Articles, Opinions & Views: Resurgence of violence in Southern Thailand - by Major Ivan Lee Synn Leng

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Resurgence of violence in Southern Thailand - by Major Ivan Lee Synn Leng
Friday, August 03, 2007

Global unrest is becoming more prevalent and disturbing. Conflicts are becoming more protracted and in for a long haul. Lives of military personnel and civilians alike are the casualties of these unsolved conflicts. Most of the conflicts are happening in the country, terrorizing and causing mayhem hence inflicting unnecessary deaths and causing economic instability. There may be more than one party against a government. By far and large, separatists will strive to achieve autonomy and self rule. Over the decades, to name a few countries, separatism is a major concern in Southern Philippines, Sri Lanka, Palestine and Southern Thailand. Military aggression seems to be the order of the day. Is diplomacy dead or non-existent? Southern Thailand is faced with such a predicament and the Thai government is having a difficult task in addressing the violence throughout the country.

Southern Thailand comprises of 5 provinces, Satun, Songkhla, Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat which are predominantly Muslim majority areas. A militant Muslim separatist movement started there in the early 1970s, but died out in the 1990s. The resurgence of violence erupted with a vengeance by the separatist due to bad crisis management by the Thai government. The situation in the southern province has worsened and is another flashpoint in Southeast Asia.

With a population of 63 million, Thailand is 90 percent Buddhist. Thailand’s five southern provinces (Satun, Songkhla, Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat), however, are 85 percent Muslim and home to most of the country’s four million Muslims. The southern provinces were annexed a hundred years ago after centuries of Thai government control.[1] Being a Buddhist majority country, Thailand has imposed its political, education and religious will onto the people in the south. The separatist in the south are unhappy with the intentions of the central government.

To make matters worse, the “religious wars” in Iraq and Afghanistan with the Armed Forces of the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) respectively is creating uneasiness amongst Muslim nations around the globe. Muslims around the world are uniting and forging alliances to meet those challenges. The forming of terrorist groups has been a concern in Southeast Asia. Malaysia has been accused of collaborating and assisting the separatists in Southern Thailand by the Thai government. No evidence was forthcoming to back such an accusation. Malaysia has always adopted a `good neighbor’ concept with its confidence building measures along its borders.

The aim of this paper is to analyze the separatist resurgence in the southern Thailand.

The resurgence of violence erupted in the year 2001, causing havoc in the south with Improvised Explosive Devices (IED) which is commonly used by the separatists. The separatist groups also conducted several attacks against public schools, government-run clinics and police stations in the region because they were seen as anti-Islamic tools of the state.[2] Buddhist monks, temples and teachers too have been the targets of the separatists. As many as 60 teachers were killed in the past 2 years.[3] Surprisingly, teachers have been targeted. Is the education system becoming fanatical in the south? If so, it is time that the Thai Government does some serious evaluations in revamping its education system. Insurgent groups are targeting civilians to show their power and highlight the Thai government’s weakness,” said Brad Adams, director of the Asia division at Human Rights Watch. “But it’s illegal, and morally indefensible, to attack civilians in pursuit of political goals.”[4] The casualties are not merely of Buddhist origin but Muslims too. Is there a third party or vigilante group involved? Both racial groups refuse to cooperate in revealing the identity of the attackers. They fear for their lives. No one has claimed responsibilities for the brutality committed. Why are the separatists targeting civilians? Is the Thai Government really overtly indoctrinating the people in the south with a Buddhist ideology?

On 28 April 2004, more than 100 militants carried out attacks against 10 police outposts across Pattani, Yala and Songkhla provinces in southern Thailand. Thirty two insurgents retreated to the Krue Sae Mosque, considered the holiest mosque in Pattani. General Pallop Pinmanee, commander of the Southern Peace Enhancement Center and Deputy Director of the Internal Security Operations Command was the most senior Army commander on the scene. After a tense seven hour stand-off, Pinmanee ordered an all out assault on the mosque. All the insurgents were killed.[5] The attack on the mosque did more damage to the conflict. Assault on a holy building is not an ideal solution. The Tak Bai (a small town) incident further aggravated the situation. Seventy eight protesters died of suffocation while being transported in the province of Pattani, which infamously has come to be known the world over as the “Tak Bai incident “ which occurred in October 2004.[6] The brutal act by the security forces have made the separatists more determined to fight and hardening their resolve for the cause.

