A Royal Thai Army soldier patrols the Tak Bai riverside market in Thailand's restive southern province of Narathiwat

A Royal Thai Army soldier patrols the Tak Bai riverside market in Thailand's restive southern province of Narathiwat across the Malaysian border on 24 October, 2019. (Photo: Madaree Tohlala / AFP)

Unending Turmoil? Thailand’s Deep South Insurgency in 2021

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The barriers to political accommodation in Southern Thailand remain many and formidable

On 25 February, a bomb blast and gunfire killed two paramilitary rangers in Thailand’s Narathiwat province. The Covid-19 pandemic failed to dampen the violence of the long-running insurgency in Thailand’s “Deep South” in 2020. These latest killings suggest more turmoil in 2021.

For more than a century and a half, this insurgency has persisted in Thailand’s southernmost provinces of Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala and four districts of neighbouring Songkhla province. The region’s population is predominantly Malay-Muslim with the remainder Buddhist. The violence intensified in 2004 but began to diminish in 2013. Since 2004 there have been over 7,200 recorded killings and 13,400 injuries. The causes of the insurrection include ethno-religious tensions, socio-economic grievances, repressive state policies, and a desire for Patani (Thai Malay-Muslims in these southern provinces and Songkhla districts) self-determination.

This “unending” insurgency provides a rationale for a hefty defence budget. Thai security forces (military, police and paramilitaries) have been deeply embedded in the Deep South over the last 17 years, an investment in labour and budgeting that has taxed the Thai state greatly. From 2004 until 2016, the Thai state spent an estimated 264,953,000,000 baht ($8.6 billion) combatting the insurgency, primarily on military hardware, the approximately 70,000 troops in the region, and intelligence and development operations. Rogue elements on each side of the conflict have reportedly profited from oil smuggling, narcotics smuggling, illegal weapons sales, human trafficking and simple corruption opportunities it provides.

The official peace dialogue process in southern Thailand that commenced in 2013 (with Malaysia mediating), has reached no agreement. Continuing violence, distrust on both sides, and the lack of a valid unified negotiating voice among the insurgents have combined to thwart it. 

Nevertheless, Thai military officials contend that their policy of “carrots and sticks” (especially sticks) is the main reason for the reduced violence since 2013. The carrot is in negotiations with the MARA Patani insurgent umbrella group (which includes Barisan Revolusi Nasional [BRN]). BRN is the most powerful insurgent group but it is unclear to what extent MARA negotiators represent its views. The stick is the repressive counterinsurgency campaign that has led to criticism of Thai armed forces for alleged human rights abuses against Malay-Muslim villagers, including beatings, torture and enforced disappearances.

Rogue elements on each side of the conflict have reportedly profited from oil smuggling, narcotics smuggling, illegal weapons sales, human trafficking and simple corruption opportunities it provides.

Last year, the sticks and carrots were rearranged. The counterinsurgency campaign broadened:

  • Thai soldiers and police visited homes of Malay-Muslim student protestors in what the latter described as intimidation; 
  • in October, the Thai state’s again imposed an Emergency Decree across the Deep South region preventing most potential prosecutions against security forces; 
  • the military has also come under fire for racial profiling that required Malay-Muslims to provide DNA samples; and 
  • there have been allegations that the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC) has sought to indoctrinate Thai citizens in the Deep South to closely support the military’s counterinsurgency policies. Evidence of this appeared in February this year when Facebook removed 77 accounts, 72 pages and 18 groups which it said were created by ISOC (a charge denied by the military).

Negotiations also seemed to be moving forward last year with direct Thai state-BRN talks held on 20 January and a second round on 2-3 March. However, the sudden spread of Covid-19 put these on hold and no talks have been held since. Nevertheless, in April 2020 the BRN proclaimed that it would temporarily desist from violence given the continuing pandemic. However, by the end of the year, shootings, bombings and other violence had again become the norm, while travel restrictions related to Covid-19 and the insurgency appear to be reducing chances for a new round of talks. 

Though state-insurgent violence persists in the Deep South, the hardest hit are marginalised people caught in the middle are, including women, children, elderly and handicapped persons who are mostly Malay-Muslim. Though they receive scant attention, these civilians have directly and indirectly suffered the most from the unending violence. Thailand’s Deep South possesses more incidence of poverty than any other region in the country.

Ultimately, several problems are imperilling any move toward an accommodation in the Deep South. First, despite a decline, violence has persisted. Secondly, some rebel groups refuse to participate in negotiations. Thirdly, some elements in the military do not support conciliation and continue, allegedly, to violate human rights. A fourth problem is that the rotation of senior state officials in charge of the Deep South occurs too regularly, hampering policy consistency. A fifth problem is a persistent rivalry between the army and the police. Finally, though the Thai state formally supports negotiations with insurgents, any eventual accommodation would presumably mean much-diminished defence appropriations. A sceptic could wonder if a potentially smaller budget means that the military’s interest in peace may be merely cosmetic. 

Resuming negotiations and arriving at a solution to Deep South violence requires greater trust and sincerity by both sides and pressure from international and civil society actors. Though dialogue looks set to continue, real progress needs both sides to find it in their interests to achieve accommodation. Since few Thais outside of the Deep South understand the conflict, greater national awareness might increase pressure on the state to resolve it peacefully. In a situation long prone to violence, a peaceful end to hostilities is unlikely anytime soon. The 25 February deaths will be far from the last. 

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