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Decades-long identity crisis fuels insurgency in Thailand

Insurgents in Thailand’s far South launched 30 attacks that claimed 16 lives and wounded 24 people during the holy month of Ramadan, including a car-bomb this week that set off an enormous flame that took down an entire joint police-military outpost on the main southern highway. This is the latest in a 12-year wave of ongoing insurgency violence being launched by separatists determined to carve out a separate homeland for the ethnic Malay Muslims in this historically contested region. Here, DON PATHAN traces the peace initiatives to bring about a peaceful end to this ongoing conflict that so far claimed over 6,500 lives since January 2004.

Fire-fighters at the scene of a car-bomb attack outside a four-storey commercial building in southern Thailand's Narathiwat province in 2012. In the last 12 years, more than 6,500 people have been killed as the region fights for local autonomy from Buddhist-dominated Thailand. Photo: REUTERS

Fire-fighters at the scene of a car-bomb attack outside a four-storey commercial building in southern Thailand's Narathiwat province in 2012. In the last 12 years, more than 6,500 people have been killed as the region fights for local autonomy from Buddhist-dominated Thailand. Photo: REUTERS

Insurgents in Thailand’s far South launched 30 attacks that claimed 16 lives and wounded 24 people during the holy month of Ramadan, including a car-bomb this week that set off an enormous flame that took down an entire joint police-military outpost on the main southern highway. This is the latest in a 12-year wave of ongoing insurgency violence being launched by separatists determined to carve out a separate homeland for the ethnic Malay Muslims in this historically contested region. Here, DON PATHAN traces the peace initiatives to bring about a peaceful end to this ongoing conflict that so far claimed over 6,500 lives since January 2004.

 

After Ms Duangsuda Srangamphai’s father and grandfather were killed by insurgents in restive southern Thailand in 2004 and 2007, she channelled her rage and sorrow into providing moral support for families of other victims of the long-running violence. “By helping others, I help myself. It’s a healing process,” she said.

For the past decade, the Buddhist activist has crossed religious and ethnic lines by working with Muslim women to help others.

The group would visit victims and provide moral support and counselling, as well as assisting the family with ways to improve their livelihood. It is something, but it is not enough. Peace, she believes, is the only solution.

Yet peace continues to elude this region that is closer to Singapore than Bangkok. In the past 12 years, more than 6,500 people have been killed as the region fights for local autonomy from Buddhist-dominated Thailand.

Peace talks between the Bangkok government and Patani Malay separatist movements in the four southernmost border provinces of Thailand have started and fallen apart at least three times this past decade, with insurgents hobbled by infighting and Bangkok distracted by its own central power struggles and coups.

Armed insurrection surfaced in the early 1960s and subsided in the early 1990s after the armed wing ran out of steam. The current wave of insurgency resurfaced in late 2001, starting with sporadic attacks once every four months or so until January 2004. Since then, attacks have become somewhat of a daily occurrence in these provinces that are home to almost two million Thai Malay Muslims.

In April, peace talks stalled again after rebel groups refused to soften their demands over recognition, and Bangkok, in turn, refused to even officially recognise the rebels. Instead, the government is directly wooing villagers and sending in the army to curb the insurgents’ activities. That pushes any hope of peace even further into the future.

“The talk between the two sides is inevitable, but for the time being the government wants to focus their resources on strictly military operations. The aim here is to prevent the separatists from expanding their membership and support base,” said Prince of Songkla University’s Srisompob Jitspiromsri, director of Deep South Watch, a centre that monitors violence in the region.

The government also wants to use this period to deal directly with the villagers, the support base of the insurgents, to counter the insurgents’ separatist ideology and narrative, said Dr Srisompob.

 

A LONG TIME COMING

In 1786, Siam defeated the Sultanate of Patani and turned this Malay-speaking region into a tributary state. The region was divided into seven chiefdoms ruled by a local sultan appointed by the Siamese in Ayutthaya. That changed at the turn of the century when King Rama V turned the seven chiefdoms into modern-day Thai provinces and replaced the sultans with governors sent from Bangkok.

An armed insurgency surfaced in the early 1960s in response to Thailand’s policy of assimilation.

That includes a ban on the use of minority languages in government offices, the requirement that everybody uses Thai names, and legislation that placed the pondoks (traditional Islamic religious schools) under the government’s education system. It also permits the government to dictate the curriculum of these pondoks.

The narrative and the identity that the state had constructed were flexible enough for all the people of this multicultural nation to call themselves “Thai”, as long as he or she does not question this notion.