The Thai military has been criticized for their aggressive stance and use of lethal force in suppressing separatist violence lately. However, military actions are just a tool, diplomacy and wining the hearts and minds of the masses is a better option. The separatist is also seen unfair too, targeting monks and teachers who were mere civilians and unarmed. Public beheadings of Buddhists (360,000 of the 1.3 million southern residents practice Buddhism) have led to gun training sessions for the remaining Buddhist population (it is estimated that more than 34,000 have fled) being taught in Buddhist temples by Thai military officials.[7] Both parties have not been sincere in solving the conflict; a ‘tit-for-tat’ method is adopted for every action taken by them.

About 60 percent of Pattani province's 400 state schools have been closed indefinitely, said Pairat Vihakarat, president of a teacher's federation covering three provinces near the Malaysian border which have been the centre of a separatist insurgency this year.[8] Do Islamic teachings allow literal interpretations of holy texts to inflict such uncivilized acts upon unarmed and innocent groups of people? Is extremism creeping in and becoming more aggressive in Southeast Asia? Is there any possibility of foreign Muslims fighters providing assistance in southern Thailand?

In the 1990s, the democratic government formulated a new “National Security Policy for the Southern Border Provinces” based on a “development as security” approach, which was supposed to be implemented from 1999-2003.[9] The formalization of such policy was a noble step to address the simmering conflict, but how far was it executed or implemented is yet to be seen and realized. The south is still `backwards’ in everyway. Malaysia has willingly volunteered to assist The Thai Government to mediate. Malaysia’s cooperation is unquestionable but Thai government has to be transparent in their actions to overcome separatism. The Thai military have been given a free hand in quelling separatism in the southern region. They have several years of combat experience in counterinsurgency warfare having dealt with problems along their long and porous borders. Then again `hearts and minds’ are better than military options. The Thai military have been questioned on the use of force and violence, especially in relation to the use of minimum force and their blatant disregard for human rights, where it has become a norm that might is right. Army Chief General Sonthi Boonyaratkalin disclosed that the previous government under Thaksin had killed many suspected insurgents who were handed over by Malaysia into Thai custody.[10] If there is some truth in the surgical assassination of the suspects, the Thai Government must seriously reevaluate its strategy on resolving the conflict. In August 2005, 130 Thai Muslims fled the border and had been placed in transit in Terengganu. The Malaysian Government had assured the Thai Government that they had no intention in harboring separatists and will be allowing government officials to visit them if need be.

The root causes for the separatism have to be analyzed to determine its resurgence and reasons. There are five areas of concern which need to be discussed: Economic Marginalization. Economic development disparity in the south has tremendously divided the south. While the northeast is the poorest region,[11] measured against core indicators of economic development, Satun, Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat are among the least developed provinces of the Kingdom. Furthermore, the shift of government policies towards the promotion of development in the peripheral region failed to reduce regional economic disparities between the south and the center. In the early 1960s, the mean household income in the south was one fifth higher than the average national household income and the regional GDP per head was one quarter above the national average. Four decades later, the south has significantly fallen behind. [12]

Poverty is pushing the people of the south to a brink of depression and suffering. The fear of uncertainty for their future generation is the main concern. Marginalizing economically the south is unacceptable and the Thai government needs to address immediately. Figure 1—Regional Economic Indicators Source: UNDP, Thailand Human Development Report 2003 (Bangkok: UNDP, 2003). The household income is comparatively low in the south and poverty can be an issue that may further aggravate the situation. The south has been economically marginalized overtime and has been deprived of the wealth in the country.

Political and Social Disparity. The Thai Rat Thai Party have made significant dominance over the south ever since in power. This dominance has made the Democrats were unable to control from the National Aspiration Party (which merged with TRT) in 2001, all from the border provinces.[13] The parties in the political system are mainly dominated by Buddhist politicians and only a small portion is held by the Muslims. Thailand has 76 provinces, 4 provinces are situated in the south. Politically, Muslims are not given major appointments in the south and the lack of understanding by the Buddhist politicians have invariably made communication and understanding a problem. Political parties are the voices of the people from and also where the leaders hail from. The Thai Government must see that the representation of the parties is distributed equally to form a government so that fair and just views by the south are given due consideration.

