Malay Muslims’ insurgency is a result of the Thai government’s aggressive approach towards the minority group, and the decades-long disregard for their independent history, ethnic language and culture.
On October 25 2004, Thai security forces suppressed a large protest by Muslims in the town of Tak Bai by rounding up 1300 protesters, stacking them face down in military trucks and transporting them to Patani camps five hours away.
At least 78 protesters died from suffocation in Thai military trucks, and several others were shot dead while protesting outside the police station for the release of detainees.
Chaturon Iamsopha, a member of the local NGO Tohmeena Foundation, says “the security personnel never get punished, this was also the case for the Tak Bai massacre. Thai government said there were insurgents among the crowd, but the people who were called to the police station were actually invited to join an iftar dinner (fastbreaking for Muslims). That time I was secretary to my Senator Uncle and we were told many Malay Muslims got invitations through various groups to break fast but indeed there was no iftar dinner. It was a set up and until now it remains as another mystery as to who organised this. But for sure, whoever did this, they do not want peace in the southern part of Thailand. When you check the location for Tak Bai Police Station, you will see it’s a dead end. The only way out is to swim and cross the river to Malaysia.”
Known across Thailand’s troubled south as the ‘Tak Bai massacre’, the incident would become another symbol of state impunity against the country’s Malay Muslims.
Speaking to TRT World, Asama Mungkornchai, Political Science lecturer at the Prince of Songkla University says “My perspective about Tak Bai is something like ‘wounded history’. That is an ongoing conflict. We got several incidents about violence, the state violence and it has become a wounded history. We got several incidents about violence, the state violence and it has become a wounded history”
Although Islam is a minority faith in Buddhist Thailand, Muslims make up the majority of the population in southern provinces of Satun, Yala, Patani and Narathiwat, referred to as the “deep south”.
The minority groups in the southern region originate from the Malay Muslim entity, constituting 85 percent of the local population in deep south neighbouring Malaysia. They speak a local dialect of Malay, known as Patani-Malay, maintaining their traditional way of life. Their existence has meant never-ending difficulties for both the Thai government and minority Malay Muslims since the 18th century when the Lord Vassal relationship got sour.
“When we talk about Muslim in the south, obviously ‘Thainess’ is the problem, okay they got that Thai nationality card but they speak in Malay language, their identity and particular culture,they do not belong to Thai culture” says Asama Mungkornchai.
Chaturon says the language and use of certain words are very important in conflict zones, likewise for the fragile situation in Southern Thailand. “Although the Thai government refers to us as Thai, yes we are Thai citizens but our race is Melayu (Malay). In my grandfather’s time we could call ourselves Malay but after assimilation policy all the race is considered as Thai. This policy has started a conflict which has not been resolved until today ”
Thailand-based security analyst, Don Pathan, says ‘Malay’ is a constructed identity where “you can become Malay just like you can become Thai. So these two constructed identities are resisting violently, refusing to be swallowed by one another. Being a Malay or a Muslim are the two sides of the same coin. So when the Thai tries to change its Malay identity, it affects the other - they would feel that they become less Muslim.”
The deep south was formerly known as the independent Sultanate of Patani until it was conquered by the Kingdom of Siam in 1785. Siam directly controlled the appointment of Patani’s sultanate leadership which led to the rebellion and constant cycle of revolution and suppression until today.
Pathan argues that the insurgency was ignited when the policy of assimilation came at the expense of the Malay’s religious identity. At the turn of the century, when the region was centralised and the sultans were replaced by governors from Bangkok, Malay Muslims did not challenge the Siam sovereignty with an armed rebellion. It was five decades later, when a fully fledged armed insurgency broke out. The trigger was the border being drawn with British-held Malaya.
Pathan says Muslims in other parts of Thailand, outside the Malay speaking south, tend to be patriotic and do not support the Patan-Malay insurgency movement and they don’t see it about Islam. “It’s about Patani Malay identity and their historical grievances,” he added.
Bangkok was concerned over British expansion in Malaysia and to counter this potential threat, Thai ruler King Chulalongkorn launched a military campaign against the southern Thailand region in 1901, forcefully annexing Patani as part of Thailand in 1906. In contrast, other Malay sultanates in the peninsula were given autonomy after the end of colonial rule and they joined the Malay Federation, known as Malaysia today. The annexation transformed Malay Muslims of the Patani Kingdom from the majority in their region, to an ethnic minority where they have become second-class citizens.
In 1939, Siam officially became Thailand (Land of the Free) and was defined as a Thai nation-state. Nationalist military government propaganda was set up to promote centralisation based on a ‘triad’, the three pillars: Nation (referring to Thai nation), Religion (signifying Buddhism) and the King (referring to monarchy). Anyone who does not uphold these three values is considered unpatriotic. As a result, Patani Muslims who do not apply these new norms to ther lives, are often viewed with suspicion and humiliation, as well as being branded as separatists threatening the survival of national development.
Malay-Muslims were subject to an official assimilation campaign where they were forced to take Thai names and use Thai language in all schools and government business. Violent insurgency emerged in reaction to these discriminatory practices in 1948 when Malay-Muslims reacted to the centralisation of power with the appointment of Thai officials to replace local leaders. A major incident, which provoked the crisis, was the mysterious disappearance of religious leader Haji Sulong in 1954.
