Thailand: Conflict Profile

Image credit: Dennis Wong

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. Violence is also sometimes attributed to local criminal gangs and drug runners as well as retributive attacks carried out by state security forces.

Image by LightOnDude published under a creative commons license

The violence has almost exclusively been centered on the provinces of Yala, Pattani, Narathiwat and, to a lesser extent, Songkhla. None of the groups thought to be behind the violence have claimed responsibility or made any official demands. The majority Muslim southern provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat formed part of the independent Sultanate of Patani before being annexed by Thailand in 1902. Intermittent unrest has plagued the region since.

Militant attacks have been retaliated to with hard-hitting military campaigns and an estimated 30,000 Thai troops are currently in the region. In a bid to stem the insurgency, the Thai government has enforced emergency rule in the area since mid-2005, handing security forces extended powers of arrest and immunity from prosecution, amongst other powers. It is unclear how much popular support exists, either for the militants or for independence from Thailand. It has been suggested that the heavy-handed repression of the insurgency by the Thai government has assisted their growth.

The resulting instability has mainly affected the agricultural and tourism sectors on which the poorest communities rely. The concern is that if the unrest continues it could transform into an ethno-nationalist insurgency, attracting Islamic extremists and having international reverberations.

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.

Image by Ratchaprasong 2 published under a creative commons license

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: July 2011