On February 18, 2007, death, carnage and destruction struck Southern Thailand. As people celebrated the coming of the Year of the Pig, a coordinated attack that began at 1900 (1200 GMT) saw 29 bombs (some reports suggest as many as 50) each weighing around 6.5kg (11 pounds) explode within 45 minutes across four provinces in southern Thailand leaving eight people dead and more than 60 injured. The bombings were followed by a number of shootings that killed four more people including a Thai army officer. Significantly, unlike the New Year’s Eve bombings in Bangkok, the attacks were the work of Thai Muslims separatists, engaged in a violent campaign for the ‘emancipation’ Southern Thailand from Buddhist control. The insurgents focused their attacks on karaoke bars, hotels, power grids and commercial sites causing substantial power shortages across the provinces of Yala, Narathiwat, Pattani and Songkhla. In the view of Colonel Wichai Thongdaeng, a military spokesman, they were designed to show that Muslims separatists still have the capabilities "to cause division, create fear among the people" and also "frighten Buddhists and ethnic Chinese living there so that they will leave the region." Since January 2004, the insurgency in Southern Thailand has claimed more than 2000 lives (Muslim and Buddhist) through various acts of violence such as shootings, arsons and bombings. There has been a marked increase in the brutality (there have been instances of beheadings), intensity, economic costs, frequency and sophistication of the insurgency. In the Chinese New Year attacks it is believed that around 150 militants were involved, indicating a significant change in the type of operation conducted, as typically the insurgents use more ad hoc, opportunistic and somewhat unsophisticated methods of attacks centering on shootings and arsons. The aim of this briefing note is to look at some of the key elements surrounding events in Southern Thailand, and explore whether they are part of the global jihadi campaign. Ultimately, the paper seeks to encourage further studies and attention into what is occurring in Southern Thailand. It also aims to highlight that unless more attention is placed on the crisis, Southern Thailand has the potential of becoming a cause celebre for jihadists seeking to assist their Muslim brethren enduring kafir (infidel) occupation.
The roots of the insurgency lie on two inter-connected elements: ethno-nationalism and religious distinctiveness. In 1902, Thailand (formerly the Kingdom of Siam) annexed the provinces that were part of the Kingdom of Pattani, a semi-autonomous Malay region for centuries. The inhabitants of the region were predominately Muslims having embraced Islam as far back as the thirteenth-century. This ethno-nationalist-religious distinction remained potent through linguistic and socio-spiritual factors (the inhabitants speak Yawi, a Malay dialect, view themselves largely as Malay and practice Islam). The first violent insurgency in the South emerged in the 1960s and 1970s following decades of growing disillusionment by the inhabitants with successive Bangkok governments whom they felt ignored their needs in favour of Thai Buddhists. By the 1990s, the insurgency petered out as General Prem Tinsulanonda, Thailand’s prime minister, stopped the assimilation programmes and adopted a policy that included support for Muslim cultural rights and religious freedom, a general amnesty to insurgents and economic development. However, the Asian economic crisis and other factors reignited the insurgency, causing major problems to Thailand’s stability and even arguably leading to the September 2006 coup.
