Thailand’s southern insurgency continues to smolder in the three mostly Muslim provinces along the border with Malaysia. However, mid-way through the 12th year of this struggle, recent incidents suggest growing restlessness on the part of the Muslim Malay rebels after a historically unprecedented lull in the violence since August 2014. On June 3, four soldiers died in two separate attacks, including an ambush. Some two weeks earlier, insurgents set off a wave of nearly 20 bombs that injured 22. A month earlier, in mid-May, a car bomb exploded in an underground parking lot of an upscale mall on the resort island of Samui, in the first out-of-area operation by insurgents since December 2013; luckily only seven were wounded.
The violence may pale in comparison to the major sectarian conflicts dominating the global stage at the moment, but Thailand’s insurgency does not appear to be burning out and there is little hope of any resolution in the near term. Neither is it without human tragedy, with the body count now estimated to have hit 6,400. Peace talks have been abandoned since the Royal Thai Army (RTA) threw out the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in the May 22, 2014 coup, despite lip service from junta leader Prime Minister Praysth Chan-ocha about the future of such efforts.
Fears that the insurgency may be swept up in the wave of extremism sweeping through the Islamic world remain overblown, however. The roots of the violence in Southern Thailand are ethno-political in nature rather than primarily sectarian. Despite the arrests of over 100 Malaysians for supporting the Islamic State, and the estimated 600 Southeast Asians who have traveled to Syria and Iraq to join the fight, there is no evidence of any support or recruitment in southern Thailand.
This article examines the roots of the conflict, before explaining the recent flare up of violence. It concludes by arguing that Thailand’s insurgency will remain a localized conflict over political grievances, and not a transnational threat.
The insurgency in southern Thailand has been intractable since violence erupted in 2004. Four elected governments and two military-installed regimes have come no closer to resolving the conflict and it remains the single most lethal conflict in Southeast Asia, with nearly 6,400 dead and 11,000 wounded. Violence peaked in mid-2007, when nearly three people a day were being killed. The insurgents overplayed their hand, however, and the RTA was goaded into action. Today, more than 60,000 security forces are deployed in the south, an area roughly the size of Connecticut. Violence declined in 2008, but stabilized between 2009 and 2014, averaging 86 casualties per month. Violence dipped again following the May 2014 coup, though not by the 60 percent the junta claims. Without a doubt, the operating environment for insurgents is more difficult thanks to a very robust system of check points, closed circuit television (CCTV), and better armed and equipped troops. Between June 2014 and May 2015, the average number of casualties fell to 51 per month. The average number of people killed has fallen from 31 per month in 2009 to 17 since the coup.
The reduction in violence has been a source of pride and accomplishment for the junta that has been grasping at any accomplishment to legitimize its rule. Insurgents interviewed by the author in October 2014 and February 2015 acknowledged the changing environment. They cited as causes both fierce flooding in December 2014 and January 2015, but also that arrests were taking a toll on the movement. They also reported a palpable fear of the security forces, which even under democratic leadership had operated with near total impunity in the south under the 2005 Emergency Decree. Government promises to end the insurgency by 2016 also have created a sense that the junta was willing to give the security forces more scope to control the insurgency.
The junta was so buoyed by the decline in violence that it announced that starting in April it would withdraw five of its ten army battalions from the Deep South, replacing them with paramilitary rangers, Ministry of Interior troops, and village defense volunteers. That decision may have been premature. Poorly trained rangers and Ministry of Interior troops are ill equipped to take on kinetic operations.
Casualties, which hit a low of 24 in December 2014, have stormed back. March, April, and May showed consecutive increases in violence with casualties jumping from just 27 in February to 80 in May, well above the average since 2009. January and February saw 12 shootings combined; the three months following averaged 20. IED attacks also moved higher than long-term averages. In May, 33 IEDs exploded while another 17 were defused before they detonated, for a total of 50 bombs; the average since January 2009 is 13.5.
The May attacks may also mark a shift in tactics. Thirty-four of the 50 total IEDs were in Yala City, the southern administrative capital. The remaining 16 bombs were placed along rural roads, which until this round of attacks had represented the insurgents’ tactic of choice. This is both because the security forces, who were at greatest risk in such attacks, are widely seen as legitimate targets, and because the urban areas in the south are so heavily defended with checkpoints and monitored with near ubiquitous CCTVs that launching attacks in cities is much riskier. The additional difficulties posed by staging attacks in built-up areas, as well as the potential for collateral damage among the Muslim community, indicates that the insurgents may have additional goals beyond discrediting the government.
When insurgents do stage major bombings in cities, it has usually also been intended to communicate messages about the campaign and to win further support. For example, on February 20, 2015, insurgents detonated a car bomb in Narathiwat. The target and timing were very specific: a dozen bars and karaoke parlors in a Buddhist neighborhood. The bomb exploded in the middle of the day when bar traffic was minimal, rather than at night when the casualties would have been far higher. While 17 people were wounded and more than 40 building were damaged, the insurgents clearly intended to minimize the loss of life and signal their military capabilities.