Figure 2 —Elections In The South, 1975–2001

Source: Statistics taken from Michael Nelson, “Thailand,” in Dieter Nohlen et. al, eds., Elections in Asia and the Pacific: A Data Handbook, vol. 2 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), pp. 304-9, based on official sources. Orthodox and Radical Versions of Islam. According to the Ministry of Education, there were more than 500 private Islamic schools in south Thailand in 2004, covering more than 2,000 teachers and 25,000 students.[14] While most are registered with the Ministry of Education, some are beyond official supervision. Funded by private donations and in many cases founded by teachers (ustaz) who themselves have done religious studies in Pakistan and the Middle East, some pondoks have became breeding grounds for potential radical Muslims. Separately, according to Thai government sources, in the past 15 years, 2,500 Thai-Muslim students graduated from religious schools in Saudi Arabia, 2,500 more from various Islamic universities in the Middle East and South Asia].[15] It seems that Islamic schools are not entirely funded by the government. Isn’t education a responsibility of the government?

The Islamic education systems in Pakistan and Middle East have been favored for their extremism and radical teachings which formulate a hatred for the western ideology. Malaysia faced the same fate too. Several illegal Islamic sects have mushroomed, whilst spreading contradicting Islamic teachings and causing uneasiness among other racial communities in Malaysia. They have been observed and under scrutiny by the Malaysian government. Huntington, in his “Clash of the Civilization”, talks about Muslims involved with other religions in most parts of the world, he says, “In Eurasia the great historical fault lines between civilizations are once more aflame. This is particularly true along the boundaries of the crescent-shaped Islamic bloc of nations from the bulge of Africa to Central Asia. Violence also occurs between Muslims, on the one hand, and Orthodox Serbs in the Balkans, Jews in Israel, Hindus in India, Buddhists in Burma, and Catholics in the Philippines. Islam has bloody borders.”[16]

His writings are coming to life and there may be some truth in what he perceives. Muslims have incrementally risen to a new level and beginning to challenge other religions in its fundamentalist doctrine. Islam divides the human family into two factions: the believers and the infidels. It divides human history into two periods: the age of ignorance (jahilya) and the age of enlightenment. And it divides the inhabited earth into two camps: the land of the believers (Dar-ul-Islam) and the lands of the infidels (Dar-ul-Harb).[17] Such a doctrine may have great impact towards the Thai-Muslims graduates and teachers who returned from Pakistan threatening southern Thailand’s education system and the Thai government has to manage it delicately so that Fundamentalism does not thrive and hopefully they will return to the mainstream of moderate Islamic teaching.

Vigilante Group. About 2000 Muslims and Buddhist have died since early 2004. This figure will certainly increase if not handled cautiously in time to come. No one has claimed full responsibility for the deaths and currently Muslims separatist have been blamed for both racial deaths. The bombings, arson, and ambushes have been on the rise and may expand further to the north and into the capital city soon. If this is true, vigilante groups may end up creating friction and mayhem in the south. For the time being, four separatist groups have been identified. Muslims teachers may have been teaching radical and orthodox syllabus probably spreading hate in the education system. On the other hand, Buddhist monks were targets of separatists. Why are separatist killing them or is it fear that Buddhist religion is rapidly spreading in the south? Ironically, it is the feeling of paranoia between both racial groups. Or could it be the military that is conducting this surgical assassination? No proof is available so far to ascertain this.

Bad crisis Management. Ever since the September coup in 2006, the military were more preoccupied in the political arena hence neglecting the primary job of solving the conflict in the south. The country should be governed by politicians and not military generals. As long as the military is in power the internal security problems will persist and escalate. The government must begin peace talks immediately with the Barisan Revolusi Nasional-Coordinate (BRN-C), Pattani United Liberation Organization (PULO), Bersatu and Gerakan Mujahidin Islam Pattani (GMIP). The handling of the Krue Sae Mosque incident and Tak Bai incident shows how much the military respects their people who are Muslims. The military is seen to be in disciplined and ruthless in handling public order issues. They should not be allowed a free hand in handling violence against their own citizens, they are brutal and this has been proven repeatedly.. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International were deeply concerned on the management of violence by the security forces. The lack of leadership and incompetence at the higher ranks and poor training for the lower ranks in the Thai military were blamed for both incidents.

