Cultural Evolution and Thailand’s Deep South Troubles

A region’s troubles defy solution

By: Murray Hunter

Thailand’s Deep South, a three-state region with a mixed population of ethnic Malays, Chinese and Thais, feels like a country within a country. The communities live within their own customs, own cultures, beliefs and religious/community centers, under a Thai administration despite a long-running Malay insurgency that over two decades has taken the lives of an estimated 7,000 people on both sides.

However, most people feel very comfortable being both Malay Patani Muslim and Thai citizens. The major cities are vibrant, with the three major ethnic groups living together in harmony. There are no racist narratives as in neighboring Malaysia with its majority Malay Muslim population. There is enthusiastic pursuit of entrepreneurship in the towns, particularly by the younger Malay Patani generation, which appears to share similar aspirations with their Thai peers, sharing Thai mannerisms, engrossed in their mobile phones, supporting football teams, participating in mass sporting events, and pursuing educational opportunities. 

The shift in economic power towards Muslim women, who are more oriented towards business and career rather than political agendas, is a massive influence on changing cultural aspirations. Malay Patani social structures like mosques and schools now symbolically challenge the vistas that Thai civil structures once dominated. 

The only hint of something amiss in the region is the hundreds of makeshift military camps and checkpoints along the roads, often manned by troops in full combat gear. The separatist movement has become much more violent since 2004, when the insurgency began, its spirit originating from the days of the old Malay Archipelago Sultanate of Pattani around the 9th Century, which was annexed by Thailand in 1909 from British influence. 

This Malay Patani cultural heritage, which many of the older Malays still identify with today, can be considered the basis of stubborn disagreement with the Thai government by a number of minority separatist groups which have been able to perpetuate militant resistance for almost 20 years without the assistance of external help. 

Many rounds of talks have gone on over the last few years between the Thai government and the array of separatist groups, with Malaysia recently playing a facilitating role. In effect, nothing has been achieved overtly, except for some terms of reference (TOR), which the Thai government refused to sign off on in fear that would legitimize the separatist movement internationally, as Thailand is desperate to keep the militancy a domestic issue. 

There are suspicions and questions about the sincerity of the talks from both sides. Some within separatist circles fear that the government is only using the talks to collect intelligence about their secretive organizations. The talks are seen as stalling for time so the army can prepare new anti-insurgency initiatives. There is also a perception by the separatists that the talks may give the impression to the world that the government is sincere in finding a solution to the insurgency, when this isn’t really the case. 

From the separatists’ side, there is no united front towards the government. There are differing opinions both between and within the groups themselves. It’s highly doubtful whether the main group in talks – the Majlis Amanah Rakyat Patani or MARA Patani, an artificially formed umbrella group supposedly representing a number of separatist groups – actually has any operational control at ground-level. It is also unknown whether dispersed grassroot militant cells loyal to the Barisan Revolusi Nasional or BRN are disciplined enough to be under direct control. 

However, the greatest concern is that none of the separatist groups have wide community support. They are secretive militant, not mass organizations that at least the BRN aspires to be. Consequently, their views aren’t reflective of the current aspirations of the Malay Patani community. This is demonstrated in the scepticism on the part of the separatists over a proposal made by the new members of the Thai Parliament from the Deep South to set up a joint house senate committee on the issues. 

The government has just recently talked directly with the BRN in a neutral location in Germany. Some commentators claim that the BRN has the most grassroots influence over semi-autonomous cells. However, the leadership of the BRN is slowly changing, with the old Malay-Patani-nationalist vanguard being replaced with a young Salafi-Wahabi leaning cadre, who appears to be much more militant

On the ground there appear to be two types of militant operations. The first are damaging attacks on symbols of Thai authority and culture. The attack on a famed golden mermaid statue at Samila beach last year in Songkhla was done during the night without any casualties. Such attacks spur the anger of authorities and get media attention. Second, there are the terror/guerrilla attacks on government, Buddhist, and army personnel, infrastructure, and public places, often leaving casualties. 

