Behind Bangkok's war in southern Thailand

Thai police arrest a Thai Muslim.

Below is an excerpt from Thai socialist Giles Ji Ungpakorn's latest book, Thailand’s Crisis and the Fight for Democracy. It provides an historical background to Thai politics from the pre-capitalist era, through the turmoil of the 1930s and 1970s, up to the present day. It has been posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with Giles Ji Ungpakorn's permission.

Giles Ji Ungpakorn is a political commentator and dissident. In February 2009 he had to leave Thailand for exile in Britain because he was charged with lèse majesté for writing a book criticising the 2006 military coup. His latest book will be of interest to activists, academics and journalists who have an interest in Thai politics, democratisation and NGOs.

Readers are encouraged to purchase Thailand’s Crisis and the Fight for Democracy. To order a copy: email the author directly at, indicating your country of residence. Alternatively, you can try: Amazon UK; Bookmarks UK at; New Internationalist Bookshop, Melbourne, Australia at (August 2010).

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By Giles Ji Ungpakorn

Since the most recent eruption of violence in southern Thailand, various governments, whether that of Thaksin Shinawatra’s Thai Rak Thai Party (TRT), the military junta or the military-installed Democrat Party government, have all failed to solve the crisis. It is becoming clear that the war has reached a stalemate.

Most military commanders know that they cannot beat the insurgents[1]. The only strategy that they have is to try to contain the violent situation so that it does not get any worse. Meanwhile, ordinary soldiers, many of whom are recruited from the poor villages of the north-east, have no will to fight. They care nothing about “the protection of the nation” and try just to survive their tour of duty.

The insurgents have become more and more efficient and coordinated. They can hit multiple targets simultaneously and hit targets outside the deep south. Their bombs are larger and more sophisticated. More and more young people in the villages are drawn to support them because of the atrocities carried out by the Thai state. Yet the rebels cannot beat the military either, because their mass base is too small.

Ordinary villagers of all ethnicities live in constant fear. The Thai state’s arming of villagers only heightens the state of violence. Regular attacks occur against villagers, teachers, priests or imams and they often cannot tell from which side these attacks originate. Villagers want an end to the violence and they want the troops and police to be withdrawn now.

Between January 2004 and late 2009, a total of 3900 people had been killed in the southern civil war. Of this number, just over half were Muslims. The vast majority of people killed in this conflict were civilians[2]. Just after the 2006 coup the military launched a “surge” in the south which temporarily reduced the number of insurgent attacks. However, by 2008, the effects of the surge were wearing off and violent incidents began to increase throughout 2009. This shows that the state’s military option is not working despite having 60,000 soldiers in the region and spending up to 180 billion baht over five years[3]. Apart from the army, paramilitary rangers and police, there are 3300 members of the Volunteer Defence Corps, 47,000 Village Defence Volunteers and 24,000 Village Protection Volunteers[4]. The Village Protection Volunteers are an exclusively Buddhist force, under the Queen’s patronage.

In this situation, the response from within the ruling establishment, whether civilian or military, can be divided into the “hawks” and the “doves”.

The hawks want to increase military and police pressure in the hope of stabilising the situation and containing the insurgency. Their emphasis is on increasing the “efficiency” and “better coordination” of the security forces and government officials. They hope that the insurgents will surrender and that talks between the Thai and Malaysian governments[5] and between the Thai government and Pattani United Liberation Organisation (PULO) “separatist leaders”[6] will help towards this stabilisation. Afterwards they want to attract business investment into the area. This policy is being pursued by top army generals and the Democrat Party and is little different from the policies of the Thaksin administration before the 2006 coup. These hawks talk in an abstract manner about the need for a “political settlement”, but because they refuse to consider the underlying root causes of the civil war, in practice they are only prepared to consider a military or security-type solution.

General Sonti Boonyaratgalin, leader of the 2006 coup and Matupum Party leader, argued in November 2009 that “the pooling of resources and responsibilities of relevant agencies with a clear chain of command will create a breakthrough in the South”[7]. The Matupum Party is also made up of Muslim politicians in the Wadah faction who were originally inside TRT, and before that, part of the Chawalit Yongjaiyut’s New Aspirations Party. Despite being co-opted into the mainstream Thai polity by people like Prem Tinsulanon in the 1980s, they are now distant from the local population.

