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Thailand’s deep south insurgency is changing

By Murray Hunter - posted Wednesday, 25 March 2020

Thailand's three southern provinces, Patani, Yala, and Narathiwat, have faced a bloody and violent local insurgency over the last two decades. Since 2002, ethnic Patani Malays have been fighting to preserve and assert their cultural identity, religion, and political rights within the Thai state. Patani Malays outnumber both the Thai and Chinese populations throughout the region often referred to as the 'deep south'.

The old ethnic Malay and Muslim Sultanate of Patani made tributes to the ancient kingdoms of Sukhothai and Ayutthaya, and was incorporated into the Kingdom of Siam in 1786. Patani was divided into the three provinces Patani, Yala, and Narathiwat in 1808. Thailand's influence over the region was formally recognized by the British with the signing of the Anglo-Siamese Treaty of 1909.

Initially, the then Bangkok government allowed the southern provinces to manage their own affairs through local officers and an Islamic styled administration, with its own court system. Use of the Malay Jawi language was prevalent, and that language was also the medium of school instruction. In the mid-1930s the central government tried to culturally assimilate the local population through the process of Thaification, introducing central Thai administration, Thai language in schooling, and the imposition of Thai-Buddhist practices.


This led to discontent among some elements within the Malay-Muslim population, where the Patani People's Movement was founded in 1947 to petition for administrative autonomy, the reintroduction of Islamic Jurisprudence, the reintroduction of Jawi as a medium within schools, and freedom to practice local Malay customs.

After nearly a decade of Bangkok ignoring Patani Malay demands, organisations like the National Liberation Front of Patani (BNPP) emerged. These early groups were inspired along ethno-nationalistic-Islamic lines, akin to Nasserism in Egypt at the time, calling for armed struggle against the colonial oppressor, the Thai state. In the late 1960s organizations like the Patani United Liberation Organization (PULO) emerged, inspired by contemporary secessionist movements at the time including the Muslim Brotherhood, the Palestine Liberation Organization, the Irish Republican Army, and Gaddafi.

Islam within the deep south has always been traditionally a blend of Malay culture, tradition, language, and an attachment to country (Bangsa Patani). Thus, Patani Muslims exhibit an ethno-Islamic identity that is in stark contrast to Muslims within the rest of Thailand who accept themselves as a minority and participate in the Thai socio-political arena. This puts Patani Muslims at odds with Thai concepts of society. Malay ethnicity provides a great bearing upon world views. To Patani Muslims, the Thai assimilation efforts of the 1980s were seen as an attempt by the Thai state to destroy Patani Muslim identity.

Although there has been influence from Kelantan, Malaysia, and to some extent from Indonesian scholars, local ulama are the most influential in the deep south. The ulama are not just teachers of Islam but uphold the values and traditions of Patani culture. Culture and religion are two sides of the one coin: being Muslim doesn't guarantee acceptance within Malay society of the deep south.

This Patani identity is most probably the grounding philosophy within the old guard of the largest insurgency group within the deep south, very much at the forefront of the revival of armed resistance in 2002, the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN). The strengthening of Thai Islamic identity along with inspiration from the Palestinian conflict and Afghani Talibanism has altered the balance of the Patani-Muslim psyche.

Saudi-educated Ismail, Lufti Japakiya, returned to the deep south preaching a version of Salafism which altered the balance of Malay ethno-identity. Ismail founded Yala Islamic College in 1998, and later Fatoni University in 2004, with funding provided by Saudi Arabia and other Arab foundations. Although Ismail Lufti was once under suspicion by Thai authorities of being sympathetic to the insurgents, he was visited by the then-crown prince, and now king, Vajiralongkorn, where the royal good housekeeping seal was awarded to Yala Islamic College. Both Yala Islamic College and Fatoni University now receive Thai government education funding.


Ismail's Salafist doctrines are pro-Thai state and encourage a dialogue between disaffected Patani Muslims and the Thai government. Ismail accepts the Thai monarch as the patron of all religions. The Thai government has cultivated and funded Ismail's educational institutions as an alternative direction for potential young insurgents.

Ismail's Salafi movement within the deep south has also been supported by Perlis Mufti, Dr Mohd Asri Zianul Abidin, through the Perlis Islamic Religious and Malay Customs Council (MAIPs). MAIPs donated THB 20 million from Zakat monies to fund the building of an Al Quran and Sunnah reading centreat Fatoni University. MAIPs has also donated substantial funds to provincial Islamic authorities within Southern Thailand for annual Salafi gatherings.

There has been a shift away from ethno-Islamic towards Salafi-Islamist viewpoints. This is particularly the case of the younger generation, who have been encouraged to do so via both local and outside influence and encouragement. The message is about the search to bring back basic Islamic values and practices. This can be seen by an increase in Arabization of dress, language, the segregation of sexes, and decrease in inter-religious communications, where many are becoming much more exclusionist. Previously adhered to ethno-Islamic practices are being abandoned.

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Article edited by Margaret-Ann Williams.
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About the Author

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

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