Malaysia has agreed to expand their existing cooperation to end unrest in the southern Thai provinces including sharing info on militants.[18] Malaysia is very concerned about the situation because she fears refugees flooding her borders if the conflict escalated. Abdullah Ahmad Badawi Malaysia’s Prime Minister has said, “It is not our intention to create any problem in southern Thailand. Certainly not, but the crossing of the border is something normal because the people at the border have been crossing the border all the time visiting friends and relatives.”[19] In view of this, Thai Government has considered installing surveillance equipment along the border. Deputy Prime Minister Chidchai Wannasathit has said, “9,000 locations across southern provinces; Songkla, Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat will be installed.”[20] with surveillance equipment” The border spans wide areas and may not be an effective tool because of the thick jungle and close country, limiting the effectiveness of the equipment.

Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej granted an audience to Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi at Villa Chittralada, Dusit Palace in Bangkok on 12 February 2007. He assured that Malaysia wanted to work closely with Thailand to bring stability to the restive southern Thai provinces through acceleration of economic and social development.[21] Both countries have acknowledged that poverty in the provinces was the contributing factor. The southern Thai provinces have been suffering from the extreme poverty and the lack of development to uplift the livelihood of the people. More effort need to taken by the Thai government to rectify the weaknesses and until then the hearts and minds of the people will not be won. Malaysia has to be very prudent in providing assistance in such delicate situation. Overstepping and being too emotionally involved may place Malaysia in deep trouble.

Thailand has voiced its interest in learning from Malaysia’s success in promoting moderation, tolerance and understanding through Islam. It also wants assistance in preparing modules for religious teachers in the south.[22] If such modules are implemented, the Thai government has to monitor the modules by Muslim educationist in the south. It is not free from radical and orthodox teachings; religious teachers must be selectively employed by the government.

Malaysia has to safeguard its borders too. To ensure this, government agencies especially the Immigration Department must ensure all entry points into the country is tightened indefinitely. Malaysian security forces must have heightened border and maritime patrols on the east and west coast of peninsular of Malaysia.

Malaysia is taking steps to identify dual citizenship and will implement strict measures to ensure that this dual citizenship problem is resolved. All this measures are crucial to border security and to show to the Thai government that positive and proactive measures need to be addressed bilaterally in resolving this conflict.

Southern Thailand separatist resurgence is troubling and a major concern to Thailand and Malaysia. They have been economically and socially marginalized for decades and treated with cruelty by the security forces. Poverty, cruelty and sufferings are the main cause for the resurgence of violence. By far and large, the Thai government has acknowledged their mistakes in handling the conflict. Military means is not always the solution. The Thai government has to seriously assess their crisis management and provide better strategic plans to win the hearts and minds of the people in the south.

The separatist have also been blamed for their atrocities against civilians’ casualties. Indiscriminate bombings, arson and ambushes have killed many innocent civilians in recent times. This has been criticized by human rights organization. The Thai government has to do some soul searching in its crisis management. Minimum force in handling the conflict my shed some hope and the security forces may need to control their might. Malaysia is also concerned and willingly provides economic and social assistance to ensure safe and quick solution to these acts of separatism. The Thai government is suspicious, skeptical and hesitant towards Malaysia’s efforts. Malaysia has always been transparent and sincere in its ways to solve the conflict. The Thai government has voiced their interest in promoting moderation, tolerance and understanding through Islam. Learning from Malaysia may reduce the friction. Whatever it may be, a strategic plan has to be formulated immediately by the Thai government. The separatism will prevail if the Thai government does not adopt the right formula. Military aggression is not the only option; perhaps diplomacy can end the conflict. The separatist conflict in the south may have a solution if all are willing to go to the negotiating table and talk rationally.
(3,146 words)

About the Author
Major Ivan Lee Synn Leng of the Royal Ranger Regiment is a graduate of the Malaysian Armed Forces Staff College, Haigate. He received his Masters in Management (MIM) and Diploma in Strategic and Defence Studies from University of Malaya. Currently he is Senior Directing Staff of Junior Officers Staff and Tactics G3 Course in Army Institute of Management (IPDA) Port Dickson.