In October 2009, Democrat Party Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva held talks with his Sri Lankan counterpart, Ratnasiri Wickramanayaka, on the Sri Lankan government's success in putting down the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam movement. Government spokesperson Panitan Wattanayakorn said the government was interested in the “negotiation approaches” used by Sri Lanka and its measures to squeeze the Tamil Tigers' sources of funding. Strengthening cooperation with neighbouring countries in keeping an eye on separatist movements outside the country was another interesting approach. Panitan also said that tough crackdowns were also key to Sri Lanka's success in its fight against the rebels, which should serve as a good lesson for Thailand[8]. Given that the Sri Lankan government used indiscriminate violence against civilians in its war on the Tamils, this does not bode well for the residents of southern Thailand. There is already much evidence that the security forces in southern Thailand view the entire Muslim Malay population as potential “alien” enemies and indiscriminate violence against the population merely increases support for the insurgency.

On November 29, 2009, just before a visit by the Malaysian prime minister, Abhisit reaffirmed his commitment to a military and police solution to the unrest in the south in a speech in Songkla and claimed that there was already self-government in all areas of the country. According to Abhisit, the government only needed to concern itself with developing the economy in the south, while security matters should be in the hands of the military and police[9].

According to the International Crisis Group, the Abhisit government has made no progress on solving the violence in the south and the huge government budget directed to the region has created an “industry of insecurity” rife with corruption and acting as an obstruction to any resolution of the civil war. This is because the government has not been using a policy of seeking a genuine political solution[10].

The hawks also include former TRT politicians like Chaturon Chaisang, although he is not as blood thirsty as Panitan and his Democrat Party bosses. Chaturon explained that paying more attention to a “political strategy” meant that when the government launched a military operation it should take into consideration the political consequences[11].

The doves, who include some seasoned military men with experience of fighting the Communist Party of Thailand (CPT), understand that a military solution is not the answer. They believe that to end the civil war there will have to be some sort of autonomy and self-rule for the southern Muslim provinces. Yet they are not prepared to concede that the provinces have the right to separate completely from Thailand and they are not about to totally abandon the military solution either. However, they do see a political solution as a priority. This situation explains the remarks, later withdrawn under pressure from the military, made by former Prime Minister Samak Suntarawej and interior minister Chalerm Yubumrung in 2008, about the possibility of creating a weapons-free zone and limited autonomy[12].

In 2009, in the same month that Abhisit was talking to the Sri Lankan leader, Peua Thai Party chief, retired general Chawalit Yongjaiyut, proposed some sort of local autonomy and self-government for the Muslim south. He also helped to encourage the setting up a local southern committee to investigate political solutions to the conflict[13].

A long-term solution to the civil war in the south requires that social movements must urgently push for the adoption of a political and non-military solution to the southern crisis. The problem is that the traditional movements got too close to the military and the ultra-nationalist PAD and many of the Red Shirts remain Thaksin-style hawks. In order to push for a political solution, the social movements must shed any previous support for Thai nationalism and any ideas that the borders are somehow sacred[14]. This would be a big step for the Red Shirts to make, but comments by people like Chawalit might help.

As a Marxist, I firmly believe that we have to side with all those who are oppressed by the Thai state. In practice, this means supporting the right of the insurgents to bear arms against the Thai state which has a long history of violent oppression in the south. Abstract calls for both sides to use “non-violence”, often voiced by NGOs are not the solution. They merely end up by equating the Thai state’s violence with that of the insurgents and fail to question the legitimacy of the state to govern Thailand’s “colony” in the south. Nevertheless, as a Marxist, I also believe that armed struggle is not the solution. The answer is mass mobilisations of people against the state. This must be encouraged when ever it happens in the south.

The anti-war writer Arundhati Roy[15] once wrote that any government’s condemnation of “terrorism” is only justified if the government can prove that it is responsive to non-violent dissent. The Thai government has ignored the feelings of local people in the south for decades. It turns a deaf ear to their pleas that they want respect. It laughs in the face of those who advocate human rights when people are tortured. Under the emergency laws, no one in the south has the democratic space to hold political discussions. What choice do people have other than turning to violent resistance?

In another article, Roy explained that, we, in the social movements, cannot condemn terrorism if we do nothing to campaign against state terror ourselves. The Thai social movements have for far too long been engrossed in single issue campaigns. People’s minds are made smaller by Thai nationalism. It is time to support the oppressed in the south.

