Thailand's Southern Border Provinces: Trouble in Paradise

Date: 12-11-2006

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HONOLULU (Dec. 11) — Roadside stands brimming with green vegetables and fruit, farmers transporting produce and building materials, and young people converging at popular beaches and other local attractions, all seem to epitomize the tranquility of the lush tropical landscape that makes up the dizzy patchwork of more than 1,500 villages across Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala.

But, according to East-West Center fellow Itty Abraham, the pastoral scene in Thailand’s three southern provinces bordering Malaysia “is deeply misleading.”

“Once the sun sets roads empty, shops close, and stray pedestrians hurry home,” according to Abraham. “Every night, stories of a new tragedy make the rounds of official news and underground rumor networks.”

Abraham, who recently returned from the region, says “The perpetrators of this violence, in official and mass media accounts, are shadowy figures belonging to one of the region’s separatist or militant movements.” But, he adds, “Local rumors and informal channels of news, by contrast, often explain the very same events in sharply different ways: revenge killings, drug deals gone wrong, and the ‘black lists’ of death squads belonging to military or police forces accountable to no one.”

“This endemic uncertainty, of both agency and explanation,” according to Abraham, “is the most characteristic feature of a growing crisis along the Thai-Malay border.” He says the three southern border districts, home to over a million of Thailand’s Malay-speaking Muslim community, “have been in a state of virtual siege since 2004 when a long-standing and simmering conflict burst out into the open.”

He notes, “It is a conflict marked by ‘red zones’ and ‘black lists’ set against a verdant countryside, by once-peaceful Buddhist wats populated now by militant monks, by neighbors living in fear of neighbors who may have turned informer and use that power to settle old scores, by disaffected and frustrated youth often unable to find a place for themselves in Thai institutions, by an older generation equally doubtful of the state’s bona fides thanks to long memories of earlier struggles and insurrections, by Muslim and Buddhist villages emptying out due to the dual ravages of local political violence and the global political economy.”

Abraham says even the so-called experts see the “problem” in southern Thailand differently, “offering different accounts of the nature of and reasons for the violence, leading to divergent and inconsistent recommendations” for its solution.

The EWC fellow says, “It’s no secret that the starting point shapes the stories we tell in fundamental ways.” This has never been truer, he says, “than in the present, when we consider the range of collective understandings of the troubles in southern Thailand.”

So, who’s to blame? Well, that apparently depends upon who you ask. Abraham has identified at least four differing theories of the troubles’ origins.

The Separatist Narrative

The so-called Separatist Narrative, Abraham says, “begins at the turn of the 20th century with the Anglo-Siam treaty of 1909.” Among other things, he points out the treaty “demarcated the territorial boundary between the kingdom of Siam and the British colony of Malay.” With the stroke of a pen, what had been a single geo-cultural region was divided. In subsequent years, especially under the rule of Field Marshall Phibun, Thai state officials began a process of cultural assimilation, Abraham says, “that was deeply resented by the local community.” Abraham recounts that “In 1947, the first declared separatist movement took shape under the leadership of Tengku Mahyiddin, son of the former raja of Pattani, seeking to restore his erstwhile kingdom.”

This approach has the immediate effect of explaining today’s troubles as an “effort to reclaim the lost sultanate of Pattani,” according to Abraham, “which in today’s world would be a buffer state between Malaysia and Thailand.” It also internationalizes the situation and, as Abraham puts it, “brings into play the worst fears of contemporary state managers for whom the loss of territory is the first step in the death of the state.”

In other words, the separatists see their struggle as a means to “either create a new state, independent of both Thailand and Malaysia,” Abraham points out, “or as a secessionist project which seeks to leave Thailand and join Malaysia.” Neither scenario plays well in Bangkok.

The Islamic-Minority Narrative

A second possible starting point for the current troubles could be 1947 and ’48, a two-year period of protests and riots leading up the Dusunayor uprising. Abraham recounts that struggle, led by the charismatic teacher and leader Haji Sulong, was a reaction to Bangkok’s increased Siamization of the southern provinces. He adds the dissatisfaction was “expressed through a popular idiom which combined calls for a Malay cultural identity with Islamic precepts.”

Haji Sulong gathered quite a local following but was arrested by Thai police. He disappeared in 1954, while in custody, and has not been seen since.

Casting today’s conflict “in terms set by the struggle of Haji Sulong are very significant,” Abraham says. “On the one hand,” he points out, “it is a struggle by a demographic and cultural minority shaped by local resentment against an overbearing and exclusivist Thai majority … on the other hand, it also becomes possible to see this as an Islamic struggle against a Buddhist state.” And, it’s the latter according to Abraham that takes on more importance in today’s political arena, playing into the “discourse of a global war perpetrated on and by Islamic terror.”

