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A look at southern Thailand's conflict

Ate Hoekstra Thailand
October 27, 2016

Violence has plagued southern Thailand for decades, with Muslim separatist groups demanding independence for the ethnic Malay people. Activists say the humanitarian aspect of the conflict has largely been overlooked.

Thailand Separatisten Yala Provinz Anschlag
Image: AP

Eight years ago, a bomb attack in Pattani changed Ismael Tae's life forever. The authorities arrested Tae and his friend for their alleged involvement in the assault. They were arrested and tortured and were incarcerated for seven days, according to Tae.

Tae and his friend claimed innocence and pressed charges against the military. After that Tae started documenting torture cases in southern Thailand, a region that has been plagued by a conflict between separatist groups and the Thai military for decades.

"Since 2014, we have documented over 70 cases of torture," Tae told DW. "So far, we have published the details of 50. For the rest of the cases, we are trying to collect more evidence," he added.

At the root of the conflict are decades-old separatist demands, with many residents in the southern provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat - home to a Muslim, Malay majority in the predominantly Buddhist nation - calling on Bangkok to grant them at least local autonomy.

And since 2004, the conflict is estimated to have claimed more than 6,500 lives - mostly civilians.

With no end in sight, the conflict has left deep scars on the residents of these three provinces. Children have lost their parents in the violence that takes place on a daily basis, and many young men continue to join separatist groups.

Conflict and trauma

In a recent report, Amnesty International accused the Thai military of allowing a culture of torture. But the military says the use of torture by security forces is not as rampant as claimed by human rights defenders.

Matiyusoh Mat, a Muslim leader in Tak Bai - a town near the border with Malaysia - believes that torture and unlawful arrests lead to radicalization and force people to join armed groups.

For Aiyub Chena, the political debate about the conflict has largely camouflaged its humanitarian aspect. In the past 12 years, the conflict has orphaned almost 10,000 children, the manager of the Nusantara Foundation told DW. Many of them have lost their parents as a result of the thousands of bomb blasts that have rocked the region since 2004.

Anschlag auf Soldaten in Yala Thailand
The conflict has claimed more than 6,500 lives since 2004Image: REUTERS

Chena's organization is trying to help the orphans. The violence can traumatize them for life, he says. "Some of them have seen their parents being shot in front of their eyes. Last year, a kid saw his father being killed. After that he didn't speak a word," he told DW.

'Let people decide'

Many people in the region say they are tired of the conflict. A recent attempt by the government to restart peace talks was rejected by the Barisan Revolusi National (BRN), one of the biggest separatist groups in southern Thailand. The BRN says it will only join negotiations in the presence of international observers. But Bangkok rejects it as an option.

Tae says the government and separatist groups need to listen to people's demands. When asked what should be the solution to the conflict - complete independence for the region or a greater autonomy? - Tae said it was for the people of the region to decide.