State crime at Takbai

On October 25, 2004, Thai government security forces broke up a demonstration at Takbai in the southern province of Naratiwat. Apart from using water cannon and tear gas, troops opened fire with live ammunition above the heads of protesters, but some fired directly into the crowd, killing seven people and wounding many others, including a 14-year-old boy. There were villagers of all ages and both sexes in the crowd. After this, the troops moved in to capture young Muslim Malay men. While women and children huddled in one corner, the men were stripped to the waist and their hands were tied behind their backs. The prisoners were made to crawl along the ground while troops rained kicks down upon their heads and bodies and beat them with sticks. Many of the prisoners were roped together in a long line and made to lie face down on the ground. The local military commander of the 4th Area Army[16] told a reporter on television that this action should be a lesson to anyone who dared to defy the government. “We will do this again every time”, he said. The whole event was captured on video, which only goes to show how arrogant and self-confident the security forces were[17].

Finally, the bound prisoners were thrown into the backs of open-top army lorries, and made to lie, layer upon layer, on top of each other. Troops stood on top of their human cargo occasionally stamping on those who cried out for water or air and telling them that soon they would “know what real hell was like. Many hours later the first lorry arrived at its destination, Inkayut Army Camp. A number of prisoners who had been at the bottom of this lorry were found to have died in transit, probably from suffocation and kidney damage. Six hours later the last lorry arrived with almost all those on the bottom layers found to be dead. During those six hours between the arrival of the first lorry and the last one, no attempt was made by the authorities to change the methods of transporting prisoners. In total nearly 80 prisoners died. We must agree with a Senate report[18] on the incident, which concluded that this amounted to “deliberate criminal actions likely to cause deaths” by the security forces. Prime Minister Thaksin’s first response to the incident was to praise the security forces for their “good work”. Later the government claimed that the deaths of more than 80 demonstrators were a regretful “accident”. Four years later on February 9, 2008, Prime Minister Samak Suntarawej told Al Jazeera television that the men who died at Takbai “just fell on top of each other ... what was wrong with that?” Later in the same interview he lied about the October 6, 1976, massacre, saying that “Only one guy died”[19].

Thai state’s culture of violent crimes

The lies told by Samak about Takbai and October 6 are clearly connected. Anyone watching the Takbai incident would be reminded of the October 6, 1976, massacre of students in Tammasart University[20]. In 1976, after attacking a peaceful gathering of students with automatic weapons, men and women were stripped to the waist and made by the police to crawl along the ground under a hail of kicks and beatings. Some students were dragged out of the campus and hung from trees, others were burnt alive in make-shift bonfires, mainly by right-wing thugs, some of whom were members of the ultra right-wing Village Scout Movement[21].

After both Takbai 2004 and the October 6, 1976, government spokespersons told deliberate lies. One lie was that the security forces were “forced to act as the situation was getting out of hand”. In fact this was never the case. At Takbai, senator Chermsak Pintong reported that the security forces admitted to a team of investigating senators that they broke up the demonstration in order to arrest 100 ring leaders, the names and photographs of whom were on a government blacklist. Under the 1997 constitution, Thai citizens were supposed to have the right to peaceful protest and were supposed to be innocent before trial. The actions of the police and army at Takbai show that they did not regard the villagers as citizens. The demonstration was more or less peaceful until it was broken up violently by security forces. In the minds of the troops and their commanders, the Takbai prisoners were captured prisoners of war, “nasty foreigners” or “enemies of the state” who needed to be punished. So were the students at Tammasart in 1976.

After October 6, 1976, and Takbai 2004, government spokespeople also claimed that the troublemakers were foreigners and couldn’t speak Thai. In 1976 they were supposed to be Vietnamese[22]. In 2004 the state claimed that they were Arabs or Malays. All prisoners killed or captured in 1976, and at Takbai in 2004, were Thai-speaking Thai citizens. Government spokespeople also told lies that the students in 1976 and the demonstrators at Takbai in 2004 were well-armed and posed a threat to security forces. There is no evidence to support this. No weapons of mass destruction were found at either site. At Takbai a rusty rifle, which had been lying in the river for years, was paraded as “evidence”.

After Takbai, Thailand’s queen spoke of her concern for Thai Buddhists in the south. No mention was made of our Muslim brothers or sisters. No mention was made of Takbai and worse still, the queen called on the Village Scout Movement to mobilise once again to save the country[23]. Luckily most Village Scouts are middle-aged and unlikely to commit violent acts anymore.