The National-Liberation Narrative

Armed struggle for secular national liberation and self-identity, mostly drawing on the Marxist-Leninist views of world history, became the rage in the 1960s and ‘70s and Thailand’s southern border provinces saw their share of homegrown organizations trying to achieve those goals. The Pattani Malay National Liberation Front (BRN) and the Pattani United Liberation Front (PULO) were major players during those years when violence in southern Thailand, according to Abraham, “was influenced by the presence of American forces in nearby Vietnam, and defined in terms of … a secular struggle for national liberation.” In later years, the border region served as a refuge for those fellow-travelers looking for a new home. In the 1980s, cadres of the banned Malaysian Communist Party decamped and crossed the border into Thailand, bring with them new organizational skills and theoretical perspectives.

The original national liberation groups still exist. The PULO’s leaders now live in exile in Sweden apparently seeking, as Abraham puts it, “to direct their cadres in the present struggle from long distance.” Observers add that the “present offshoot of the other (original) group, the BRN-C (for Coordinate) is the best organized and armed” of the groups currently operating in southern Thailand.

Abraham says that while the entire concept of revolutionary national-liberation thinking to many today may seem anachronistic, “the legacy of national liberation struggles is still important.” He notes that they are transnational in orientation “creating international networks that did not pass away with the end of the international communist movement,” and that “their organizational legacy, which offered probably the most rigorous and experience-tested form of practical tactical knowledge to evade state surveillance and successfully conduct armed guerilla struggle” remains.

“The difficulty of identifying and eliminating armed groups in southern Thailand today,” Abraham points out, “is testament to this organizational legacy,” even if the current groups may no longer subscribe to Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy.

The Hybrid Legacies Narrative

Abraham’s fourth concept of the troubles’ origin is one that is becoming increasingly popular among scholars and analysts … the hybrid legacies theory. He says it evolved in the early 1990s when the “earlier generation of national-liberation guerillas … decided that in the face of increasingly unequal military struggle against a powerful Thai military machine with strong international support, a different and long-term approach was called for.” That approach “began with the indoctrination of carefully selected young men, who it is said, form the core of the armed struggle today.”

The backbone of the new approach was the identification and recruitment of students enrolled in the pondoks (Islamic schools) in southern Thailand, and the setting up of a decentralized and dispersed militant organizational strategy in which the entire network would not be threatened if one or another of the cells was uncovered.

Abraham says, “This strategy would lead, on the one hand, to the attacks of January 2004 and the Krue Se mosque battle, and, at the same time, to official confusion when no representative and identifiable decision-making authority stepped forward to claim responsibility of ongoing attacks or to make political demands.”

That today’s militants are using violence against what they see as injustices and the attitude of the Thai government, especially after the recently ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra ordered the closure of the well-regarded Southern Border Provinces Administrative Center, is a given to many. But, Abraham also notes, “The history of Pattani before its incorporation into Thailand (during the pre-modern period, Pattani was the intellectual center of an extensive Malay-language world stretching from present day Thailand to Mindanao in the Philippines) has become a recurrent feature of the discourse adopted by (the) armed insurgents, the past as a source of great pride.”

The hybrid narrative, which includes differing proportions of national-liberation-local-minority-historical-religious dogma, makes the conflict hard to come to terms with. But, as Abraham says, the “change in strategy is powerful for its explanations of why the new phase of violence began when it did, for the difficulty in identifying the perpetrators, and the apparent lack of a formal organizational structure.”

Abraham admits that “different starting points produce different understandings of the purpose and meaning of the latest cycle of violence in southern Thailand.” He adds, “Alternative starting points lead to different outcomes — independence or secession, popular Islamic movements leading to sharia rule, national liberation struggles seeking to overthrow an oppressive ruling class, or the resurrection of Pattani as a historic world center — and, by extension, demand very different policy responses by the Thai state.”

But, Abraham is not overly pessimistic.

“The premise of uncertainty … should not be seen as a problem, but as a source of long-term strength,” he says. “That the region and its people cannot be classified in a singular way as either borderland or periphery, Thai Buddhist or Muslim Malay, is a good thing. What it means is that the conflict has not yet gone so far as to constrain the range of available social identities to an either/or political condition: state or opposition, loyalist or insurgent.” He adds, “As long as ambiguity and uncertainty remain characteristic features of this conflict, there is hope that the problem in southern Thailand may yet be resolved.”

However, the greatest danger in southern Thailand at this point, according to Abraham, is “the problem of unintended consequences, of expectations about the character of the conflict becoming self-fulfilling due to the importune actions of security forces operating without clarity and policy makers with too much of it.”


Itty Abraham is a research fellow in the East-West Center’s Washington office. Previously he was program director of South Asia, Southeast Asia, and Global Security and Cooperation for the Social Science Research Council, a visiting associate professor at the Elliot School of International Affairs at George Washington University, and a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for International Security and Arms Control at Stanford University. He has a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Dr. Abraham can be reached at (202) 327-9757 or via email at

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