Thailand: What is Happening in the Deep South?


Dr John Funston

Since allegations in late 2002 that the al-Qaeda linked Jemaah Islamiah (JI) planned the Bali bombing in Southern Thailand, media interest in the activities of Thailand’s four million Muslims, most located in this region, has been intense. This has been heightened by a spate of killings beginning in December 2001, resulting in over 20 deaths during the following year, the arrest of four Thais with alleged JI links between June and July 2003, and the arrest of JI operational head Hambali on 11 August 2003 in Ayuthia.

Violence in southern Thailand escalated dramatically on 4 January 2004 when over a hundred insurgents raided an arms depot of the 4th Army Engineers in Narathiwat province. They killed four Buddhist Thais (after separating them from Muslims) and seized 380 small arms and 2,000 rounds of ammunition. As diversionary moves they also torched 20 public schools, and burnt rubber tyres and planted fake explosives in neighbouring Yala. Later on 22 and 24 January, three Buddhist monks were killed, and two injured, in a particularly brutal manner – this was the first time ever in the region’s history that monks had been targeted. Violence has persisted, despite the imposition of martial law and the rapid expansion of security forces in the area; by late February over 40 lives had been lost.

Several analysts were quick to link these developments to external terrorism. The role of such groups in Thailand is controversial, though it is clear that JI has used the area for hiding, transit, and perhaps some planning activities. Opportunistic links in this case cannot be ruled out. But some saw more direct JI involvement, notably the newly appointed security adviser, General Kitti Rattanachaya, a former head of the regional 4th Army. In his view, the attackers had close ties to the Kumpulan Mujahideen Malaysia (KMM), and through them to JI. But he did not cite specific evidence, and if the shadowy KMM indeed exists, Malaysian police seem confident they crippled it by arrests prior to December 2002. Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi dismissed the possibility of JI involvement when he visited Bangkok in January.

Initially officials blamed bandits. But the scale and sophistication of the 4 January attack soon led to the conclusion that separatists were responsible – either the recently formed (mid 1990s) Gerakan Mujahideen Islam Patani (GMIP) (the assessment favoured by Prime Minister Thaksin); or older organisations such as the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) or the Patani United Liberation Organisation (PULO). The targeting of Buddhists is consistent with actions by separatists in the past. And recent international and domestic events have combined to help the separatist cause.

Internationally, September 11 and the Bali bombing, and US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq strengthened Thai Muslim solidarity. Domestically several government policies had a similar effect – including a tougher stand against separatists; dissolution on 1 May 2002 of administrative structures known as Civilian-Police-Military Task Force 43 and the Southern Border Administrative Centre - established in the 1980s, these had effectively coordinated activities by security agencies and provided a focus for representation of Muslim concerns and extra-judicial killings of drugs traffickers in 2003. The government’s CEO style has not gone down as well in the South as in other regions. And many analysts argue that its quick resort to harsh measures – as in the recent imposition of martial law and the increase in the security force presence – may be counter-productive.

Support for separatists remains limited, but recent events have revived a cause that had almost faded away by the 1990s, after being influential in the 1960s and 1970s.

WATCHPOINT: How will Muslim leaders in the South react to recent government policies promising massive economic assistance, while increasing the presence of security forces and clamping down on unregistered Islamic schools (pondok)?


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