After the military coup of September 19, 2006, the junta’s prime minister travelled down to the south to “apologise” for what the Thaksin government had done[24]. He announced that charges against some demonstrators would be lifted. Yet, his government, and the previous Thaksin government, did not prosecute a single member of the security forces for the Takbai incident. No holder of political office has been punished either. In 2007 the junta continued to emphasise the military “solution” in the south with a troop surge. In January 2007 the junta renewed the Thaksin gvernment’s southern emergency decree, which gives all security forces sweeping powers and immunity from prosecution. Late in 2007, just before the elections, the junta passed a new security law which enshrined the undemocratic role of the army in Thai society.

Takbai was not the only violent incident to capture the news headlines. In April 2004, about a hundred youths, wearing “magical” Islamic headbands, attacked police stations in various locations. But they were only armed with swords and rusty knives. They were shot down with automatic fire. Discontent was being articulated through a religious self-sacrifice. In one of the worst incidents that day, the army attacked the ancient Krue-Sa mosque with heavy weapons after the youths fled into the building. Ex-senator Kraisak Choonhawan maintained that apart from the excessive force shown by the government, some prisoners in this event were bound and then executed in cold blood. He was referring to a group of youths from a local football team who were shot at point blank range at Saba Yoi. The army officer in charge of the blood bath at Krue-Sa was General Punlop Pinmanee. In 2002 he told a local newspaper that in the old days the army simply used to shoot rural dissidents and communists. Now they send people round to intimidate their wives[25]. No state official has been punished for the events at Krue-Sa.

The military push in the south under the junta’s government, which started in June 2007, resulted in 1000 detentions without trial in the first two months. The military spokesman for the “joint civilian, military and police command” in the south, General Uk Tiproj, claimed that those detained were people with misguided beliefs who needed to be re-educated” [26].

The Southern Lawyers’ Centre reported that between July 2007 and February 2008 there were 59 documented cases of torture by the security forces. In two incidents the torture resulted in death. In late January 2008 seven activist students from Yala were arrested and tortured[27]. Torture methods included beatings, being imprisoned, wet, in cold air-conditioned rooms and the use of electric shocks[28]. According to the Lawyers’ Centre, most of the torture occurred in the first three days of detention, when prisoners were not allowed any visitors. The places where torture occurred were the Yala Special Unit 11 section of the Yala Army Rangers camp and the Inkayut Army Camp in Pattani. Needless to say, no one has been punished for killing and torturing detainees.

Creation of the Thai nation state start of the violence

The root cause of today’s violence can be traced back to the creation of “Thailand” as a nation state in the 19th century. But the historical causes alone are not enough to explain the present civil war. Continuous repressive policies towards the local inhabitants by the Thai state over the years have refuelled resentment.

Duncan McCargo points out that the southern conflict is not a religious conflict between Muslims and Buddhists and that the Thai state has a tradition of murder, massacre and mayhem in the region.

McCargo shows that the Thai state has used a “dual track” policy of repression and co-opting local religious leaders and politicians in order to control the area, the latter especially in the period when Prem Tinsulanon was prime minister in the early 1980s[29]. By 1988 Thailand had become much more democratic with a fully elected prime minister and government. Local Muslim politicians were encouraged to join mainstream political parties, especially retired General Chawalit Yongjaiyut’s New Aspirations Party, where they formed a group known as the Wadah Faction[30].

By the late 1990s Prem’s policy of co-opting local leaders was beginning to fall apart because it did little to solve the marginalisation of the majority of the Muslim Malay population and resulted in a gap opening up between grassroots people and their official leaders or representatives. Those who wish to pin the blame for the violence on the Thaksin government alone claim that he meddled in the security structures which were controlling the peace in the region. This is both unhistorical and completely ignores the fact that the unrest has been going on in various forms for over a century and that “peace deals” made by the Thai state in the mid-1980s with local elites, were failing to address real grievances. Nevertheless, the Takbai and Krue-Sa massacres under the Thaksin government had a big impact on the rise of the insurgency.

History of Thai state repression in the south[31]

The nation state of “Thailand” was created by Bangkok’s colonisation of the north, north-east and south. However, what was special about the south was that the Pattani ruling class was never co-opted or assimilated into the Thai ruling elite and the Muslim Malay population have never been respected or seen as fellow citizens since then. Bangkok and London destroyed and divided up the Pattani Sultanate between them and Bangkok has ruled the area like a colony ever since.