A Focused Strategy
The attack on Narathiwat, though, was atypical and for the most part, the militants instead concentrate on retaliatory attacks with a far more focused use of violence than in the past. One insurgent interviewed for this article said, “The higher ups suggested that we preserve our energy; save it for retaliation for Thai violations of ground rules….But when we hit, we hit hard.” For example, on February 13, 2014, a Buddhist monk and three civilians (including a 12 year old boy) were shot dead and a policeman and five other civilians wounded in a drive-by shooting in Mae Lan district of Pattani province. It was thought to be a revenge attack for a February 3 extra-judicial killing of a suspected insurgent who had recently been acquitted. On October 12, insurgents set alight six schools in retaliation for the torture of three of their members who had recently been arrested. Additionally, on November 1, 2014, gunmen opened fire on a group of Buddhists drinking in Songkhla’s Thepa district, killing three civilians and wounding seven others, including a girl. Insurgents left leaflets saying that it was a “mistake.” The language appeared to consciously echo that used by the RTA after an October 23 incident in which Marines in Narathiwat’s Bacho district shot a car carrying a Muslim family of four, killing a 10-year-old girl.
These types of retaliatory strikes are unlikely to force the current government back to the table, and that has created significant frustration among the rebels. Starting in February 2013, the insurgents had entered into peace talks with the democratically-elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra. The rebels appeared to be negotiating in good faith, though at times they seemed amateurish, for example, by making post-facto demands. Three rounds of talks were held before they broke down. The prevailing narrative is that the talks were postponed because of the political crisis that unfolded in Bangkok during the fall of 2013, and which culminated in the May 2014 coup d’etat. In reality, the talks had stalled long before because of Thai army opposition to any concessions that the government might make and increased targeting of the insurgents by security forces.
The situation appears to be stalemated. In the year since the coup, the junta has seemed insincere about its desire to negotiate with several calls for talks to resume failing to result in any advances. For example, the team that approached Malaysia for assistance in bringing the insurgents to the table is headed by Gen. Aksara Kerdphol, a confidante of Gen. Prayut and anathema to at least one of the rebel groups. More seriously, the junta’s draft constitution further centralizes power in the Thai political structure, making any concession on autonomy or even devolution of powers impossible, let alone the release of insurgent suspects and political prisoners. Few concessions are being considered by the Thai government.
The insurgents meanwhile are trying to show that they can still attack at will. Recent targeting suggests that the insurgents are trying to force the military government back to the table. In March and April, security forces made up 26 and 27 percent of the total casualties respectively, but that jumped to 54 percent in May. At the same time, the rebels are increasing their attacks in the heavily defended cities. The targeting of security forces continued in early June, with four soldiers gunned down in an ambush, and eight wounded by a car bomb as their truck passed by. The insurgents have also stepped up actions that get Bangkok’s attention. For example, on March 14, a bomb exploded as a squad of Border Patrol Police escorted Buddhist monks to collect alms in Pattani’s Saiburi district, wounding four police and two civilians. While no monks were killed or wounded, it was the first such attack since February 2014, and portends the fear of greater sectarian conflict as Buddhists start to return to the south with the gradual decline in violence.
Militants have also moved to immolate the bodies of their victims, something that causes particular distaste among the Buddhist community and which even the Islamic clergy have deemed “un-Islamic.” On May 6, insurgents set fire to a middle-aged Buddhist couple gunned down in Yala’s Bannang Sata district.16 On April 12, insurgents torched the bodies of a couple they had killed in Sukhirin district of Narathiwat. Such desecrations have happened 54 times since January 2009, but rarely since the end of that year. In 2013, there were none, and six in 2014. Another gruesome tactic, beheading, has not been used by the rebels since March 2014.
Thai leaders seem convinced that with the decline of violence following the coup, they could enter into peace talks from a position of strength, perhaps with only nominal concessions. The insurgents have undermined the RTA’s claim that they have been defeated however. It is evident that they were taking a tactical pause, and are now seeking to again show the government that the only path to ending the insurgency is through a negotiated political solution. While Malaysia appears to have brokered the establishment of an umbrella grouping of the various insurgent groups and factions in the historically fractious Majlis Amanah Rakyat Patani (MARA Patani), they [Malaysia] have shown little will to negotiate with Thailand’s military government.
Ethnicity, Not Religion, is the Key
The revival of violence in Thailand’s predominantly Muslim Deep South has spurred fears that radical extremists will make their presence felt there as they have in other conflict zones such as Syria. That fear remains overblown. Other than a handful of training manuals downloaded from the Internet, there have been few proven links to any international movement, including Jemaah Islmaiyah or the Islamic State. The roots of this fight are cultural and sociological, and are very much rooted in religion and language. The majority ethnic Malay Muslims who comprise roughly 85 percent of the 1.2 million inhabitants of Thailand’s southern provinces Yala, Pattani, Narathiwat, and parts of Songkhla, see little space for them in the Thai nation state. The conflict remains dominated by conservative Sha’afi clerics, who see themselves as the guardians of traditional Malay culture, and a bulwark against Thai colonialism and cultural influence. Thai officials are frustrated that the 100-year project to assimilate the Malays has failed, unlike every other minority group. Many Thai officials refuse to even refer to them as Malay, calling them instead “Thai Muslims.”
