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Understanding the terrorism threat in southern Thailand

Many analysts claim that Southeast Asia is fertile ground for jihadist expansion, citing key areas such as southern Thailand and Mindanao in the Philippines. The insurgency in southern Thailand is however a localised conflict over territory and identity. Still, there may be a small group of isolated individuals who are drawn to the transnational extremist ideology espoused by Islamic State.

Understanding the terrorism threat in southern Thailand

Military personnel and police officers inspect the site of a bomb attack at a market in the southern Thai province of Yala in January 2018.

Transnational terrorist groups like the so-called Islamic State (IS) tend to exploit conflicts involving Muslims.

Many analysts claim that Southeast Asia is fertile ground for jihadist expansion, citing key areas such as southern Thailand and Mindanao in the Philippines.

Many individuals from Southeast Asia who travelled to Syria and Iraq to join IS and other jihadist groups are now returning.

A series of IS-linked activities in Southeast Asia, compounded by returning fighters from the Middle East, are renewing concerns about jihadist elements taking advantage of the insurgency in southern Thailand.

But these concerns are unfounded. The insurgency in southern Thailand is a localised conflict over territory and identity.

Narratives propagated by the southern Thai insurgents conjure up the history of the Sultanate of Patani in mythical proportions. Insurgents claim that the Sultanate of Patani was a trading hub and a centre for excellence in Islamic studies before its painful subversion by Siamese colonisation.

In this narrative, Siam’s incorporation of the Malay Sultanate meant not only the end of national sovereignty but also of Malay identity in the area.

The primary aim of the main insurgent group, Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), is to drive out the Thai state from what was the historical region of Patani.

Emphasising the territorial dimension, BRN has stated that the Holy War must be fought for Malay Muslims in Thailand’s troubled southern provinces but not for Thai Muslims elsewhere.

BRN is not prepared to adopt the approach of transnational jihadists like IS. Operationally, the southern Thai insurgents have lacked a distinct interest in Western targets. Insurgents have also not resorted to suicide attacks in southern Thailand for fear of losing popular support from the masses.

BRN is only one of many actors in Thailand’s deep south. But its ideological and organisational grip on the Malay Muslim community is strong and not to be underestimated.

In the short term, Thailand is unlikely to see the emergence of IS-inspired militant cells organised sufficiently to challenge the ideological and operational dominance of BRN.

Still, there may be a small group of isolated individuals who are drawn to the transnational extremist ideology espoused by IS.

In April 2018, a Malaysian security source accused Awae Wae-Eya, an alleged former member of the southern Thai insurgency, of having plans to establish an IS presence in Thailand.

Awae is currently wanted by Malaysian police for planning terror plots in the state of Johor. But such individuals alone cannot be the basis for suggestions that the insurgent landscape is changing or has changed. They are not organised into a network that could challenge BRN.

Nonetheless, cases of IS-inspired insurgents in the deep south, however isolated, should serve as a warning for the Thai government that the conflict in southern Thailand needs to be resolved as soon as possible.

If the conflict continues, more individuals like Awae could appear. In the medium term, these individuals could form splinter groups that are attracted to the advantages of aligning with foreign jihadists.

While ending the conflict should be a priority, the government’s current peace talks with MARA Patani, an umbrella organisation of deep south separatist organisations, is unlikely to lead to a settlement.

BRN members have previously sat on MARA Patani negotiating panels, but senior BRN leaders did not endorse their participation and repeatedly denounced MARA Patani. The Thai government must make a serious effort to hold discussions with BRN. It is BRN, rather than MARA Patani, who has control over ground fighters.

The Thai government must also be ready to respect Malay Muslim identity. It should make efforts to contextualise and acknowledge Islam in southern Thailand so that civilians are less susceptible to inspiration from extreme Islamist ideology.

Partnerships with Malay Muslim leaders could help address destructive narratives due to their unique positions of authority, credibility and ties to local communities.

The Thai government should also seriously address deep-seated Buddhist anxieties. Buddhist extremism is on the rise in parts of Southeast Asia, including Thailand.

Although Thai authorities have made efforts to restrain extremism on their part, some outspoken leading monks have preached Islamophobic sentiments and spurred followers to turn towards violence.

As long as Thai society is split between ‘us’ and the ‘other’, there will always be room for extreme Islamist ideology to grow.

However difficult, the Thai government must move away from decades of forced cultural assimilation and accept that the Malay Muslim community needs more autonomy.

There should be a broader shift towards building inter-racial and inter-religious harmony to address the identity-related grievances and religious anxieties at the heart of the conflict.

Only then will specific policies to prevent the spread of jihadist influence be effective. EAST ASIA FORUM



Eugene Mark is a Senior Analyst with the Military Studies Programme of the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University.

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