Conflict in Southern Thailand: Islamism, Violence and the State in the Patani Insurgency
Author: Neil J Melvin
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What is behind the recent return to violence in southern Thailand and how can the conflict be resolved? This paper from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute outlines interpretations of conflict in the Patani region. These focus on historical grievances, the role of violent Islamism, modern Thai politics and the ‘global war on terror’. Measures to address two longstanding sources of grievance – language and education – could help improve the situation.The southern region of Thailand, known as Patani, suffered several periods of instability in the 20th century. From the 1960s, a significant separatist movement, including more than 60 armed groups, was active among Malay Muslims in the region.Violence had largely subsided by the 1990s before a sudden upsurge, sparked by an army camp raid in January 2004, took many by surprise. This latest period of violence has led to more than 2400 deaths and 4000 people being injured/
- The enduring ‘historical grievances’ interpretation emphasizes a history of insurrection dating from the incorporation of the southern provinces of Thailand in 1909. In this view, grievances relate to education, employment in the public sector, language and economic development.
- There are no clearly formulated political demands from rebels. Observers have suggested a shift from ethnonational and separatist aims towards radical Islamist ideology.
- Islam has a long history in Patini and notions that the region is caught up in a religious conflict may be misleading. How far religion has replaced ethno-nationalism as the driving force for the insurgency is open to question. It is plausible that the global context of Islamic resurgence has been a factor.
- Historical grievances and religion offer little to explain the timing of the upsurge in 2004. This has led analysts to look at recent Thai politics. The struggle to hinder or promote more liberal politics in Thailand have regularly brought pressure to bear on the South of the country.
- Thaksin Shinawatra’s support for the US-led ‘global war on terror’ helped destabilise Patini and increased tensions between Malay Muslims and Thai authorities.
Following a 2006 coup, Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont became willing to take a softer line. There is international support for a negotiated settlement, and a number of initiatives have promoted third-party mediation. But with the insurgency intensifying, it is apparently time for a new approach to the Patani conflict:
- The military and police continue to take a reactive approach to the violence and seem unable to respond to the shifting tactics of insurgents. Willingness to open negotiations with insurgents is to be welcomed. But these groups will see little reason to negotiate unless security services can increase pressure on them.
- The Thai authorities need to develop a sharper political strategy aimed at winning support amongst the Malay Muslim community and weakening support for insurgents.
- An exclusive focus on the Malay Muslim community does not give a full understanding of the dynamics across southern Thailand. Little work has focused on the local Thai Buddhist community.
- Proposals from the National Reconciliation Commission suggest measures to reorder relationships between the state and the people. While it would not be possible to introduce all the reforms proposed, addressing two longstanding sources of grievance – language and education – could improve the situation.
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Melvin, N. J., 2007, 'Conflict in Southern Thailand: Islamism, Violence and the State in the Patani Insurgency', SIPRI Policy Paper, no. 20, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Stockholm
Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, http://web.sipri.org/