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A new and brutal wave of insurgency looms in the deep South

Apr 11. 2019
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By Don Pathan
Special to The Nation

Efforts to introduce humanitarian principles to separatist combatants in Thailand’s Malay-speaking far South have hit trouble, with the younger generation of fighters questioning the merit of these ideas.

According to political activists behind the efforts, a growing number of young separatist fighters appear more interested in humiliating Thailand’s security apparatus and believe that attacking non-military targets is an effective way to do so. 

They also vowed that insurgents would continue to hit “legitimate” military targets, but with greater intensity to inflict higher psychological impact. 

The vast majority of separatist combatants understand the need to embrace norms of civility in the conflict but the few hardliners who promote brutality appear to be gaining traction, the activists said.

The combatants in the southernmost provinces operate under the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), but the movement’s control over them is extremely fluid and untested. 

Decisions on attacks and targets are made at the cell level with information shared on a need-to-know basis. Simultaneous attacks, of course, require the participation of more than one cell, but these are rare.

Loose ground rules dictate that religious figures, women and children are not to be targeted. But nothing is written in stone and there exists no negotiated text between the security forces and the rebels. Perceived violations of the loose rules have provoked vicious responses from the insurgents’ side.

Early this year, a string of “soft” targets were hit, spurring talk that insurgents had adopted a “new normal” of attacking non-military targets – including civilians. January saw four school guards shot dead, a retired teacher hanged outside his Songkhla home and his vehicle used for car bomb, and two Buddhist monks killed in a shooting in Narathiwat.

Youth activists believe the absence of meaningful dialogue between the government and stakeholders, including the BRN, is partly to blame for the rise in brutality. If the two sides could communicate, they might at least agree on the rules of engagement, the activists said.

Instead the Thai government was too busy trying to occupy the moral high ground, ignoring issues such as international humanitarian law (IHL), that could help bring some degree of civility and predictability to the conflict. 

In fact, some senior military officers in the far South believe the introduction of IHL would legitimise the separatist conflict. With that legitimacy, members of the international community could interfere in what Thailand considered internal affairs, several military officers said.

Besides meaningful communication between Bangkok and the BRN leadership, there is more that could be done to help the movement’s leaders understand international norms and humanitarian principles. 

BRN operatives said their leaders are afraid to surface because they feel the atmosphere is not conducive for negotiation. They cite the ongoing political crisis, the lack of unity and continuity on the Thai side of negotiations and the absence of legal and political protections that would offer a “safe space” for rebels.

The BRN believes the international community can offer them this safety, but Bangkok has never been interested in permitting outside participation, much less mediation. 

There is also longstanding bitterness among the BRN leaders. In a statement released on March 13 to commemorate the movement’s founding 60 years ago, BRN said their historic homeland of Patani had been “abandoned by the world” and the “suffering” of its people has been ignored. 

Historical background

A full-fledged armed insurgency in the far South surfaced in the early 1960s before dying down in the 1980s. A new generation of fighters surfaced in late 2001 but the conflict intensified after more than 350 military-grade weapons were stolen in a raid on an Army camp on January 4, 2004. 

While the separatist insurgency has always been fuelled by ethno-nationalist motives, radical ideas creep in every now and then. A decade ago, there was talk among separatist militants of expanding the range of “legitimate targets” and also denying Islamic burials to Muslims who found themselves targeted. 

This period, in 2006-07, saw a rise in brutality with the bodies of Thai soldiers beheaded and castrated and corpses set on fire. It also saw 140 arson attacks on public schools, many burnt to the ground.

But the brutal excesses practically ended the following year after local activists and clerics spoke out against the vicious tactics, citing Islamic law and principles as a guide for rules of engagement. Separatist militants admitted it was the thought of losing public support that put a stop to the brutality. 

Today, however, the restless young generation of fighters are less likely to heed the advice of ordinary villagers and grassroots leaders. There is a dangerous sense of frustration with the unchanging status quo among the combatants, who see no disadvantage in committing acts of violence that aggravate the situation. 

Longstanding traditions and restrictions that helped shape the unofficial rules of engagement in this conflict may now be making way for more brutal 

tactics. – Special to The Nation, Yala

Don Pathan is a Thailand-based security and development consultant for international organisations, and a founding member of the Patani Forum (, a civil society organisation dedicated to critical discussion on the conflict in Thailand’s far South.


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