The Intractability of Thailand’s ‘Southern Fire’

The Intractability of Thailand’s ‘Southern Fire’

The South Thailand insurgency can only be resolved if the ethnic Thai and Malay Muslims let go of their zero-sum understanding of identity.

Rebellion and violent conflict have intermittently characterised the deep south of Thailand for much of the 20th century. In 2004 the conflict escalated into one of Asia’s most serious insurgencies. According to Deep South Watch, in the last 15 years of conflict about 7,000 people have been killed and several thousand more injured. During the holy month of Ramadan, violence tends to increase in Thailand’s southern provinces of Songkhla, Narathiwat, Pattani, and Yala. On May 27, the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) insurgents detonated a motorcycle bomb at a flea market, killing a woman and a 14-year-old boy, and injuring 24 others. Most of the victims were ethnic Malay Muslims shopping for Ramadan. The attack was only 1 of 21 bombings and targeted killings between May 6 and June 5, costing the lives of both ethnic Thai and Malay Muslims. The ongoing violence begs the question whether the Southern Fire can be put out.

What fans the flames?

The ethno-nationalist insurgency stems from Thailand’s annexation of the Malay Muslim provinces more than a century ago. Since then, an alphabet soup of different militant ethnic Malay Muslim groups have battled the Thai state. This has resulted in cycles of violence, and attempts by successive Thai governments to resolve the conflict have yielded little result, primarily because they have failed to address the conflict’s root causes.

The southern provinces of Thailand contain a Malay Muslim population of around 1.8 million which equals roughly 80 per cent of the region’s population. Despite their numerical dominance, the Malay Muslims constitute a marginal group within Thailand, comprising less than 3 per cent of Thailand’s population. Accordingly, disagreement reigns among analysts and policymakers as to what explains the Malay Muslim insurgency. Explanations range from socio-economic grievances, criminal activities orchestrated by local warlords, injustices faced by minority groups, to growing Islamic militancy. Admittedly, socio-economic grievances and religion are important, but they are not the main causes of the conflict. In fact, religion only serves to legitimise their insurgency and mobilise mass followings, as Malay Muslims have repeatedly framed their cause as a jihad. Yet, reducing the insurgency to mere issues of justice and criminality denies the political issues at the core of the conflict.

Quenching the 'Southern Fire'

In essence, the Southern Thailand insurgency is an ethno-nationalist conflict driven by two mutually reinforcing trends. The first one is a belief among Malay Muslims that their distinct Patani identity is threatened by the Thai government that unilaterally interferes in their affairs, endangers their traditional way of living and is deemed illegitimate in their eyes. The second revolves around the “internal colonial policies” initiated by different Thai governments, which, as argued by Kilcullen, “have been at best paternalistic (treating the south as a pseudo colony with special needs) and at worst assimilationist, authoritarian and brutal”. Any meaningful attempt to resolve the conflict in Southern Thailand thus has to address these separate challenges.

However, as indicated by previous failed negotiations, it is difficult if not impossible to overcome these barriers to conflict resolution, which are first and foremost entrenched in identity denigration. In that regard, the identities of the Malay Muslims and general Thai population seem to be incompatible. The Patani identity with which many Malay Muslims associate themselves, clashes with Thailand’s national identity that is predicated on the pillars of religion and king. For the Malay Muslim population, negotiation itself can threaten their survival, or, more explicitly, their Patani identity. It is thus unlikely that Malay Muslims agree to negotiations if the negotiations revolve around defining a state based on criteria that do not include them or force the Malay Muslims to assimilate to the pre-established state culture.

This is exactly where the crux of the issue lies. Thailand is an extremely centralised state defined by its “mono-ethnic character” that has been pursued through means of internal colonialism, assimilation, and suppression of local identities. Thailand’s constitution does not explicitly recognise the existence of ethnic minorities because all citizens are considered to be Thai. In consequence, for the Thai government to engage in formal talks with a geographically concentrated ethnic and/or religious minority would mean the recognition of another (sub-)identity. Thus, discussing political solutions along the line of granting Malay Muslims some form of autonomy would imply ceding Thai territory to the ‘enemy’.

As long as the parties’ perception of their zero-sum identities remains unchanged, solutions to the conflict in the deep south of Thailand will be offered in a fragmented and competing way. Any serious attempts to quench the Southern Fire will thus fail to materialize.