by Austin Michael Bodetti. He is a student in the Gabelli Presidential Scholars Program at Boston College. He focuses on the relationship between Islam and conflict in Syria and Sudan.
The insurgency in Southern Thailand has confounded analysts and journalists for over a decade. The inhabitants of Patani, an Islamic historical region on Thailand’s border with Malaysia, have maintained an ambiguous relationship with the government in Bangkok for centuries. Rebels from Patani spent many of the years after World War II battling Thai soldiers in the country’s south. Only in the early 2000s, however, has the religious aspect of the conflict gained more attention. The Thai government has tried to depict it as part of the Global War on Terror, noting that the current generation of Muslim rebels claim to fight Buddhist, Thai infidels. The reality seems more complex.
The insurgents are the most-mysterious part of the battle for Southern Thailand. Observers agree on the rebels’ separatist ideology, which pushes for Patani’s independence. Nevertheless, the insurgents rarely speak to journalists, so few understand how the insurgency works or who leads it. As I wrote for War Is Boring, two theories attempt to explain the current uprising in its historical context: some argue that the rebels are continuing what their twentieth-century predecessors started, others that younger rebels, displeased by older rebels’ leadership, have adapted the insurgency to modern methods of asymmetric warfare and terrorism. Violence has become commonplace and routine in Southern Thailand. “The awareness of continual murders, bombings, and arson attacks became the acceptable norm for the locals so long as the violence did not occur in their immediate (geographic or emotional) vicinity,” Michael K. Jerryson wrote in “Buddhist Fury: Religion and Violence in Southern Thailand“. “This was their coping mechanism for dealing with their fears.” The rebels have attacked civilians and soldiers, Buddhists and Muslims. They even bombed a popular local hotel twice. The anarchy and mystery of Southern Thailand have deterred many analysts and journalists from delving into its subtleties.Neither the rebels’ vague ideology nor their terrorist methods lend themselves to conflict resolution, conflict transformation, peacebuilding, or peacekeeping. Back in 2006, The Bangkok Post reported that the Thai military struggled to negotiate with the rebels because the “army still [had] no idea who the enemies really” were. Little has changed since then. In another article for War Is Boring, I observed that the Thai military and police have often contributed to the problems in Thailand’s southern provinces. Non-government organizations have accused Thai policemen and soldiers of disappearing Muslim civilians sympathetic to the insurgency. Because the security forces view themselves as participants of the War on Terror, the Internal Security Operations Command (responsible for operations in Southern Thailand) has modelled itself after the United States Department of Homeland Security. “The Royal Thai Army […] is a uniformed bureaucracy that does not fight wars,” Duncan McCargo said in “Tearing Apart the Land: Islam and Legitimacy in Southern Thailand“. “Unlike other powerful militaries in Southeast Asia — notably the Burmese and Indonesian armies — it never waged an independence struggle and has never repelled invaders in modern times.” The Thai military and police failed to comprehend counterinsurgency, fuelling the insurgency with their tactics, operations, and strategies. McCargo added, “The core pursuits of the Thai military are playing politics and engaging in business activities (including illegal activities, such as smuggling); when the occasion arises, commanders are not averse to killing are few dozen unarmed civilians.” The Thai security forces are endangering civilians, themselves, and their mission with their counter-productive counterinsurgency in Southern Thailand. The insurgency has been worsening since earlier this year. According to the Voice of America, “attacks across Thailand’s southern border provinces have raised fears of an escalation in insurgent violence, even as the Thai government has stepped up security operations and reports progress in its efforts to hold peace talks. Human-rights advocates are calling for an investigation into claims of torture against detainees, including a death in custody.” These problems have been endemic and persistent. Though the Thai military and police assert that they can achieve peace — through negotiation or war — apparent war crimes and crimes against humanity may prevent Southern Thailand from seeing peace or security. “Historically, the southern region of Thailand […] had served as a dumping ground for corrupt and/or incompetent civilian and military officials,” determined Global Security. “Additionally, daily life there, particularly in urban areas, was continually plagued by a higher level of common banditry and lawlessness, more so than in the Kingdom’s other regions, making it very difficult for authorities to differentiate between criminal lawlessness and terrorist acts commissioned by domestic Thai terrorist or Muslim Separatist groups.” The anarchy in Southern Thailand has as much to do with Bangkok’s contemporary and historical failures as with the insurgency. The military and police have ignored the rights of local civilians, human rights in particular, and inspired the insurgents.
As Thailand’s shadowy Muslim insurgents return to the battlefield, the uprising in the country’s south offers an example of the War on Terror’s underappreciated dilemmas. Focusing on the responsibility of rebels for terrorism but refraining from blaming the governments that war against them, such as Thailand’s, seems to excuse counterterrorist security forces from their war crimes and crimes against humanity. The Thai military and police have, in fact, worsened the insurgency.