Southern Thailand’s escalating insurgency

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Thailand is popular and inexpensive holiday destination, says James Blair, but not so well-known is the ongoing Islamic insurgency close to many of its most visited tourist spots.

(Image courtesy Wikipedia)

THAILAND is a great place for a holiday.

The land of smiles is known the world over as a welcoming holiday destination. It has something for everyone, whether it’s sampling the extravagant array of food in Phuket, lazing on the beaches of Ko Samui, or rock climbing the limestone cliffs around Krabi. Thailand is generally a safe, easy-to-navigate, and inexpensive country for a holiday. But, perhaps not so widely publicised is that these same tourist spots are located within close proximity to the ongoing Malay Muslim insurgency in southern Thailand.  Recent developments signal that the insurgency has taken a worrying new direction.

The insurgency in southern Thailand has a long history. The region is the location of the former Malay Muslim Kingdom of Pattani, which dates back, probably, to the 13th century, when it was widely known throughout the region as a centre for trade and Islamic scholarship. Since its inception, sovereignty has vacillated between independence and Thai dominance. Nominal Thai control of the former Pattani Kingdom was formalised in 1909, when the region was carved up between British Malaya and the Kingdom of Thailand. Since then, resistance to Thai rule has waxed and waned according to local grievances.

Historically, rebellion in the Deep South was essentially nationalist.

The primary aim of militants was the preservation of the Malay Muslim way of life and the desire for autonomy. Although the militants have always been Muslim, it would not previously have been accurate to characterise them as Islamist or Islamic militants. Even in the 1980s, during periods of intense violence, when many of the militant leaders were also Muslim scholars, the primary aim and legitimising philosophy was the desire for national autonomy. Traditionally, religion has taken a backseat to nationalism.

This changed in 2004, with a new wave of violence. Militant Islam, often popularised by a resurgent al-Qaeda, swept through much of the Muslim world. In Southeast Asia, this often combined with a returning Afghan alumni to ignite local grievances.

During the 1980s, many devout Muslims travelled to aid their co-religionists in the Soviet-Afghan war. During the 1990s, often after a sabbatical in the Middle East, many of these fighters slowly filtered home to join the insurgency.[i] Techniques, such as bombings, became more sophisticated and, for example, expanded to include the use of cell phone-activated improvised explosive devices (IEDs).  A heavy-handed Thai response, that included many extra-judicial killings, further fuelled the reinvigorated insurgency.

The Islamisation of the Malay Muslim insurgency further deepened in 2012. Buddhist monks and teachers have been regularly targeted. More than 300 schools closed recently as teachers went on strike over the worsening security situation. In September 2012, militants threatened to kill anyone not respecting the Muslim Sabbath, Friday, which forced many businesses to close and many people to remain indoors for the day. The insurgency in southern Thailand is now primarily a rebellion legitimised by Islam. Further complicating the nature of the rebellion are deep links to local criminal gangs, especially those centred on drug and people trafficking. Conflict in the Deep South is an extremely profitable business.

Of course, we’ve seen all this before.  It’s hard to escape the similarities between the insurgency in southern Thailand and the insurgency in the southern Philippines. Both consist of Malay Muslim minorities that have been incorporated into ethnically larger, and culturally dissimilar, nations by arbitrary colonial divisions. Both regions had long and proud histories as regionally important states.  Again, the Bangsmoro Rebellion of the southern Philippines began with a nationalist philosophy and evolved into an Islamic rebellion. Likewise, both conflicts are being waged by a heavily fragmented insurgency characterised by numerous splinter groups, often operating without centralised control.

Abu Sayyaf, which splintered from the main insurgent group, changed the nature of the Bangsamoro Rebellion. Its goal was not simply an autonomous state, but rather an autonomous Islamic theocracy. Again, it was the familiar story of returning Afghan alumni encouraged by militant Islam.  In 2000, one of Abu Sayyaf’s most audacious operations involved the kidnapping of 21 people from a Malaysian resort off the coast of northern Borneo.[ii] The following year, the group kidnapped 20 tourists from a resort in the southern Philippines. Western tourists were deliberately targeted as proxies for US foreign policy. Australian Warren Richard Rodwell remains a captive of Abu Sayyaf to this day. Given the evolving and escalating nature of the conflict in southern Thailand, conditions are ripe for the emergence of an analogous splinter group.

Since 2001 and the New York terror attacks, academics and specialists have probed the insurgency in southern Thailand for links to global Islamic terrorism. Nothing has been proven and the accepted wisdom is that there are no links.[iii] This view is generally accurate; there has been no grand bargain between local militants and global Islam, although the view does ignore important regional links to Islamic supporters in Malaysia and Indonesia. However, the creeping Islamisation of the conflict in southern Thailand is changing the paradigm of this previously low-level conflict. Eventually, and regardless of the input of global Islam, the current escalation of the conflict is likely to lead to a widening of acceptable targets.

Time is running out for Thai authorities. In December, the US Institute for Economics and Peace ranked Thailand eighth, ahead of Sudan and Israel, in a global list of 158 countries where terrorism has had the greatest impact over the past decade. Thailand’s deputy prime minister, Chalerm Yabamrung, responded with the rather bizarre suggestion that there is no terrorism in Thailand and that the high ranking was actually a misunderstanding. This is despite Deep South Watch, an independent non-governmental organisation made up of journalists and academics, has estimated that the violence in southern Thailand has led to 14,890 casualties over the past nine years.

Thai politics continue to hamper the search for a solution. It is unlikely that the measures necessary to solve the region’s problems will be agreed upon or enacted anytime soon. The conflict in southern Thailand is going to get a lot worse before it gets any better.

Current travel warnings for Thailand continue to understate the risk. Whilst the current Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade travel rating for southern Thailand is “do not travel,” Thailand’s overall rating is “exercise a high degree of caution”, despite specifically warning of the possibility of a terrorist attack in Bangkok. Likewise, the US Department of State provides a general warning of the possibility of terrorist activity in Thailand and lists a selection of the worst recent attacks in southern Thailand, but does not specifically warn against travel to the region. The list includes the killing of four Malaysian tourists in 2010. It is true that travel warnings are not a universal panacea for protecting tourists in southern Thailand but, given recent developments, it would be prudent to update travel warnings to include the rest of Thailand and the northern states of peninsular Malaysia (which have often provided a safe haven for Thai insurgents).[iv]

In the meantime, I’ll be holidaying elsewhere.


[i] Albritton, Robert R. B., (2010). ‘The Muslim South in the Context of the Thai Nation’, Journal of East Asian Studies, 10. 1 (Jan-Apr 2010): 61-90,169.

[ii] ‘Kidnappings Sting Malaysian Resorts ― Cancellations Hit Region's Dive Operations as Sectarian Violence Spreads’, Asian Wall Street Journal, 13/09/2000.

[iii] Askew, Marc M. (2010). ‘Fighting with Ghosts: Querying Thailand's ‘"Southern Fire,"’, Contemporary Southeast Asia: A Journal of International and Strategic Affairs, Volume 32, Number No. 2, August 2010, pp. 117-155.

Abuza, Zachary Z. (2005). ‘A Conspiracy of Silence: Who is Behind the Escalating Insurgency in Southern Thailand?’ Terrorism Monitor, Volume: 3, Issue: 9.

[iv] Crispin, S. W. (2004) Thailand's War Zone, Far Eastern Economic Review 167. 10 (Mar 11, 2004): 12-14
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