But this was something the Malays of Patani had done, as they felt the Thai state policy was at the expense of their ethno-religious identity.

To be sure, Thailand’s nation-state construct also took its toll on the Chinese community. During World War II, Chinese language schools in Thailand were banned but spiked immediately after the war. However, it was not until 1992 that total restrictions were lifted on Chinese language schools as Thai policymakers were looking to attract Chinese-speaking investors from abroad.

The Thai Chinese, however, have the economic clout to negotiate their cultural space with the Thai state. The same could not be said about the Malays who took on a more symbolic gesture to resist assimilation. For example, while the Chinese and other minorities took up Thai names, the Malays of Patani refused to do so. Maintaining one’s distinctive cultural identity was their way of resisting the policy. In the early 1960s, such resistance translated into armed insurrection.

Where the local Chinese — descended from merchants — have found a comfort level with Malays, the Thai state failed miserably. Mistrust between the Malays and the Thai state has persisted throughout the decades, allowing a generation of insurgents to operate freely on the ground as they and the local Muslims share the same historical mistrust of the government.

Today, 90 per cent of the population in Yala, Narathiwat, Pattani and Songhkla are ethnic Malays. The region is Thailand’s least developed, but development is not the cause of the conflict.

Ethnic Chinese continue to control the local economy and the chamber of commerce. The mayors of the municipality of the three provincial seats — Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat — in the region are also ethnic Chinese. Both sides continue to respect each other’s turf and social practices. Property prices, meanwhile, continue to climb in spite of the violence.

In the past, the Thai military preferred a more understated approach to seeking a peace solution: Secret meetings away from the public spotlight.

But all that changed on February 28, 2013 when the government of Yingluck Shinawatra announced to the world that Thailand was entering a political negotiation with Patani Malay separatist movements.

A signing ceremony took place in Kuala Lumpur, as Malaysia was the designated facilitator for the talks. An exiled figure from the most powerful rebel group, Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), Mr Hasan Taib was designated as the “liaison”. His job was to convince the BRN movement, namely the ruling council, to come to the negotiating table.

But within a year, it became clear that Mr Hasan was not able to convince BRN elders to give this peace initiative a chance. Mr Hasan quit.

Yet even as this high-profile failure played out, Yingluck’s government continued to hold secret meetings — its Plan B — with other members of the separatist movement. The idea was to eventually bring them onto the official track.

Before that transition could take place, Thailand went through another round of massive street protests, leading to the May 2014 coup which overthrew the Yingluck government. It was another seven months before the new junta government announced that talks would continue and Kuala Lumpur would continue to be the designated facilitator.

 

WHAT’S IN A NAME

In August 2015, the six organisations which were part of the Plan B came together and went public. They called themselves MARA Patani. They demanded that the Thai government recognise them officially, which would mean legal immunity for their negotiators.

They also demanded that the peace process be designated as a national agenda, which would require an endorsement from Parliament to ensure continuity with future governments of Thailand. MARA Patani deemed the parliamentary endorsement necessary because in the past every peace initiative ended with a change of government in Bangkok, and each new administration would start talks from scratch with a whole new team of negotiators who the government of the day trusted. MARA Patani also said if these demands were not met, there would be no negotiation.

What is not clear is their agenda. But the extent of their dialogue with the Thai officials suggested that the umbrella organisation is prepared to settle for something less than independence. BRN, after abandoning Mr Hasan and the Yingluck government’s initiative, continues to stay out of the public spotlight. In interviews, BRN operatives on the ground and in exile said the secretive ruling council has yet to agree on whether it would settle for something less than a complete break away from Thailand. But the organisation, which Thai security officials believe control over 90 per cent of the combatants on the ground, would be willing to receive technical training from foreign governments to strengthen its organisational capacity so that it can communicate more effectively with the international community and the Thai state. Like any other nationalist movement, it wants to be accepted as a legitimate organisation.

For MARA Patani, from August 2015, when it was officially launched, until April 2016, a series of meetings between the umbrella organisation and Thai negotiators were held to draft a Term of Reference (TOR) for the talks.

But when it came to signing the TOR, the Thai government balked.

Pressed for answers by local media, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said his government was not able to recognise MARA Patani in any capacity because they are associated with criminals — armed combatants on the ground. He described the peace initiative as a burden unfairly imposed by the previous government upon his.

Clearly, the conflict in Thailand’s far South was not Mr Prayuth’s priority.

