Thailand: Conflict Profile

Thailand’s Southern Insurgency

More than 4,400 people have been killed and thousands more injured in Thailand’s southernmost border provinces since a decades-long separatist insurgency reignited in 2004. Since then, attacks on government sector services have become endemic. As well as state officials and security forces, local villagers, both Buddhist and Muslim, have also been targeted in attacks.

Image credit: Dennis Wong

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The violence has almost exclusively been centred on the provinces of Yala, Pattani, Narathiwat and, to a lesser extent, Songkhla. Prior to 2004, the southern insurgency was largely driven by organisations such as the PULO and the BRN. These organisations articulated clear objectives and grievances based on a desire to protect their unique identity – formed through a historical connection to the kingdom of Patani that was annexed by Thailand in 1902 – against perceived aggression by a Thai government determined to maintain and enforce its preferred notion of Thai Buddhist identity.  While the PULO and the BRN were largely defeated after a protracted insurgency, the grievances behind the insurgency were never addressed, leaving the way open for a resumption of hostilities.

The post 2004 environment has seen the insurgency morph into a different kind of conflict than it had previously been. Where opposition was once centralized around the PULO and the BRN its current form has seen a decentralized enemy take up arms. In this current context, violence has been perpetuated by loosely associated cells acting relatively autonomously and only linking up when operationally needed. With attacks going generally unclaimed, fully understanding the context of the insurgency in its current form has been a difficult task for researchers and an indication as to the lack of intelligence Thai authorities have been able to acquire.

Also new to the insurgency has been the increase in religious tones to attacks. While in the immediate post 9/11 environment this was taken as a sign that Thailand’s southern Islamist militants were moving away from the grievances of their forebearers towards a more Islamist ideology, the evidence, while hard to attain given the shadowy nature the conflict now exists in, points towards an insurgency still driven by a desire to protect a local identity at odds with the prevailing dominant ideology of the Bangkok government.

Critics of the government argue that their response to the southern insurgency has demonstrated a deep misunderstanding of the nature of the violence, and an inability to appreciate the significance of those grievances, and the narrative behind them, driving militants to take up arms. The result has been knee jerk hard-hitting military responses, often resulting in human rights abuses. Measures have also included the enforcement of emergency rule since 2005 giving security forces extended powers of arrest and immunity from prosecution, massive aid programs and the implementation of state run re-education and religious camps. Given the current nature of the insurgency, it is unclear how much popular support exists, either for the militants or for independence from Thailand.

Wider Political Conflict

Thailand has been beset by political instability since the elected government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted in a military coup in September 2006 following months of street protests and disputed elections. The country has struggled to rebuild a functioning democratic system since that military putsch, with opposing political groups increasingly taking to the streets and bypassing a weakened parliamentary system.

Against the backdrop of the deteriorating health of the country’s much revered 83-year-old king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, years of political tensions have uncovered stark political, social and ideological divisions, which have, on occasion, led to bombings and arson attacks and deadly clashes on the streets between opposing protest groups and between protesters and security forces. Despite prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s 2008 inauguration claim to give high priority to the southern insurgency, the governments weakness and its reliance on military personnel to deal with tensions in a widely unrestricted and uncontrolled way, led to a considerable upward trend in violence since 2009.

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A lethal government crackdown on protesters in early 2010 left nearly 100 people dead and 1,900 injured in the worst political violence in Bangkok in nearly 20 years. No one has been held responsible for those deaths and official inquiries into the incidents have been inadequate.

Elections in July 2011, the second national polls to be held since the 2006 coup, returned a massive victory for the pro-Thaksin Pheu Thai (For Thais) party, led by Thaksin’s younger sister, political novice Yingluck Shinawatra. Fears that the military would intervene to prevent Pheu Thai from taking power did not materialise. But in an increasingly polarised country, concerns remain over the fragile peace that exists between the two political camps seeking to steer the country’s political future. Talk of a deal cut between Thaksin and the military which would leave the armed forces beyond government jurisdiction is concerning. If the current government is hampered in its efforts or turns its attention inwards and away from the lofty democratic objectives it so proudly publicised in its election campaign, then further street protests are likely. Similarly, any moves to whitewash Thaksin could lead to a resurgence in anti-Thaksin demonstrations and efforts to compel the military to intervene once more.

Despite talk of reconciliation and efforts to rebuild confidence in the rule of law and the democratic system the country remains bitterly divided and there are wide held fears that the potential for further violence is increasing the longer a political resolution cannot be found.

Last updated: June 2014. Background information published on Insight on Conflict is compiled by volunteer researchers and does not reflect the opinions of Peace Direct. For information on how you can contribute to this site, please contact us.

Thanks for research on this page to Stephen Hindes.