1890s -- King Chulalongkorn (Rama 5) seized half of the Pattani Sultanate. The Sultanate was divided between London and Bangkok.

1921 -- Enforced “Siamification” via primary education. Locals forced to pay tax to Bangkok.

1923 -- Belukar Semak rebellion forced King Rama 6 to make concessions to local culture.

1938 -- More enforced “Siamification” under the ultra-nationalism of the dictator Pibun.

1946 -- Pridi Panomyong promoted local culture, but he was soon driven from power by a coup.

Haji Sulong proposed an autonomous state for the Malay southern provinces within Siam.

1948 -- Haji Sulong arrested. April 1948 police massacre innocent villagers at Dusun Nyior, Naratiwat.

1954 -- Haji Sulong killed by police under orders from police strongman Pao Siyanond.

When considering the violence in the south, we need to listen to what local people are saying. Local Muslim people do not generally hate their Buddhist neighbours. The civil war never started as “communal violence” between people of differing religions. This is still the case now, despite the counterproductive efforts by Thai governments in saturating the region with arms, including the arming of local villagers. Some Buddhist monks have been brutally killed and in June 2009 armed Buddhists gunned down praying Muslims at the Al Furqan Mosque. It is thought that they were led by an ex-military ranger. Apart from soldiers and rebels, local traders, rubber tappers, priests, imams, ordinary villagers, school teachers and government officials have all been victims of violence. Most of those killed may have died at the hands of the security forces.

In the late 1990s most local people were not really demanding a separate state, despite the fact that Thai government violence may now have pushed people towards supporting separation. The southern border provinces have been neglected economically and when there has been development it has not been the majority of local Malay Muslims who have benefited. There is a high level of unemployment in the area and many people seek work in neighbouring Malaysia. Nevertheless, economic development alone cannot solve the violence.

What local people are saying more than anything is that they want respect. Their religion, language and culture are not respected by the Thai state. The state education system emphasises Thai, Buddhist and Bangkok history and culture. This is why schools are often burnt. In the past 60 years successive Thai governments have arrested religious leaders, banned the teaching of yawee (the local dialect of Malay spoken in the area), closed religious schools, forced students to learn the Thai language, forced students to wear Thai-style clothes, encouraged people to change their names to “Thai” names and forcibly changed the names of local districts to “Thai-sounding” names. All this has been carried out by Bangkok governments which maintain an occupying army in the southern border provinces[32].

In the 1960s the military dictatorship settled some Buddhist north-easterners in the area in order to “strengthen” the occupation[33]. It reminds one of the British policy in Northern Ireland or Palestine. Buddhist temples were built in predominantly Muslim areas. In this period there were times when Muslims were made to bow down before Buddha images. Even now they are made to bow down before pictures of the king, which is an offence to their religion. There are house searches by troops using dogs. Again this is an insult to Muslims. Recently soldiers were conscripted to become monks in southern temples and the temples have army guards. This represents the militarisation of religion.

The occupying army and the police are feared and hated. The army likes to claim that the locals hate the police and love the army. It is simply not true. Local people know that their sons, brothers and fathers have been taken away at night, then tortured and killed by the Thai army and police, often in plainclothes[34]. In 2004, the defence lawyer Somchai Nilapaichit, who was a key human rights activist on this issue of torture, was kidnapped in Bangkok and killed by police from different units. He was trying to expose police tactics in torturing suspects into confessions about stealing guns from an army camp in early 2004. The involvement of police from different units in his murder indicates a green light from above: from Prime Minister Thaksin and others in his government. To date, no one has been charged with Somchai’s murder and his body has not been found. This is despite the fact that the Democrat Party government claimed to be “different” from TRT.

It isn’t hard to find green lights, right at the top, for Thai state violence. No one has been punished for the 1976 bloodbath at Tammasart, the May 1992 massacre, or for the killings at Takbai or Krue-Sa in 2004. The Thaksin government also sanctioned the extrajudicial murder of more than 3000 “drug suspects” in its “war on drugs”. Many were killed in the south, others killed were among northern ethnic minorities. The king approved of the war on drugs and the October 6 massacre. Since 2008, the military-installed Democrat Party government has contributed to the collapse of the rule of law and has sanctioned the shooting of civilians in Bangkok. The courts have always protected those in power and offer no justice.