“In the eyes of Bangkok, these groups (MARA Patani) are nothing more than rebels and criminals,” said Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) senior researcher of Thailand, Sunai Phasuk, one of the junta’s fiercest critics.

“Thailand’s ruling junta shows disregard of the root causes of ethnic Malay Muslim’s grievances that drive insurgency, including their call for decentralisation and self-determination.”

Mr Suhaimee Dulasa, director of international relations at The Patani Institute, a local political think tank, said he was perplexed with Mr Prayuth’s statement because it was the prime minister himself who agreed to set up the government negotiation team for talks with MARA Patani.

“I believe the problem was also in the name — Patani — because, connotatively, it’s in reference to the Malays’ historical homeland,” said Mr Suhaimee.

“The Thai state has never wanted to give the Malays of Patani any sense of ownership of their region.”

BRN sources said the junta is only concerned with bringing down the number of incidents to show the public that the government is moving in the right direction. They said the junta never talked about the root cause of the conflict.

Other political insiders said the junta pulled the plug on this initiative because they are convinced that it is BRN, not MARA Patani, that controls the vast majority of insurgents on the ground.

Once, when the Thai Army called MARA Patani’s bluff and demanded that they declare Chao Airong, one of the districts in Narathiwat province, a “safety zone”. In other words, the government needed a verification that they are talking to the people who can order the insurgents to carry out a unilateral ceasefire — or “safety zone”, as Thai officials would call it — in the designated district. MARA Patani could not.

 

A CHANGING WORLD

For the Patani Malay separatists, part of the problem is that the world outside Thailand has changed. Most if not all of their old network of international supporters — Libya, Syria, and other rich Arab gulf countries — no longer have the resources or inclination to fund or train anybody.

In the 1980s, about 3,000 Patani Malays had trained in Libya alongside other so-called revolutionaries from other countries. During the 1990s, the lull before the storm, the government of Chuan Leekpai convinced the Arab countries to stop supporting the Patani Malays separatists.

Moreover, in 1998, with the help of Muslim countries in Asean, Thailand was granted a Permanent Observer Status in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. It was a seal of approval from the Islamic world, a signal of satisfaction with how Thailand treats its Muslim minority.

But while Bangkok was busy with its diplomatic assault to deny foreign support to the insurgents, a new generation of militants was being groomed. Local Malay Muslim villagers who share the same sentiment and mistrust of the Thai state agencies began supplying combatants with money and logistical support. Thai officials monitoring the conflict said money from the Middle East continues to find its way to the Patani Malay separatist movements but not in the same open manner as the 1980s.

One thing that the Army had going for them, at least until February this year, was the fact that the past two years saw an overall decline of insurgency incidents in the region.

Statistics compiled by the Prince of Songkhla University’s Deep South Watch showed that since July 2014, the number of overall incidents has dropped considerably, averaging below 60 incidents a month — down from the peak of 300-400 a month.

Part of the reason is improved intelligence by the Thai authorities, as well as an expansion of security grid with setting up more military outposts in remote areas and villages. Insurgents, too, have shifted tactics, putting their energies to bigger attacks on public facilities and security patrols, rather than smaller disturbances.

Then in February, the violence escalated again, along with more daring attacks in the form of roadside ambush and one massive car-bomb that wounded seven police officers and two civilians.

On March 13, about 35 insurgents took over a hospital in Narathiwat’s Cho Airong district and used it to stage an attack on a Paramilitary Ranger camp next to it. The district was about to be declared a “safety zone” but the BRN and the insurgents on the ground were not about to let the MARA Patani or the Thai government have something to show for allow the half-baked peace process.

The violence continues with no end in sight. The number of violent incidents jumped to 66 in February and 74 in March 2016. Bangkok is still seeking ways to bring down the number. BRN sources said they are aware that Thai government wants to talk directly with them but maintained that they are not in a hurry to come to the table.

“The so-called peace strategy ends up being led by military operations and political pressure aiming to get ethnic Malay Muslims to surrender — including by offering ceasefire — not to build trust and confidence for genuine dialogue for long term and sustainable peace,” said HRW’s Mr Sunai.

For Ms Duangsuda, praying for peace, it means her work is not yet done.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Don Pathan is an associate with the Asia Conflict and Security Consulting Ltd. (http://www.acasconsulting.com) and a founding member of Patani Forum (http://www.pataniforum.com), a civil society organisation dedicated to promoting critical discussion on the nature of the conflict in Thailand’s far South.

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