Islamic insurgency has been present in Southern Thailand since the late 1960s through such organisations as the Pattani United Liberation Organisation (PULO) whose aim was the separation of the province from Thailand through the use of arms. In its campaign, the PULO committed numerous bombings and acts of arsons primarily against Buddhist temples, schools, government bodies and other symbols of real and perceived Thai symbols, as its agenda centred on “Religion, Race, Homeland and Humanitarianism.” Another separatist movement is the National Patani Liberation Front (BNPP). The BNPP was established in 1959 but in 1985 it changed its name to the United Patani Mujahidin Front (Barisan Bersatu Mujahidin Patani, BBMP). It also became more radical and Islamist (hence the usage of the term Mujahidin) calling for a jihad against the kafir Thai government. There are two more key movements operating in Southern Thailand, the Pattani Islamic Mujahideen Movement (Gerakan Mujiheddin Islami Pattani, GMIP) led by two Afghan veterans, and the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), with the latter two having younger, Middle-Eastern-trained ustadz (religious teachers) who have never appeared on the government's radar. Zachary Abuza, a leading scholar on terrorism in Southeast Asia, has noted that the old leaders who largely live outside of Thailand (Damascus, Kula Lumpur or Stockholm) have no control over the current crop of leaders operating in Southern Thailand. Commentators hold that currently the BRN seems to be the largest separatist organisation. It is divided into three separate wings: a military wing (BRN Congress), political agitation and urban sabotage (BRN Coordinative Group), and the largest and best organised is the BRN Uram, which deals with coordinating the Islamic clergy. What has united these different movements was their strong focus on ethno-nationalism in that they hold themselves as organisations fighting for the rights of Thai Muslims, of which an important element is the rejection of Buddhist control, presence and ideas. Their focus varies from those striving for autonomy, to those desiring unification with Malaysia, to others wanting independence. Inherent in this is the belief that Thai or Malay Muslims living in the South have been discriminated against on socio-economic terms. Consequently a fair number of the attacks in Southern Thailand focus on, Buddhists and their work places, homes and education facilities; second, Muslims who corroborate but also who receive state salary or work for or with the government (this has included schools). Abuza has claimed, “They [insurgents] have killed and threatened imams who have performed funerals for Muslim collaborators and killed almost 10 imams who teach at government-funded Islamic schools. They have threatened parents to not send their children to any school but the private Islamic schools. They have forced businesses closed on Fridays. Suffis and moderate Sha’afis have been routinely targeted.” Moreover, the insurgents have also followed a campaign of electoral disruption through bombings and killings, as seen for example with Dullahaleng Yamasaga, (Iman Haleng) who allegedly plotted a coordinated bomb attack in Narathiwat's Rueso district that left one poll worker dead. In Si Sakhon district, Jo Gu Saman, another separatist leader was believed to be behind the explosion that killed Police Corporal Sakchai Inlek, who was supervising a ballot box delivery. Overall one can summarise that the current insurgency in Southern Thailand, combines ethno-nationalism elements with Islamism, with groups such as the BRN and the GMIP holding Islamist values whilst promoting a predominately ethno-nationalist agenda.
The BRN recruitment process centres on Muslim youths, with the BRN-C being the most effective. The recruitment agents are often religious teachers who select youths that show piety, agility and impressionability. According to the International Crisis Group, the agents invite youths to participate in prayer or discussion groups (composed of between five to twenty individuals). Once they identify those who appear receptive towards liberationist ideology they encourage the youth to join the movement. The youths must take part in a vow of silence ceremony (supoh) and then undergo a physical fitness programme, with a smaller number learning to operate weapons and sabotage operations, whilst others train in recruitment, propaganda and fund-raising, with the intention that each member start their own cell. Linked to this process of recruitment is the increasing realisation by Thai authorities of the presence of approximately 5000 Thai Muslims who had studied in Islamic universities from 1988 to 2003 in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Sudan, Syria, Libya, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Pakistan, Iraq, Iran, and Egypt and who have returned to Thailand. These young graduates struggled to find gainful employment and fell under the mercy of Islamic aid donors who encouraged them to join the Islamic teaching sphere. Significantly, in April 2003, Thai authorities identified Al Haramayn Islamic Foundation, International Islamic Relief Organisation, Islamic World Committee Kuwait, and Revival of Islamic Heritage Society as key donors to charitable activities in the South.
A number of commentators hold that the current insurgency is the result of the strong-arm tactics of the Thaksin Shinawatra government, who initially rejected the claim that the violence was based on ethno-nationalist (possibly religious) grounds but rather the work of criminals, is responsible for the current state of affairs. Thaksin after some time acknowledged that what was occurring in the Southern provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat was an insurgency. The change occurred due to the arrest of such high-profile international terrorist as Riduan Isamuddin (Hambali) in 2003 and trials of alleged Jemaah Islamiyah activists Maisuri Haji Abdullah, his son Muyahi Haji Doloh, and Dr Waemahadi Wae-dao in 2004. Once the Thaksin government acknowledged that it faced an organised campaign to end Bangkok control over the South, Thaksin was able to adopt a more militaristic stance that manifested itself with the Executive Decree on Public Administration in Emergency Situations. The Decree came into force on July 19, 2005, and is still in force. The Decree amounted to a de facto imposition of martial law that caused immense anger. Under the Decree, law enforcement officers are immune from prosecution and secondly the Decree suspended the jurisdiction of the administrative courts to prosecute officials for human rights violations. In 2002, Thaksin also replaced the Yala-based South Border Provinces Administration Centre which since it was established in 1981 served as a link between Bangkok local provincial administrations, with the Thai Provincial Police Structure with its questionable reputation for honesty.