After the February 2005 election, the TRT lost almost all its seats in the south because of its policies, especially the Takbai incident. But it gained a huge overall majority nationally. The government established the National Reconciliation Commission under ex-prime minister Anand Panyarachun. He had served as a civilian PM under the military junta in 1991. Most people in the south doubted whether this commission would solve their problems.

Anand was quoted in the press as saying that self-rule and autonomy were “out of the question” and that people should “forget” the Takbai massacre[35].

Despite Anand’s remarks, the report of the National Reconciliation Commission came up with some progressive statements and suggestions[36]. First, it stated that the problems in the south stemmed from the fact that there was a lack of justice and respect and that various governments had not pursued a peaceful solution. It went on to describe how the TRT government had systematically abused human rights and was engaged in extrajudicial killings. The commission suggested that local communities in the south be empowered to control their own natural resources, that civil society play a central part in creating justice and that the local Yawee language be used as a working language, alongside Thai, in all government departments. The latter suggestion on language is vital if local people are not to be discriminated against, especially by government bodies[37]. Yet it was quickly rejected by both Thaksin and Privy Council chair General Prem Tinsulanon[38].

Unhelpful explanations about the violence in the south

There are a number of irrelevant or unhelpful explanations for the violence in the south. They all share a common thread which ignores and dismisses the oppression of the Muslim Malays by the Thai state. They also share the belief that the locals are somehow “incapable” of conducting a home-grown insurgency without outside instigation and support. As with most “elite theories”, history and conflict are confined to actions of the ruling elites while the general population is regarded as mainly ignorant passive spectators. Those who promote such theories wish to ignore the political and social causes of the civil war and concentrate on using military and diplomatic solutions to end the conflict.

One theory claims that the violence was created by disgruntled army officers, afraid of losing a share of the lucrative cross-border black-market trade. According to the theory, these soldiers sponsored the violence in order to “prove” that the army was still needed. It is true that the military is involved in illegal cross-border trading and that if they were withdrawn from the area they would lose this lucrative activity. But this theory begs the important question about why soldiers occupy the south as a colony in the first place, unlike the situation in the north or the north-east. It is also quite clear that there has been an insurgent movement throughout recent history and it enjoys support from important sections of the local population for real reasons.

Another theory claims that it is just the work of “foreign Islamic fanatics”, who have managed to brainwash some local youths into supporting a separatist movement. This is what Thai governments claim. George Bush’s and Tony Blair’s encouragement of Islamophobia to support their invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq stirred-up such views and allowed human rights abuses against Muslims worldwide. But why would local youths just allow themselves to be brainwashed if there was not just cause? There is every indication that the insurgency is home grown for good reasons: there has been a history of state repression. Nevertheless, local insurgents and separatist movements have built links with sympathetic foreign governments and organisations[39]. This does not, however, indicate that the civil war is somehow instigated from abroad by “international Muslim extremists”.

Yet another theory comes from those who need an excuse to say that ex-prime minister Thaksin “wasn’t all that bad”. They are old supporters of the CPT, now siding with Thaksin. They believe that the southern violence was planned by the CIA in order to increase US government involvement in the region. These conspiracy theorists also believed that the CIA planned the September 11, 2001, attacks in New York. The fact that the CIA used to support Osama Bin Laden seems to make this plausible. But what is overlooked is the Cold War context of supporting Islamic fighters in Afghanistan against Russian soldiers.

Some academics have maintained that the violence started as a “patch war” between the palace, with the support of the army, and the Thaksin government. Duncan McCargo[40] suggests that the southern violence can be explained as conflict between “Network Monarchy” and “Network Thaksin”. This is similar to the attempts to explain the September 19 coup as a conflict between “feudalism” and “capitalism”. It is true that the Thaksin government wanted to reduce the role of the military in controlling the south and transfer many powers to the police. But this is more about his attempts to “regularise” governance in the region and also to stamp out the black market, a policy pursued in other parts of the country. This undoubtedly caused resentment within the army, but it does not explain the main underlying causes of the civil war.

Who are the insurgents?

Back in the 1970s a clear separatist movement existed, cooperating in its struggle against the Thai state with the communist parties of Thailand and Malaya. The Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) was established in 1963 and the Pattani United Liberation Organisation (PULO) was founded in 1968. PULO is not in a position to control much of what is happening on the ground today. One PULO activist admitted to the BBC that “Right now there is a group which has a lot of young blood. They're quick and fast and they don't worry what will happen after they do something. They don't care because they want the government to have a big reaction, which will cause more problems”[41].

