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Thailand's smoldering insurgency

Gabriel DomínguezJuly 20, 2015

A recent string of deadly attacks have turned the spotlight on the southern Thai insurgency, a decade-long conflict over autonomy that has claimed some 6,500 lives. DW examines the causes and implications of the unrest.

Anschlag auf Soldaten in Yala Thailand

In the latest outbreak of violence in Thailand's insurgency-battered deep south, suspected militants shot dead two Thai soldiers and burned their bodies, local authorities said on Friday, July 17. The drive-by shooting in the Ruso district of Narathiwat province took place on the last day of the holy Muslim month of Ramadan and is the latest in a series of violent clashes between security forces and insurgents that have been rocking the region for weeks.

On July 14, one soldier was killed and six more were wounded by a roadside bomb, and a total of six people lost their lives in attacks over the weekend in the southern provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat, home to a Muslim, Malay majority in the predominantly Buddhist nation.

The killings followed the discovery of dozens of banners calling for independence in these provinces. According to Reuters news agency, the banners were found in more than 10 cities across the region and one of them read: "The nature of Siamese colonial hunters is that they lack humanitarian concern and they always lie to the international community."

The beginnings

At the root of the conflict are decades-old separatist demands, with many residents of these three provinces - which weren't incorporated into the Thai state until the early 20th century -calling on Bangkok to grant them at least local autonomy.

Economic and social factors have contributed to the rebellion, particularly given that the southern provinces have lower incomes than the rest of the country and generally have the lowest levels of education, as Gregory Poling, a Southeast Asia expert at the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS), told DW.

Thailand Separatisten Yala Provinz Anschlag
Bomb blasts and drive-by shootings have been the most visible tactics employed by the insurgentsImage: AP

But perhaps more important, Thai authorities, especially the military, stand accused of mistreating the local population and seeking to stifle their distinctive culture. This is why Zachary Abuza, an independent researcher on Southeast Asian security, argues that the conflict is mainly about the cultural identity of the region's ethnic Malay Muslim community, which has fiercely resisted assimilation into Thai society.

"Every other minority in Thailand has accepted assimilation for the sake of citizenship except the Malay who continue to fight against what they consider to be Thailand's failed colonial experiment and to defend their cultural, religious and linguistic rights."

Rebel tactics

After a continued low-level insurgency throughout the latter 20th century, attacks in the area spiked in 2004 during the administration of then PM Thaksin Shinawatra and have remained high ever since, claiming an estimated 6,500 lives - mostly civilians - to this day.

Bomb blasts and drive-by shootings, often targeting local and national authorities, have been the most visible tactics employed by the insurgents. Local leaders, teachers, and other civil servants - both Muslim and Buddhist - have paid a high price, being targeted as symbols of the Thai state and/or the encroachment of Buddhist Thai culture into the southern provinces.

But the type and magnitude of the rebel attacks have also changed dramatically over the years. "The increasing use of roadside bombs is a particularly disturbing trend," Paul Chambers, director of research at the Institute of Southeast Asian Affairs in Chiang Mai, told DW. The change in tactics indicates desperation by the insurgents as well as a willingness to be more daring or more destructive and radical, said the expert.

According to Abuza, an average of 15 bombings and 16 shootings a month have been recorded in the region over the past five years. These relatively indiscriminate forms of violence have meant widespread deaths and injuries to bystanders, and caused significant economic damage to local communities. And the possibility that the rebels may start bombing locations outside the three southern provinces has now become a major concern for Bangkok.

A hodgepodge of groups

Those fighting the Thai state include a raft of separatist organizations as well as, presumably, smaller cells and individual insurgents. They are up against some 70,000 security forces in the three border provinces. But the diverse and extremely decentralized nature of the insurgency makes it hard to pin down, as CSIS expert Poling explained.

There are a number of relatively large and well-known groups, including the Pattani United Liberation Organization (PULO) and the National Revolutionary Front (BRN), with whom Thai authorities have held peace talks at various times, but they do not represent all the players involved and have proven unable to control the violence on those occasions when they have tried.

Moreover, Poling indicates it has been difficult to conclusively determine what the insurgents' demands are, as they seem to shift with each round of peace talks and depending on which organization is involved.

Short-term demands have included an immediate removal of Thai security forces from the region, while long-term, some insurgents want independence from the Thai state, some want greater local autonomy, and small numbers may echo the calls of jihadists abroad who want to establish a transnational Islamic caliphate, say experts.

Driving factors

Analysts agree that the major reason why the conflict has persisted this long is that the Thai state has, for the most part, shown little interest in addressing local grievances in the south.

Thailand - Premierminister Prayuth Chan-ocha
Thailand's military junta has vowe to end the insurgency and bring peace to the south within a yearImage: Reuters

"The significant increase in violence over the last decade has forced the issue more to the fore of Thai politics, but it still remains a relatively distant concern for the governing elites in Bangkok," said Poling.

Moreover, as analyst Abuza points out, the government, and in particular the current military junta, appears to be unwilling to make even the most basic concessions to the insurgents. "Despite the government's frequent statements that they are committed to holding peace talks, their goal is for the insurgents to surrender without having to make any political concession," said the security expert.

In addition to the political and economic demands, the heavy-handedness with which the security forces have tried to combat the insurgency at various times in recent years seems to have only fuelled grievances among many in the region.

For instance, Bangkok stands accused of implementing a "culture of impunity" among military officials operating in the south. "Security forces operate under complete immunity for their actions. That immunity is only waived in rare circumstances when the act was so egregious and there was a public backlash," said Abuza, adding that over the past 12 years, almost no member of the security forces has stood trial for abuses or excesses, and those that have were all acquitted upon appeals.

Many challenges

In the meantime, Thailand's military junta, which ousted an elected government in a May 2014 coup, has vowed to end the insurgency and bring peace to the south within a year. As Abuza explains, there is now better coordination between the security forces than in the past and the network of checkpoints across the provinces is more thorough, thus making the operating environment more difficult for the insurgents.

And although a new round of talks commenced just recently, Thai officials still face difficulties in terms of identifying interlocutors with whom they can effectively negotiate. "Given the decentralized nature of the insurgency, it might prove impossible for the government to negotiate a binding peace deal (or deals) along the lines of Manila's with the MILF," said Poling.

Lack of trust

A heavy security presence continues to play a key role in Bangkok's security strategy in the insurgency-plagued region. The junta has also undertaken some new initiatives, including most controversially a drive to collect fingerprints and DNA from tens of thousands of citizens in the south to make it easier to identify and prosecute those involved in violent attacks.

Thailand Soldaten in der Unruheprovinz Narathiwat 04.11.2014
A heavy security presence continues to be a key part of Bangkok's security strategy in the insurgency-plagued regionImage: AFP/Getty Images/M. Tohlala

But critics say the indiscriminate and heavy-handed way in which the program has been carried out has only further alienated local residents. "The problem is one of an inability to achieve lasting trust over time," said Chambers.

Analysts stress that any prospects for peace will have to include a long-term commitment to address local grievances - political, economic, and cultural, in order to better integrate southern communities with the Thai state.