Skip to main content

Explainer: Thailand's deadly southern insurgency

By Peter Shadbolt, CNN
February 19, 2013 -- Updated 0943 GMT (1743 HKT)
Thai military inspect wreckage from a bomb blast in the southern province of Yala in this file pic from March, 2012.
Thai military inspect wreckage from a bomb blast in the southern province of Yala in this file pic from March, 2012.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Thailand's southern insurgency has dragged on for almost a decade
  • About 5,300 people have been killed and more than 9,000 injured
  • Muslim separatists are calling for an independent state
  • Human rights groups say radical militants now dominate the insurgency

(CNN) -- Thailand's festering southern insurgency has come a long way since the early 2000s when ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra dismissed the insurgents as mere "sparrow bandits."

Initially unwilling to take seriously what could emerge as a threat to Thai national integrity, Bangkok has over the past decade attempted to paint its restive southern Muslim states as suffering from little more than a small-scale insurgency led by shadowy groups with nebulous demands.

In the light of the last week's brazen attack in southern Thailand in which 16 militants were killed in an hour-long firefight at a naval base, analysts say that argument is looking increasingly threadbare.

Well-armed, motivated and increasingly audacious, the Muslim insurgency in the southern provinces of Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat, Satun and Songkhla has emerged with a clear goal: the creation of a separate Muslim state for the region's 1.8 million Muslim ethnic Malays.

The insurgency has so far claimed more than 5,300 lives and left more than 9,000 injured in nine years of escalating attacks that have included drive-by shootings, bomb blasts and beheadings, according to Deep South Watch, an non-government that monitors the conflict in the southern provinces.

Twin blasts rock Thai city

"We are seeing a greater radicalization of the insurgency," said Sunai Phasuk, a senior researcher on Thailand at Human Rights Watch (HRW). "They don't want the presence of anyone in the region apart from ethnic Malays and this they've made clear with public announcements."

The Pattani Independence Fighters (Pejuang Kemerdekaan Pattani) come under the umbrella of the BRN-Coordinate (National Revolution Front-Coordinate) -- a group that combines ethnic Malay nationalism and Islamist ideologies in equal measure. Their aim is to create an independent state called Pattani Darulsalam (Islamic Land of Pattani) using violence and terror to oppose what they claim is a Thai Buddhist occupation.

The Thai government has sent more than 150,000 soldiers to the region to protect it from an estimated 3,000 to 9,000 rebel (or juwae as they are called locally) fighters, according to estimates from human rights groups.

While government statistics put Thai Buddhists at just 6% of the region's population, Muslims complain they dominate the region. Education, in particular, has been one of the fault lines in the conflict, with hard line Muslims viewing the school system as a tool of Thai colonialism.

Human Rights Watch say 157 teachers have been killed since 2004.

The southern provinces were once part of an independent Malay Muslim sultanate until they were annexed by Thailand -- then called Siam -- in 1909.

While calls for secession have simmered since then, an insurgent raid to steal weapons from an army camp in January, 2004, led to a crackdown by the Thai military, which sparked the modern insurgency.

We are seeing a greater radicalization of the insurgency
Sunai Phasuk

Later that year, the Thai military opened fire on protesters at Tak Bai in Pattani, killing seven people. Almost 1,300 protesters were detained at the scene, stripped and some of them tortured, while others were transported to Inkayut Military Camp in the province -- a journey of five hours. Detainees were stacked into military vans so tightly that 78 people died of suffocation en route.

The government has since tried to reverse its heavy handed policy in the region, using instead a heart-and-minds campaign to pacify the provinces.

According to Lt. General Ditthaporn Sasasmit of the Internal Security Operations Command, the operation has been a success.

"If we compare it to nine years ago, the situation was very bad," he told CNN. "Every time officers tried to round up or search suspect targets, we received strong resistance from locals.

"Now we have prevented many attacks thanks to information given out by local residents - a good example is the latest military base attack; insurgents lost a lot of lives."

Despite this, non-government agencies say there is unlikely to be peace in the region in the near-term. According to Phasuk, the 2004 Tak Bai incident marked a turning point in the insurgency, radicalizing a younger generation.