By 1984 the BRN had split into three. One organisation which originated from the BRN, is the Barisan Revolusi Nasional-Koordinasi (BRN-C). By 2005 the Runda Kumpulan Kecil (RKK or Pattani State Restoration Unit) was becoming more prominent in the insurgency. It is believed to be a loose grouping of people from the BRN-C who trained in Indonesia. There seem to be many organisations operating today. They do not claim responsibility for their actions because by deliberately not claiming responsibility they make it extremely hard for the Thai intelligence services to understand who is who and which of the various organisations is taking what action[42].

The southern insurgency follows the patterns of many middle-eastern struggles against Western imperialism and local despotic ruling classes. In the 1960s and 1970s they were secular movements allied to communist parties. But with the decline of the communist parties, partly as a result of their collaboration with local despots, especially in the Middle East, rebels and insurgents turned to new forms of ideology, mainly radical Islam[43]. This explains why radical Islam is the banner under which the present-day insurgents fight. It is not the rise of radical Islam which has caused the violence. The brutal actions of Thai governments and the failure of the CPT pushed radicals into adopting Islam.

Mass political action is the answer

The resistance is not just about planting bombs and shooting state officials. Communities act in a united way to protect themselves from the security forces who constantly abduct and kill people. Women and children block the roads and stop soldiers or police from entering villagers. On September 4, 2005, they blocked the entrance to Ban Lahan in Naratiwat and told the provincial governor that he and his soldiers were not welcome in their village[44]. Two weeks later villagers blocked the road to Tanyong Limo. Earlier two marines had been captured by villagers and then killed by unknown militants. Villagers suspect that the marines were members of a death squad sent in to kill local people[45]. The villagers held up posters aimed at the authorities, saying: “You are the real terrorists”. In November 2006, six weeks after the coup, villagers protested at a school in Yala, demanding that troops leave the area. One of their posters read: “All you wicked soldiers.. .get out of our village. You come here and destroy our village by killing innocent people. Get out!”[46]

Many slogans against the military are painted on roads. In August 2007 “Darika”[47] made a note of some:

“Peace will come when there are no soldiers.”

“We don’t want the soldiers in our village. We are afraid.”

“Without the soldiers, the people will be happy.”

“The curfew is unjust. They are killing innocents.”

Such protests in villages continue to occur today after various incidents involving the security forces.

On May 31, 2007, the Student Network to Defend the People organised a mass rally of 3000 at the Pattani Central Mosque. The rally started because of four murders and one rape carried out by army rangers at a village in Yala. The demands of this peaceful protest were for a total review of government policy in the south and a withdrawal of soldiers from the area[48].

Assistant professor Dr Srisompop Jitpiromsri from Songkla University reported that between 2005 and 2008 there were a total of 26 mass demonstrations in the south. Thirteen of them were to demand the release of detainees and another five demanded that troops and police leave the area. These mass actions by villagers and students are the real hope for freedom and peace in the south. Yet the Thai state and the mainstream media brand these mobilisations as “violent”. They make no distinction between peaceful social movements and the armed insurgency. The arrest and torture of seven Yala student activists in 2008 confirms this point[49]. This will only drive more young people into the arms of the insurgents.

If the mass action of these social movements is to succeed, we must give them every encouragement and support.

Peace can only be achieved in the south by:

1. The abolition of martial law and all security laws.

2. An end to human rights abuses, detention without trial, torture and extrajudicial murders by the Thai state.

3. A withdrawal of troops and police from the area in order to build a weapons-free zone. Disarming all civilian village militias.

4. Serious political discussions by local people should be officially encouraged in order that they can decide their own future. No preconditions should apply to these discussions and all forms of autonomy, including full independence, should be discussed.

5. Social movements must campaign against Thai nationalism.

6. The Thai state should admit previous state crimes in order to build new standards of human rights.

7. Thai society should respect all ethnicities, religions, languages and cultures. Religious festivals, other than Buddhist festivals, should be decreed as national public holidays. Different languages should be officially recognised alongside Thai and taught in schools in all parts of the country.

Left to themselves, mainstream politicians, the military and government officials will not put any of these demands into practice. Only a genuine “peace movement” from below, which campaigns for total respect for the Muslim Malays, can push for a solution to the civil war. Such a movement must also be part of the movement for democracy in the rest of Thai society.