Despite concerns that the insurgents could reach out to transnational groups, such as the Islamic State, to date they have remained inwardly focused. Thai authorities have expressed concern about the influence of the Islamic State, including after recent arrests in Malaysia, but the concerns are driven more by ignorance than reality. Although the Salafi presence in southern Thailand is growing, they are at odds with the Malay nationalists, and in many ways share many of the same prejudices toward them as demonstrated by the institutions of the Thai state. But the rise of Salafism is having its own impact, making the traditional Sha’afis more conservative.
A great concern to Thai security forces is that young university students are starting to be drawn to Islamic State propaganda. This seems to be primarily driven by frustration that the Malay insurgents have nothing akin to the Islamic State’s slick social media campaign, rather than any true ideological affinity, but as the conflict drags on, many in the community believe that the militants have to increase the level and scope of violence to force the government to peace talks.
Some insurgents seem to share this perspective. The Koh Samui bombing is thought to be the work of Ubaidillah Rommuhli. Rommuhli was responsible for the March 2012 bombing of the Lee Gardens Hotel in the commercial center of Hat Yai that wounded more than 500. The operation was not sanctioned by the insurgent leadership. Indeed, one insurgent told me that most of the leadership had determined that such attacks would only be authorized as a last resort, as they would be too counter-productive. But more hard-line commanders may be insisting that similar types of operations are necessary to take the insurgency to the next level or force the Thai side to talks. Yet it is doubtful that hard-line militants such as Rommuhli will be able to win support because the risks are so much greater, and such tactics would run counter to what to date has been a very conservative and cautious insurgency. Also, the insurgency has limited resources and areas to operate from, and it is fighting a large and well-funded state security apparatus.
With violence largely contained to the three southernmost provinces, and only one Westerner killed since 2004, the insurgency remains a low priority for both the military government in Bangkok and the international community, despite the violence ongoing in the heart of Southeast Asia. Yet the Thai government has neither the capabilities to defeat the insurgency nor the political will to end it. The insurgents have limited resources and are operating in a very hostile environment. As such, the violence will likely remain subdued. To many in the insurgency, this is an adequate and appropriate level needed to force concessions. Of course, frustrations are building among some insurgents given there is little expectation the government will give any ground despite new murmurs about peace talks and there are signs that some rebels may change tactics, and start targeting tourists on a more regular basis. There are few internal checks on cells pursuing more aggressive tactics and despite the inherent risks in such a strategy, some insurgents may believe they are worth it given that the smoldering low intensity struggle of the past decade has raised awareness of Malay demands, but has not achieved them.
Zachary Abuza, PhD specializes in politics and security affairs in Southeast Asia. Between 2010 and 2012 he was a Professor of National Security Studies at the National War College. He is a currently an adjunct at the Army War College’s Security Studies Institute. He has a forthcoming monograph on the Thai insurgency due for publication by the National Defense University Press.
1 This and other data comes from an open source database of attacks in Thailand’s Deep South that the author has maintained since 2004. The numbers are conservative; not every incident is reported in the press and there is little follow up; many wounded later die.
2 “Violent incidents and casualties drop in Deep South,” Thai PBS, April 23, 2014.
3 Amy Sawitta Lefavre, “Thailand promises peace ‘within a year’ in insurgency-hit south,” Reuters, November 3, 2014, and personal interviews with insurgents, Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat, February 2015.
4 “South soldier swaps to start next month,” Bangkok Post, March 16, 2015.
5 Author’s travels in southern Thailand during 2015.
6 Personal interview, Yala City, February 9, 2015.
7 “Monk, 3 civilians slain in Pattani,” Bangkok Post, February 13, 2014.
8 “Six schools torched in Pattani,” Bangkok Post, October 12, 2014.
9 “Three men killed in apparent revenge shooting,” Bangkok Post, November 2, 2014.
10 “NSC rebuts BRN demands,” The Nation, April 29, 2013.
11 “Prayuth calls BRN terms unacceptable,” Bangkok Post, August 20, 2013, and “Paradorn downplays truce violence,” Bangkok Post, July 26, 2013.
12 “Aksara to be new chief of South talks,” Bangkok Post, October 25, 2015.
13 Saksith Saiyasombut, “Thailand’s next post-coup constitution: The dictatorship of the ‘good people’?” constitutionnet.org, May 29, 2015.
14 “Savage Yala attack kills 4 soldiers,” Bangkok Post, June 3, 2015.
15 “Pattani Bomb Targets Buddhist Monks, Injures 6,” Khaosod English, March 14, 2015.
16 “Motorists Shot Dead, Burned By Suspected Insurgents in Yala,” Khaosod English, May 6, 2015.
17 “Eight Die in Two-Day Spate of Violence in Thailand’s Deep South,” Benar News, April 13, 2015.
18 “Six separatist groups formed organization to hold peace dialogue,” Isra News, May 25, 2015.
19 Lindsay Murdoch, “The War in Southern Thailand is Long-Running and Threatens to Spread,” Sydney Morning Herald, June 6, 2015.