During the post-World War II period, some Malay-Muslims demanded a separate regional government while some others requested Patani to be independent or parted so that it could join Malaysia. In 1947, a respected local Muslim leader, Haji Sulong bin Abdul Kadir, presented a petition consisting of seven demands, which included Malay-Muslim population’s request to re-establish an autonomous region for the Muslim South.
Haji Sulong, who studied and taught in Mecca before returning to Patani in 1927, emerged as the champion of the non-violent movement. He established the first religious school (madrasah/pondok) reforming Islamic education, and became the first president of the Provincial Islamic Council of Patani. These Muslim schools instructed new generations in their faith, in the hope of protecting their culture and identity since public education is conducted in Thai.
Despite not violating the Siamese constitution, Haji Sulong’s demand for having an autonomous domain was rejected by the cabinet, which was mainly concerned about the division of the land.
The rejection became the main ground of separatism. Haji Sulong refused to yield to Thai pressure. He instead fuelled his campaign with more demands. He called for Islamic judges to be inducted in the local judiciary, boycotting the ones appointed by the government. Crisis broke out when government police and Muslims clashed in the southern provinces of Patani, resulting in the declaration of the state-of-emergency in 1948.
The police accused Haji Sulong of being a separatist and he was arrested in 1948. Upon his release in 1952, Haji Sulong was ordered to abandon his public activism and report to a local police station. In 1954, he and his three followers, including his eldest son Wan Muhammad, disappeared en route to the police station. Their bodies were never found. His mysterious disappearance contributed to social and political tension within the Malay-Muslim community, and further resentment from his relatives and followers towards the Thai government.
Malay nationalists believe that Haji Sulong was killed by Thai Police on the orders of then national police chief, General Phao Siyanond. Many believe that Siyanond ordered him to be tied to heavy stones and thrown into the sea. Haji Sulong’s son Den Tohmeena, also a Thai politician, alleged that his father was murdered by being drowned at sea.
Seven decades after their disappearance, no responsibility has been claimed, and no one has been brought to justice. Chaturon Iamsopha, one of the grandsons of Haji Sulong spoke to us about his grandfather’s legacy and growing up with his grieving family. Chaturon recalls his childhood but he was never told about their disappearance. Only when he was around 5-6 years old, he recalls being by the lake with his family, praying there. It was then that his mother told him that his grandfather’s body was somewhere in the water. He says he found out about his grandfather's disappearance by himself as he came of age, and that his family was left to deal with the loss all by themselves.
Since Haji Sulong’s death, secessionist movements emerged under different names like the Patani National Liberation Front (PNLF), the National Revolution Front (Barisan Revolusi Nasional-BRN), the Patani United Liberation Organization (PULO), the National Liberation Front of the Patani Republic (NLFPR), the National Liberation Army of the Patani People (NLAPP). With no evidence of coordinated strategies, they have been clashing with government troops resulting in casualties on both sides.
When asked to explain the decades-long arms conflict in a nutshell, Pathan says this is the second wave of the arms conflict. “First wave started in the early 60s and ended around late 80s, early 90s. Back then, there were several separatist movements mostly but not all founded by outsiders. Libya was a training center for many of the Patani fighters and Syria was their intellectual center for groups like the Patani United Liberation Organization (PULO). But those days are gone after 1989. Armed insurgency returned to this region less than a decade later and the main group is Barisan Revolusi Nasional, BRN (the National Revolution Front).”
According to Pathan, BRN had “the home turf advantage” because their support base was the madrasah (traditional Islamic boarding schools). Fighters in other groups put down their arms and returned to their villages. Many of their leaders were given asylum in other parts of the world.
“BRN elders made a concerted effort to come back and this time around they said that ‘we’re not going to depend on outside help’, referring to the Arab states. And also during 90’s we had a very charismatic Muslim Foreign Minister, Surin Pitsuwan, who made efforts to prevent these guys to make a comeback to exploit forums like OIC (Organisation of Islamic Cooperation) for the political gains. He also got Libya, Syria and other Gulf states to stop funding these groups. But for BRN, unlike the other groups, their support comes from the people on the ground. That’s why this insurgency has lasted as long as it has”
Although the Thai government permits private Islamic schools, and in the case of the far South, provides financial support as long as the schools use a government-designed curriculum, Patani Malays feel discriminated against by the rest of the country’s people and government agencies.
They feel their narrative and history have been swept under the carpet. In the face of this discrimination, Malay Muslims have become even more determined to uphold Islam as their political entity, and consequently adhere more to the Malay language and values.
“The second wave started around mid-2001 but was not officially recognised until January 2004 when scores of insurgents raided the army in battalion and made off with almost 400 pieces of weapons. At that point in time the government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra could no longer deny the political underpinning of the attack. All of a sudden there was this recognition ‘Yes, we have a problem! Yes we have a new generation of Patani Malay separatist movement on our hand.’” Pathan explains.
