How to win hearts and minds in Thailand’s Muslim south?

June 22, 2009

THAILAND-SOUTH/More than five years after a Muslim insurgency erupted in southern Thailand, the conflict remains shrouded in mystery, with no credible claims of responsibility for the bloodshed in a once independent Malay Muslim land with a history of rebellion to Buddhist Thai rule.

On June 8, gunmen burst into a mosque and killed 10 people as they prayed. Thailand blamed separatist insurgents for the bloodiest attack this year in the mainly Muslim region bordering Malaysia where nearly 3,500 people have died in violence since 2004. But the head of the world’s biggest Islamic body urged Thailand to protest its Muslim minority after local residents put the blame on military-backed elements.

(Photo: Thai Muslims pray at a funeral after the mosque attack, 9 June 9 2009/Surapan Boonthanom)

Reuters correspondent Martin Petty toured the area last week in the wake of the attacks. He talked to a woman who narrowly escaped an assassin’s bullet in Yala.  She said she doesn’t know who wanted her dead or why. Former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra blamed mafia-style smuggling gangs for the violence, but security analysts believe homegrown separatist groups — with little or no ties to al Qaeda or other regional militant networks — are behind the violence.

THAILAND-SOUTH/The Thai government hopes to stem the violence by pouring $1.58 billion in development funds into the region. But many residents told Petty it won’t make a difference, because the people are stuggling to keep their Malay-Muslim identity – not to boost local fisheries, rubber and palm oil industries.

A better idea would be to withdraw the 30,000 soldiers deployed in ther region and scrap an emergency decreee that grants the military broad powers of arrest with immunity from prosecution, they say.

(Photo: Soldiers guard a village after a police raid on a suspected militant hideout on June 18, 2009. REUTERS/Surapan Boothan)

The three provinces were part of an independent Malay Muslim sultante annexed by Buddhist Thailand a century ago and its people have long resisted Bangkok’s attempts to assimilate them.

The International Crisis Group (ICG) has just issued a report on the insurgency and says in its summary:  “This struggle, nominally between a Thai Buddhist state and a Malay Muslim insurgency, targets civilians of all religions. More than 3,400 people have been killed since the violence surged in 2004. There are more dead Muslim victims than Buddhists, and many of the slain Muslims were marked as ‘traitors’ to Islam.”

Can the Thai government win hearts and minds with its planned development initiative? Or will a region that is battling to keep its ethno-religious identity and way of life in a borderless world continue to see  violent paroxysms such as this month’s mosque attacks, until the governmetn comes up with a broader plan that addresses deep-seated grievances?

Here are links to Petty’s latest stories about the south:

Cloud of suspicion hangs over Thai south schools — June 22

Thai insurgents recruit from Islamic schools — June 22

Thailand’s Muslim south gripped by fear – June 19

Money won’t stop south Thai violence, Muslims say — June 18

6 comments

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The Thai government should withdraw all its soldiers immediately from the region.The Muslims and Buddhists will live as they did in the past.Since it is a Muslim majority area, it is wise that the Thai government give full attention to the development of Islam; that means more mosques and the emphasise on Arabic language.The three states should have close collaboration with Malaysia who can economiclally help the region.More people from these regions should be sent to Malaysian schools and varsities.The Thai government should not neglect the Buddhist as according to Islam the minority is well protected.There should be drastic real changes b ut the question of autonomy does not arise.The three states should be part of Thailand as it is only proper that though they are different in religion and ethnicity they are citizens of Thailand.Malaysia is the only country that can help to solve this problem.Most people from this region seek refuge in Kelantan and in Terengganu.This is normal as they know they get sympathy from the Malays in Malaysia.Thai government had used iron fist rule to control this region but the result is more open rebellion.They should change their tactics and be more sympathetic to their causes.Everybody in any country should have their right to practice their religion.The Thai government should not consider that giving in as being weak.They are being a just government.

Posted by vaisanavadas | Report as abusive

There is a culture of violence in the south which cannot be overcome unless parties put aside their weapons and engage in open, honest dialogue. While the Government is required to take the initiative, the weak coalition and nationalist tendency of Thai politics make this inconceivable.

Posted by Nidhirat Wajapattana | Report as abusive

Southern Thailand insurgency is a problem which was not taken care of by the previous administrations but the responsibility also is on the insurgent groups who have not identified theri leaders and had not worked towards resolving the conflict.The situation has reached such a point that unscrupuous elements are using this situation fo uncertainity for prolonging the conflict. Whether government is not interested is again a questionable hypothesis but it is true that there is much serious effort needed from Malaysia to sit across and resolve the issue forever.That sort of initaitive is just lacking.

Posted by Dr. Pankaj Jha | Report as abusive

thanks for excellent article

I agree the military should leave the region, leave the police and the communities to sort things out

the current and retired military are the cause of most problems in Thailand, especially the south!

Posted by David Brown | Report as abusive

Vaisanavadas wrote “Most people from this region seek refuge in Kelantan and in Terengganu.This is normal as they know they get sympathy from the Malays in Malaysia.”

If Vaisanavadas truly believes that, he is living in intellectual fantasy land. It is generally intellectuals and academics that have this supposed connection to Malays in Malaysia. FOr the majority of people that end up spending time in Malaysia, it is only for economic opportunities and has absolutely nothing to do with some kind of ethnic and religious affinity with their supposed ethnic Malay brethren. This is in the academic literature that no one ever reads, and if one actually spent time talking with people (I have spent two years here), one would understand this. I have met scores of folks who seem to feel much more connected to Thai Buddhists than Malay Malaysians.

Vaisanavadas’ thoughts are unfortunately one of the biggest misconceptions about the “Malays” of southern Thailand. Most of the people don’t even consider themselves Malay. When asked if they are Muslim, Thai, or Malay, they almost always say Muslim. It is only intellectuals that by and large prioritize their Malayness over their Muslim identity. So many folks have complained to me about Malaysians being stingy and how they look down on the Muslims from the three provinces.

Posted by Jason | Report as abusive

Jason might be interpreting the feelings in the true aspect of the country.But by mingling with the Southern Muslim Thais, I believe that they are not taking the opportunity to get the best of the both world.I would like them to be Thais first before being Malay or Muslim.My views are my personal ones and they are based on true mixing of the people who ply between Kelantan and Terengganu.It may be not statistically right.

Posted by vaisanavadas | Report as abusive