[1] Poldej Binprateep an under secretary at the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security in the junta’s government admitted this, 15/1/2007 (in Thai).

[3] Jom Petpradap, (in Thai).

[4] International Crisis Group (2009), Southern Thailand: Moving Towards Political Solutions? Asia Report N°181 – 8 December 2009,

[5] Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak has suggested some sort of autonomy for the region, but this is not supported by the Thai government.

[6] These are old generation leaders exiled abroad and out of touch with the present insurgency.

[7] Bangkok Post 19/11/2009.

[8] Bangkok Post 23/10/2009.

[10] International Crisis Group (2009), already quoted.

[11] Seminar at Tammasart University to introduce his new book on the south, 15/01/2009, (in Thai).

[12] Bangkok Post, 6,7,13/02/2008.

[13], 15/10/2009 (in Thai).

[14] Even organisations like the International Crisis Group, which advocate a political solution, still assume that the Thai unitary state is somehow sacred. International Crisis Group (2009), already quoted.

[15] Arundhati Roy (2004), The ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire, Harper Perennial.

[16] Lt-General Pisarn Wattanawongkiri was the Fourth Army Region commander at the time.

[18] Thai Senate Committee on Social Development and Human Security, December 2004.

[19] See Chapter 4.

[21] Katherine Bowie (1997), Rituals of National Loyalty. An Anthropology of the State and Village Scout Movement in Thailand, Columbia University Press. Giles Ji Ungpakorn ed. (2003), Radicalising Thailand: New Political Perspectives, Institute of Asian Studies, Chulalongkorn University.

[22] A claim made by Samak Suntarawej and others.

[23] Post Today,17/11/2004 (in Thai).

[24] PM Surayud needs to apologise for what he did in the May 1992 crackdown on unarmed pro-democracy demonstrators!

[25] See Pasuk Phongpaichit & Chris Baker (2004), Thaksin. The business of politics in Thailand. Silkworm, p.19.

[26], 9/10/2007 (in Thai).

[27], 18/2/2008 (in Thai).

[28] Turn Left, March 2008., (in Thai).

[29] Duncan McCargo (2008), "What’s Really Happening in Southern Thailand?", ISEAS Regional Forum, Singapore, 8 January 2008. Duncan McCargo (2009), "Thai Buddhism, Thai southern conflict", Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 40(1): 1-10. Duncan McCargo (2009) "The Politics of Buddhist identity in Thailand’s deep south: The Demise of civil religion?", Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 40(1): 11-32.

[30] Carlyle A. Thayer (2007), Insurgency in Southern Thailand: Literature Review,

[31] Nik Anuar Nik Mahmud (2006), The Malays of Patani. The search for security and independence, School of History, Politics and Strategic Studies, University Kebangsaan, Malaysia.

[32] Ahmad Somboon Bualuang (2006), “Malay, the basic culture”, in The situation on the Southern border. The views of Civil Society. Published by the Coordinating Committee of the Peoples Sector for the Southern Border Provinces (in Thai).

[33] There have been some Buddhists living in the region for centuries.

[34] Akerin Tuansiri (2006), student activities in the violent areas of the Southern border provinces. In The situation on the Southern border. The views of Civil Society. Already quoted (in Thai).

[35] Bangkok Post, 10/8/2005 and 9/5/2005.

[36] National Reconciliation Commission, 16/5/2006 (in Thai).

[37] This proposal was supported by the Malaysian politician Anwar Ibrahim,,5/5/2009 (in Thai).

[38] Bangkok Post, 26 and 27/6/2006.

[39] Carlyle A. Thayer (2007), already quoted.

[40] Duncan McCargo (2005), “Network monarchy and legitimacy crises in Thailand”, The Pacific Review, 18 (4) December, 499-519.

[41] Interview with the BBC’s Kate McGeown, 7/8/2006,

[42] Zachary Abuza, Terrorism Monitor, 8/9/2006 James Town Foundation,

[43] Chris Harman (1994), “The Profit and the Proletariat”, International Socialism Journal 64.

[44] Bangkok Post, 5/9/2005.

[45] Bangkok Post, 22/9/2005.

[46] The Nation, 6/11/2006.

[47] Darika (2008), Records from Kollo Balay village. “A Village in the Red Zone”. South See 5, Social Research Centre, Chulalongkorn University (in Thai).

[48], 4/6/2007, and, 17/6/2007, (in Thai).

[49], 2/2/2008 (in Thai).