Since Thailand has the institutional knowledge of fighting Patani, Malay separatists and the communists in the 70s and 80s, they applied a mix of old and new policies against the Patani Malay insurgents.
Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra declared martial law in the southern provinces in 2004, sealed the border with Malaysia, placed several districts under curfew and mobilised a huge number of troops to the region. Then the ‘Tak Bai massacre’ happened on October 25, 2004 remaining as the deadliest day in deep south history.
Human Rights Watch says successive governments in Thailand have dismissed the root causes of Malay Muslims’ grievances, ‘specifically a lack of accountability for the government’s human rights abuses in the region’ in response to the insurgency. Then there’s the economic and political marginalisation, and measures like putting Muslims students on watchlists. Asama Mungkornchai says “discrimination is not abvious but it’s in everyday life. My student, my young male students, when they ride motorcycles (they) have to pass the checkpoint, there would be checks, they’ll be asked, or even take their DNA.”
Chaturon confirms until today “Malay Muslims have to stop for screening at every 2 kilometres in average. Since the security unit cannot point out who is a rebel or who is an insurgent, they like to monitor us and check our ID cards, asking ‘where are you going’, ‘what are you doing?’ But we are all civilians.” Muslim civilians are under constant observation by the Thai military because all the young men are suspects for the heavily armed masked soldiers of the Royal Thai Army.
According to Pathan, the Thai government is totally missing the point in addressing the problem of insurgency. “Encountering insurgency is mostly about politics, the idea is to win the hearts and minds of the local people. You’re not going to do that with a lot of arms. And development is the only answer. Although the deep south is almost 90 percent Malay Muslim, the three commercial centers; Patani, Yala and Narathiwat, all the mayor offices and all the chamber of commerce are run by ethnic Chinese. And the Patani Malays don’t seem to have any problem with that. So, the race relation is not a major issue. The real issue is between the Patani Malay and the Thai state and this conflict is rooted in the Thai nation state construct which really doesn't allow Patani people to embrace their identity and historical narrative. ”
Many critics say the show of military power has only widened the gap between the Patani people and the Thai state. The aggressive crack on civilians and the human rights abuses by the soldiers are only feeding the Malay Muslim grievances as they are never held accountable.
But how to solve this problem? Chaturon says that it is not really about the religion.
“It’s not that the Buddhist and the Muslims are fighting against each other here. Here the struggle is with the Central government about our identity. We want to have the right for self determination here in Patani. Decentralization was accepted during the former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra time as mandated by the 1997 People's Constitution but it was actually never realized because most of the policies are still top-down,” he added.
Since 2004, more than 7,000 people have been killed in the ongoing armed conflict. The year 2020 came with its own special challenges and achievements. As for the insurgency movement, the country witnessed the first de-facto unilateral ceasefire since 2004.
Pathan says right now, the main secessionist group, the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), are working in consultation with local activists and with the exiled communities, as well as international NGOs, to give non-military means a chance and to find a moral high ground.
“BRN announced a ceasefire at the height of the pandemic on humanitarian grounds right after the Secretary General of the United Nations made that request to the whole world," Chaturon said.
In January, the insurgent group signed a “Deed of Commitment” to protect children with Geneva Call, an international nongovernmental organisation (NGO) that advocates rules of war with armed non-state actors worldwide.
"So basically they are exploring the ideas of how to take the moral ground,” Chaturon added.
Although the ceasefire is a great piece of news to celebrate for ending the violence and protecting the civilians and civilian structure, Thailand’s top military and political leadership do not see it this way.
“This has frustrated the Thai security planners quite a bit as the idea of BRN -who they see as ‘criminals’ not people with legitimate grievances- the idea of them gaining international attraction and a form of legitimacy frustrated them. They know how to fight them but they don’t really know how to deal with this international setting. It’s a bit beyond their control,” Pathan explains.
For the Thai government, who almost denies that there is a civil war happening in the deep south, acknowledging the ceasefire officially has been challenging.
“They (officials at the operation level) quietly welcome it but they are also aware of the sensitivity of the situation. I mean what can you say to a group who says ‘I’m gonna stop shooting’ or ‘I’m gonna respect the right of children for living?’” Pathan says.
Although the Thai government sometimes uses the word “terrorist” to describe insurgency tactics, Thailand’s South has little resemblance to transnational jihadist movements unlike ISIS, al-Qaeda or Jemaah Islamiyah. It is an ethno-nationalist conflict. The separatist insurgency in southern Thailand developed in a context where ethnic Malay resisted what they see as a Thai colonialism. It is an ethno-national movement demanding Patani Muslims’ identity rights with the thorny issues of language, religion and culture.
The Thai state has failed to consider the Malay Muslims' demand of autonomy. They simply branded it as separatism.
As Pathan suggests, “autonomy doesn't have to be about administrative reform, it could be about greater cultural space or empowerment of the local community to chart their own destiny, about the right to self-determination as a principle not necessarily as an issue of sovereignty.”
[NOTE: The article came from TRT World’s Eyes on Discrimination (EOD) Centre, which monitors and reports on offences, hate crimes and discrimination on the basis of gender, race, ethnicity, national origin and religion, or other related social categories. We promote and encourage respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion.]