxiliary personnel involved in security across the region. Billions of baht and resources have been put into trying to suppress the violence.

Civil and military approaches to stemming the violence have not worked. A local academic close to the ground argues that the strong military presence within the Deep South is itself a major perpetuator of the continued violence and unrest.

Negotiations have been taking place between the military and an umbrella body representing the insurgents, MARA Pattani (Majlis Syura Pattani). However, the results to date indicate that the peace negotiation process has failed. The military have been aiming for transactional results, such as declaring safety areas. However, the real issues behind the conflict have not been discussed.  

On the outset of the discussions, many have questioned whether MARA Pattani is a true representative of the fragmented groups on the ground. There are doubts as to whether MARA Pattani can actually exercise any true command and control on the ground.

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The talks have been further frustrated by disunity and lack of trust on both sides of the negotiation process. MARA Pattani just recently withdrew from these talks, frustrated the Thai Government is refusing to make any concessions.

In addition to the insurgents, the violent situation in the Deep South is further complicated by unconnected criminal groups along the border region.  Their vested interests are best served in a destabilized environment, where narcotics trade, smuggling, and other criminal activities can thrive. Little, if anything has been done by the police or military to curb this, so that these activities can be isolated from the insurgency.

The rural youth, unemployed, idle and using drugs is a major regional problem. This socially weak group is susceptible to influence, and a major source of recruits for the insurgency. Instances of poor treatment and even extra judicial attacks by police and military personnel have also been cited as a motivator to youths in this group to join the insurgency.

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This article was first published in the Asia Sentinel.



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About the Author

Murray Hunter is an associate professor at the University Malaysia Perlis.

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