"The commander in this latest attack was a survivor of the Tak Bai incident," Phasuk said, referring to the failed attack on a Thai military camp in Narathiwat province on February 13 that left insurgent commander Maroso Chantrawadee and 15 other militants dead.

"What we are seeing is a transfer of power within the insurgency from an older generation, which favors negotiation, to a younger radicalized generation who see negotiation as an act of betrayal to the ideology of separatism," he said. "There is now a split in the leadership."

The Tak Bai incident, viewed by many as a strategic blunder on the part of the Thai military, has been instrumental in turning "unarmed sympathizers into brutal insurgents," Phasuk said.

"This man (Chantrawadee) survived torture at Tak Bai and many of the new generation of commanders also survived Tak Bai."

Certainly if leaflets found in Narathiwat's Bacho district on February 14, the day following last week's attack, are anything to go by, the insurgency is showing no signs of easing.

"We will retaliate in every way for our losses. ... From now on, we will attack and kill Buddhist Thai teachers and Buddhist Thai people. We will attack Buddhist Thai community...One Muslim life must be repaid with 10 Buddhist Thai lives," reads the leaflets according to HRW.

One of the features of the campaign, which has had a marked escalation since last March, is that insurgents have shown little regard for Muslims that they see as collaborating with Thai authorities.

Everyone from imams to Muslim rubber farmers has been targeted by death squads and bombs detonated in Thai ethnic areas have indiscriminately claimed Muslim lives.

"The new radical leadership has no problems with collateral victims in its campaign. Their attitude is that Muslims should not be living next to ethnic Thais anyway," Phasuk said.

Amnesty International's latest report on the armed conflict called on insurgents to halt the campaign of targeting civilians.

"The insurgents seem to be attacking many of the very people on whose behalf they are ostensibly fighting, destroying their lives and livelihoods," said Donna Guest, Amnesty International's Asia-Pacific deputy director, at the 2011 release of the report.

"Whatever their grievances, they do not justify this serious and systematic violation of international law."

Human Rights Watch said that while insurgents use human rights abuses by the Thai military as an excuse for its reprisals, Bangkok -- where the government has a long tradition of drawing its legitimacy through the army -- needed the political courage to hold the military accountable.

"If this had happened, it may have slowed down radicalization," Phasuk said.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 0242 GMT (1042 HKT)
Successful launch of lunar orbiter, seen as a precursor for a planned mission to the surface of the moon, marks significant advance for the country's space program.
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1915 GMT (0315 HKT)
Cpl. Nathan Cirillo, shot while standing guard at Ottawa's National War Memorial, was known for his easygoing manner and smile.
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Non-stop chatter about actress' appearance is nasty, cruel, hurtful, invasive and sexist.
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2208 GMT (0608 HKT)
CEO's 30-min Putonghua chat is the perfect charm offensive for Facebook's last untapped market.
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 0345 GMT (1145 HKT)
Chinese leaders want less odd architecture built in the country.
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 2058 GMT (0458 HKT)
Air New Zealand's new 'Hobbit' safety video stars Peter Jackson, Elijah Wood, elves and orcs.
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1414 GMT (2214 HKT)
A 15-year-old pregnant girl is rescued from slavery, only to be charged with having sex outside of marriage, shocked rights activists say -- a charge potentially punishable by death.
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 0333 GMT (1133 HKT)
After sushi and ramen, beef is on the list of must-eats for many visitors to Japan.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1607 GMT (0007 HKT)
Airports judged on comfort, conveniences, cleanliness and customer service.
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 1748 GMT (0148 HKT)
Scientists use CT scans to recreate a life-size image of the ancient king.
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 0959 GMT (1759 HKT)
Despite billions spent on eradicating poppy production, Afghan farmers are growing bumper crops, a U.S. government report says.
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1021 GMT (1821 HKT)
Each day, CNN brings you an image capturing a moment to remember, defining the present in our changing world.
Browse through images from CNN teams around the world that you don't always see on news reports.
ADVERTISEMENT