Muslims make up less than 5 percent of Thailand’s 63 million people and most live in the southernmost provinces. Ethnic and religious divisions have generated tension in this region, which was formerly part of Malaysia.
In 2004, Bangkok declared martial law in the south after violence erupted. Continued conflict — from bombings to shootings and beheadings — has since claimed more than 3,500 lives.
Luke Hunt is a Hong Kong-based correspondent who writes at World Politics Review about the solidification of the separatist movement and Thailand’s approach to dealing with the insurgency.
Thailand Rethinks Approach to Southern Insurgency
Regular bombings, killings and skirmishes between rebels and the military in southern Thailand have forced Thai authorities to finally grasp the scope of a conflict that has scarred thousands and changed the lives of millions.
Previously, Thai police, military and politicians had dismissed the attacks as random violence committed by bandits or a handful of disgruntled Islamic militants. Such attempts to play down the carnage were dismissed by Western governments, who see the confrontation with ethnic Malay-Muslim separatists in the south as a persistent threat to regional security.
Now, as the rebellion enters its sixth year, Thai police admit that the separatist movement is a well-structured organization operating across four provinces with a combined population of six million inhabitants: Songkhla, Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat.
There are also growing claims of links to al-Qaida and the regional terrorist outfit, Jemmah Islamiya (JI), which advocates for a Southeast Asian Islamic state. Diplomatic sources said their concerns were driven by a series of interviews believed to have been granted by the self-described leader of al-Qaida in Southeast Asia, known as “Abu Ubaidah,” in the middle of last year.
In the interviews, Abu claimed that the armed struggle had changed significantly since 2004, when the rebellion was based more on locally driven nationalist aspirations than on the logic of international jihad.
“What is happening in Pattani is not an internal conflict. Some [fighters] come from the neighboring country, some come from far away, many thousands of miles,” he said.
Abu maintained that the mass killings at the Kerisik Mosque in April 2004, when more than 100 people died, and further atrocities committed by the Thai military at Tak Bai in October of the same year helped in the transformation.
But security analyst Keith Loverard from Jakarta-based Concord Consulting doubts the extent of Abu’s jihad claims, and said there was no convincing evidence linking rebels with Islamic radicalism.
Noting that southern Thai separatists are Malay-speaking Muslims who feel deeply alienated from the Thai-speaking Buddhist majority, he nevertheless maintained that, “while it is logical that Islamist groups would try to capitalize on the situation and enlist the southern Thai movement to wider terrorist activity, there is no sign that there has been any success in any such endeavor.”
If the conflict remains locally contained, the patchwork of southern separatist movements has become increasingly well-organized, with police identifying five principal divisions.
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