The Thai government says it will lift the state of emergency in Bangkok nearly two months after it was imposed to stamp out protests that have rocked the country for months. The demonstrators have been agitating to remove Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra from power, saying she is merely a puppet of her brother, the exiled ex-Premier Thaksin Shinawatra.
Now, business groups and tourist officials, among other stakeholders, have pleaded with the government to lift the emergency order, noting how the capital's economic life has been hurt by the interminable crisis, and in recognition that the unrest has greatly subsided, although two dozen people have died in clashes. "Business organizations have asked that [the state of emergency] be lifted and the overall situation is easing," National Security Council chief Paradorn Pattanathabutr told reporters.
Even if the turmoil has eased, opposition to Yingluck has not; indeed, she faces a doomsday of sorts in mid-March, by which time she must defend herself before the National Anti-Corruption Commission on charges that she committed negligence in a rice subsidy scheme that left hundreds of thousands of farmers without payment. “It seems likely [Yingluck] will be found guilty,” said Kan Yuenyong, an analyst at the Siam Intelligence Unit think-tank, according to TodayOnline. “At that point, she will have to suspend her duties if the case goes to court. The end-game that protesters are hoping for is a way to suspend the whole Cabinet, so that an interim, so-called neutral, prime minister can be elected.”
However, while Thai media focus on the problems in Bangkok (and global media cover the crisis in Ukraine and the missing Malaysian airliner), a silent war continues to rage in the remote southern regions of Thailand. Thailand is an overwhelmingly Buddhist country (representing about 94 percent of the population, according to the CIA/World Factbook), but Muslims dominate the three provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat (plus parts of Satun and Songkhla) in the "Deep South" of the country along the Malaysian border. The three main aforementioned provinces belonged to a Malay Muslim sultanate before Thailand (then called Siam) annexed the region in 1909.
Now, more than a century later, Muslim rebel groups in the region, particularly the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (the National Revolutionary Front), continue to reject the authority of the central government 650 miles to the north in Bangkok and have periodically staged attacks in an insurgency against symbols of the Thai state, including even schoolteachers. As in Myanmar (Burma), this is a war that usually pits minority Muslims against majority Buddhists. Moreover, the rebels would like autonomy or complete independence for the region’s 1.8 million Malay Muslims, although they lack a unified goal. Marvin Ott, Ph.D., senior scholar with the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington, said the rebels in the Deep South also resent the fact that the central government has failed to economically develop the impoverished region.
Many innocent people have died in the bloodshed between Muslim rebels and Thai security forces. Reuters reported that since January 2004, when the latest chapter of the insurgency erupted, almost 6,000 people have been killed and untold thousands wounded or maimed. Peace talks between the government and BRN have stalled and failed to quell the violence – and at least 50 people have died so far this year in the insurrection.
The war has been particularly hard on the women married to Muslim rebel warriors and others in the area. Agence France Presse reported that there are some 2,700 registered “war widows” across Narathiwat, Yala and Pattani provinces. Some of their husbands were Muslims killed by Thai security forces, the others are widows of Thai soldiers murdered by Muslims. As Muslims, widows living in an extremely conservative party of the country (quite distinct from cosmopolitan Bangkok), they have few options. “Women often have no voice,” said Angkhana Neelapaijit, of the Justice for Peace Foundation, a human rights organization. “The expectation is for them to look after the family. They may have little say over politics. For example, if their child expresses sympathy with the movement [rebellion], they cannot control them.”
Strangely, during the early 2000s, when Thaksin ruled Thailand, the government did not the take the Muslim insurgency all that seriously. Indeed, Thaksin dismissed the fighters as "sparrow bandits." That image has been dramatically altered in the wake of a decade of horrific violence and has given way to fears that the Muslim insurgency poses a threat to the nation’s sovereignty. "We are seeing a greater radicalization of the insurgency," said Sunai Phasuk, a senior researcher on Thailand at Human Rights Watch, reported CNN. "They don't want the presence of anyone in the region apart from ethnic Malays, and this they've made clear with public announcements."
How seriously Bangkok now takes the Muslim rebels may be illustrated by human rights groups’ estimates that some 150,000 Thai soldiers patrol the southern region to battle no more than 9,000 Muslim fighters. The turning point in the conflict occurred in October 2004 when the Thai military opened fire on demonstrators in the town of Tak Bai in Pattani, killing seven people. Afterwards, state security forces detained 1,300 people, stripping and torturing some, while transporting hundreds of others to a military camp in a journey so arduous that some 80 detainees died from suffocation. These incidents radicalized the insurgents to the point where they kill not only Thai security forces but even their own people suspected of collaborating with the state.