Preeda Prapertchob, “Islam and Civil Society in Thailand: The Role of NGOs,” in Mitsuo Nakamura et. al, eds., Islam & Civil Society in Southeast Asia (Singapore: ISEAS, 2001.

Samuel P. Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations?” Foreign Affairs, 72 (Summer 1993).
Krishna Kumar, “Religious Fundamentalism in India and Beyond” , Parameters, Autumn 2002

Kavi Chongkittavorn, “Thailand: International Terrorism and the Muslim South,” in Southeast Asian Affairs 2004 (Singapore: ISEAS, 2004).

Asian Defence Journal, Sep 2005.

Asian Defence Journal, Jan/Feb 2006.

Asian Defence Journal, Dec 2006.


News Straits Times; 13 Feb 2007.

The Nation,`Shattered by Horiffic’ Events, 29 Apr 2006.


Aureil Croissant, Unrest in Southern Thailand: Contours, Causes and Consequences since 2001, Strategic Insights Volume IV Issue 2 (Feb 05) , http://www. Centre for Contemporary

Election Commission of Thailand, Alpha Research, Thailand in Figures 1997-98 (Bangkok: Alpha Research, 1997).;

Hundreds of schools close in southern Thailand after teachers killed, 23 December 2004, http:// cn/english/2004-12/23/context-402758.htm

Wolfe Adam, Bangkok Struggles to end Separatist violence in southern Thailand, 30 Sep 2005.

Wolfe Adam, Bangkok struggles to end Separatist violence in Southern Thailand, 16 Nov 2006, http://

Adam Brad, Thailand Insurgent must stop Targeting Civilians, 16 November 2006 http://www.hrw:org/asia/Thailand.php

Brown Stephen, Thailand Terror, 21 Jan 2004

[1] Thailand Terror by Stephen Brown.htm
[2] Bangkok struggles to end Separatist violence in Southern Thailand by Adam Wolfe
[3] ADJ, Dec 2006.p.1
[4] www.hrw:org/asia/Thailand.php Thailand Isurgent must stop Targeting Civilians, 16 November 2006
[5] The Nation, Shattered by Horrific’ Events, 29 Apr 2006.
[6] ADJ, Sep 2005, p.56
[7] Bangkok Struggles to end Separatist violence in southern Thailand, 30 Sep 2005.
[8] cn/english/2004-12/23/context-402758.htm
[9]Aureil Croissant, Unrest in Southern Thailand: Contours, Causes and Consequences since 2001, Strategic Insights Volume IV Issue 2 (Feb 05) , www. Centre for Contemporary
[10] ADJ, Dec 2006,p.1
[11] Preeda Prapertchob, “Islam and Civil Society in Thailand: The Role of NGOs,” in Mitsuo Nakamura et. al, eds., Islam & Civil Society in Southeast Asia (Singapore: ISEAS, 2001), p. 105-106.
[12] Aureil Croissant, Unrest in Southern Thailand: Contours, Causes and Consequences since 2001, Strategic Insights Volume IV Issue 2 (Feb 05) , www. Centre for Contemporary
[13] Election Commission of Thailand,; Alpha Research, Thailand in Figures 1997-98 (Bangkok: Alpha Research, 1997).
[14] Numbers are taken from Kavi Chongkittavorn, “Thailand: International Terrorism and the Muslim South,” in Southeast Asian Affairs 2004 (Singapore: ISEAS, 2004).
[15] Aureil Croissant, Unrest in Southern Thailand: Contours, Causes and Consequences since 2001, Strategic Insights Volume IV Issue 2 (Feb 05) , www. Centre for Contemporary
[16] Samuel P. Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations?” Foreign Affairs, 72 (Summer 1993), 34-35.
17Krishna Kumar, “Religious Fundamentalism in India and Beyond” , Parameters, Autumn 2002, p.23-24.
[18] ADJ, Dec 2006,p.1
[19] Ibid, p.1
[20] ADJ, Jan/Feb 2006,p.66
[21] Malaysia Keen to Help End Unrest in Thailand, NST 13 Feb 2007, p.2.
[22] Farah Naz Karim, Bangkok Wants Input from Us, NST 10 Feb 2007,p.4

posted by Major D Swami (Retired) @ 9:13 PM  
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