The growing insurgency in Southern Thailand clearly indicates that the Sonthi Boonyaratglin/Surayud government was wrong when they claimed that they could and would reduce the level of violence in the South. The hope for the change centred on General Sonthi Boonyaratglin's religion (Muslim) and General Chulanont conciliatory tone towards the insurgency. As Prime Minister, Surayud promised to develop a dialogue with the separatists, re-examine suggestions and recommendations made by the National Reconciliation Commission and the possible adoption of shar'ia in the South. In early November 2006, Surayud whilst visiting Pattani apologised for the strong-arm tactics of the Thaksin government, which included the infamous Tak Bai incident of October 2004, when 78 Thai Muslim were asphyxiated whilst transported to a military base. This is a significant change from the policies of Thaksin. On the socio-economic front, the Surayud government has continued the Thaksin government policy towards investment in the South especially in the realm of education. This is part of the government's two prong programme that centres on the one hand 'winning the hearts and minds' of the people; and, secondly improving inter-agency cooperation. The education programme however has suffered from a lack of funds, with the Basic Education Commission claiming that it lacks the funds to replace all of the 68,000 teachers who have retired in the last few years.
It is debateable whether the global jihadi movement seriously influences or affects the insurgency in the South or that Islamists gravitate towards Thailand as they do in cases of Afghanistan, Kashmir and so on. Commentators argue that because the insurgency in the South focuses predominately on non-Western targets, it suggests that the insurgency is primarily ethno-nationalist rather than part of a larger jihadi agenda. Moreover, there differing reports as to the existence of Thai Jemaah Islamiya or al-Qa’ida cells, with some noting the arrest of Riduan Hishamuddin in August 2003 as indication of Islamists interest in Thailand and the insurgency. Yousif Longpi, a founding member of the PULO, has claimed that it would be relatively easy for such organisations to use Southern Thailand as a launching pad for attacks on tourist destinations or as transit point. To this end, the latest spat of violence suggests that the insurgency is growing and needs to be resolved before it spirals out of control and attracts proper attention from global jihadi organisations. Pranai Suwannarath, director of the Southern Border Provinces Administration Centre argues that the reason behind the increase level of violence is caused by the insurgents desire to make their presence felt, especially following support by Thai Muslim and community leaders of General Surayud's initiatives to improve relations between Bangkok and Thai Muslims. Significantly, Thai authorities claim to have arrested at least three individuals in connection with the February 18 attacks, and according to Fourth Army chief, Lieutenant-General Viroj Buacharoon the suspects appear to have received training from Runda Kampulan Kecil (RKK), which has supposedly has ties to BRN. According to Zachary Abuza and Thai government sources, members of the RKK had travelled to Indonesia where they received training from Islamic scholars. Abuza argues that the RKK is merely a front for BRN-C militants who travel to Indonesia to receive training. If the allegation that the attacks were perpetuated by RKK members it would give credence to the claim that the insurgency is changing and that at least some of the insurgents are receiving outside help. At the same time, Defence Minister General Boonrawd Somtas has claimed that the insurgents can rely on 10,000 young people and that despite the presence of 10,000 soldiers, 10,000 policemen, and another 17,000 people the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Centre (SBPAC) and more worryingly the government has no idea who the leaders are, or what the leaders are thinking. Ultimately, the insurgents need to become aware that they have a small window in which to negotiate with the current government, which has shown itself more open and willing to work out a negotiated solution. However, it appears that on the one hand the insurgents feel that they are able to win more concessions by continuing their violent campaign. On the other hand if the insurgents are indoctrinated along Islamist lines it generally makes them less willing to negotiate as to the end-product – unification of the southern provinces with Malaysia. Thailand is facing a major historical dilemma: it could resolve the insurgency peacefully by stimulating investment, economic growth, and social development and encourage a Thai Muslim identity. The government could begin this process by repealing the Emergency Decree and encouraging greater Thai Muslim participation in Thai mainstream society. Alternatively, it may follow the way of the gun and seek to defeat the insurgents militarily. The problem with the military option is that at the end of the day, violence only begets violence with the innocent people being the ones that ultimately suffer.