Amnesty International has called on the rebels to cease 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, in a 2011 report. "Whatever their grievances, they do not justify this serious and systematic violation of international law."
Other factors complicate this dirty, dangerous (and almost forgotten) war; one is the rivalry between the Thai military and police; the other is a lack of unified purpose and organization among the rebels. "There is no single great insurgency," Grisada Boonrach, governor of Songkhla and former governor of Yala, told The Atlantic last year. "There are a multitude of tiny insurgencies." Indeed, according to the Thai government, BRN itself is split into three groups: BRN-Coordinate, BRN-Congress and BRN-Ulama. Other separatist groups include the Pattani United Liberation Organisation (PULO), Mujahideen Islamic Pattani Group (BBMP), which was itself spun off from a group called Barisan Islam Pembebesan Pattani (BIPP). Yet another group called the Pattani Independence Fighters seeks to create a state called Pattani Darulsalam (Islamic Land of Pattani) and wants to overthrow what it describes as a “Thai Buddhist occupation,” CNN reported.
“There are many rebel groups operating in the area. Their shared grievance is that under Siamese rule, the ethnic Malays in the region have been oppressed and could not exercise self-determination and fully have their own way of life,” said Sasiwan Chingchit, an independent research consultant based in Washington and a visiting international research fellow at the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses in New Delhi, in an interview. “Patani independence from [the] Thai state is their final aim, but they may hold different views on the territory of [the] Patani Empire [or] if they want the new state to be a part of Malaysia.”
Ott commented that the insurgency is fractured and lacks centralized (or even visible) leadership. “That is a big problem for Bangkok because it has been impossible to find someone to negotiate with that speaks for all (or even most) of the insurgents,” he said.
Chingchit also observed that many Malay Muslims in the Deep South of Thailand support the rebel groups, but it is unclear who provides them with financial support. As for the rebels’ weaponry, she said that they “generally use unsophisticated arms they got from looting the [Thai] army's camps, [or] taking away [weapons] from their victims who belong to armed forces.” Ott commented that the insurgency is largely self-supporting – and that Malaysia wants no part of the movement, while offers of support from Al Qaeda have been rejected.
But Malaysia also plays a small role in the insurgency, since it has been asked by Bangkok to participate in peace talks. The Malaysians, who share a common ethnic identity with the Muslim rebel groups, have reportedly in the past offered asylum to some of their leaders and commanders, confusing the true role of Kuala Lumpur in this drama. Yet, Ott noted that the Muslims rebels in southern Thailand do not want to be part of Malaysia either. “There is little in the way of formal stated aims of the insurgency, but little indication that a separate state is a serious objective,” he said. “The south was never part of Malaysia and [there is] no serious indication that the Thai Muslims want to be incorporated into Malaysia now.”
Ott explained that Thailand wants to retain its southern regions as a matter of pride, among other reasons. “It is part of the Thai mythology of national unity,” he said. “The region has tourist value and strategically it comprises coastlines on both the Bay of Bengal/Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Thailand. There has long been talk of digging a canal across the Kra Isthmus to bypass the Strait of Malacca.” The south is also an attractive route for pipelines carrying oil and gas, Ott added. “Despite all that, the region is poor and rural, and that is at the center of the grievances felt by the local population,” he added.
Chingchit also commented that the Muslim-Buddhist conflict in Thailand is quite different from the Muslim-Buddhist imbroglio in neighboring Burma, which has received a significant amount of media attention around the world. “In Thailand, we can't say it is a religious conflict because it is about another ethnic group of a different religion fighting to reclaim its old empire which was annexed to Thailand more than a hundred years ago,” she explained. “Many local Malay Muslims feel that the Thai rule over their area is illegitimate while the Thai Buddhists within and outside the region hold [a] different historical narrative. The Buddhist Thais think that Thailand's Deep South is a part of Thailand and that Thailand is indivisible. Also, there was never a Buddhist mobilization against Muslims in Thailand.”
One must also wonder why this conflict has received such scant coverage in Western media. Ott opines it is because the U.S. government is in no way involved, acceding to the wishes of the Thai government. “It has been largely off the radar as far as Western media is concerned,” he noted. “[But] if Al Qaeda became a player, that would all change. But there is no indication of that.”
Now, with a caretaker government in place in Bangkok dealing with larger issues, the rebellion in the south may be less of a priority. Chingchit said the government in Bangkok has to focus on its own survival, its day-to-day tasks and how the country will be able to form a new government which must arise from democratic and constitutional processes. “All other problems less significant will have to be put on hold,” she said.