Some speculate that these attacks, done at specific times, are messages. However, violent acts within the Deep South must be filtered through the noise of crime, drug disputes, power plays and rogue attacks. Not all violent acts are by the separatists.

The attacks have attracted a massive response from the government. The Royal Thai Army has around 50,000 direct and indirect personnel deployed in the area. The army has purchased and deployed urban warfare and rapid response equipment, built hundreds of temporary field camps and roadblocks which aren’t really suitable and effective against classic Malay hit and hide tactics. 

The army, in fact, is missing the most valuable asset, an effective intelligence network. Army intelligence can’t penetrate villages. The separatist organizations themselves are almost impossible to infiltrate. The army doesn’t really know what is going on. The only success they have is in cordon-and-search activities in rural areas that weaken insurgent networks but also destroy the army’s trust with citizens.

Moreover, perceived army cruelty is part of the problem. The Krue Se Mosque just outside of Patani where armed separatists were attacked by the army in 2004 has become a memorial and tourist attraction. The massacre at Tak Bai the same year, in which 78 young men suffocated after hundreds were loaded onto trucks and stacked atop each other after a violent demonstration, has become folklore. The death of Abdullah Esomusor, an insurgent beaten to death in military detention, led to his funeral becoming a protest which reinforced historical grievances, with 1,000 people attending. The Bo-Ngor Massacre in December last year, in which it was claimed two unarmed villagers were shot by rangers who tried to cover up the mistake, led to outrage. Torture in army camps and cordon-and-search operations have been building resentment. 

Consequently, the army has withdrawn most of their military personnel from urban areas, leaving it to paramilitary forces to take responsibility. Some highway roadblocks have been removed, and road-side camps decommissioned.   

The army’s organization would be difficult to dis-assemble and re-deploy elsewhere. This long-running dispute is making the army look inefficient, bloated, class-discriminating, and unprofessional, rather than a trim, efficient and professional force. 

The crux of the matter is that shifting population demographics, and the will of the younger generation to build an enterprising Malay Patani society in the urban areas, has naturally built the Malay Patani state that the Patani United Liberation Organization (PULO) and BRN philosophically aspired to. The Malay Patani people have asserted strong cultural sovereignty. They have done this with the fear of attacks from the separatists and restrictions of the army, who have both abused human rights according to Human Rights Watch. 

This is the situation today. Businesses operate everywhere, night-life is flourishing, freedom to express religious beliefs is strong, there is access to cultural and religious education, and people can participate in mass outdoor events without fear. Practically and effectively, a Malay Patani state – one accepted overtly by the government – exists within the nation of Thailand.  

The local civil service is also slowly beginning to reflect local demographics. This may take a little more time. The youth have lost their historical perspective, to be replaced by a Thai-Malay-Muslim perspective. The major issue of the insurgency has actually been resolved through shifting demographics and cultural evolution. 

However, this doesn’t mean the violence will end anytime soon. Discussions between the army and dissidents may manage the conflict, but not resolve it. Transactive tactical issues can be resolved. However, it will become necessary to change the structure of the process. Malaysia is not as influential as hoped. The Malaysians are not seen as honest brokers by MARA Patani and BRN amid suspicions that separatists can run across the border and hide in safety. Malaysia is extremely hesitant to allow outside observers for fear they lose their prime facilitation position. These and other reasons may be why direct discussions between the Thai government and BRN are desired, away from media attention. 

The army and the separatist organizations have become inconvenient players. Both have legitimacy issues. In the end, it will only be the people within the Deep South themselves who have the ability to end the violence. A much wider community platform must be sorted before other undesirable consequences like the spread of extremist Salafi-Wahabism among the young, and violent terror attacks continue and more innocent lives are lost. This must be done before opportunities for peace are passed by as the dispute fault-lines change. 

Murray Hunter is a development specialist based in southern Thailand and a long-time Asia Sentinel contributor.