Why Bangkok struggles to bring peace to Thailand's 'Deep South'

The insurgents have not outlined their political aims and their leaders' identities are unknown. Also, the current government has little political pull in the region. 

Sumeth Panpetch/AP
A destroyed vehicle that belonged to a group of insurgents who were killed during an attack is left in Narathiwat province, Thailand earlier this month.

Southern Thailand has not gotten any calmer since a Feb. 13 raid on a Thai military base left 19 insurgents dead. Instead, fellow Malay Muslim insurgents have carried out dozens of arson, bomb, and gun attacks across the violence-wracked southernmost parts of the country.

Residents in Yala, a town in Thailand's “Deep South” that lies more than 600 miles from Bangkok, have so far been spared this recent uptick, though the town has seen several deadly bombings in recent years.

"We have to keep our lives going as normal," says Zam Zam, owner of Bai Mai, a restaurant that runs an outdoor kitchen and bar from a pink-painted Volkswagen van.

Since 2004, more than 5,500 people have died in a secretive insurgency against Thai rule over the Malay-speaking Muslim-populated provinces of Narathiwat, Pattani, and Yala. Some studies showing an average of two to three violent incidents per day during that time period. 

Solving the conflict seems a long way off, partly because the militants have not outlined their political aims and their leaders' identities are unknown. That's made it difficult to know if intermediaries truly represent the militants. Nor does the current government have much reach among the local population, which shunned the ruling party in the last elections. 

“Negotiations and a political arrangement are inevitable if the Malay-Muslim insurgency is going to be settled. The problem is that the peace talks are disparate and may not connect to key insurgents,” says Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.

Talks held in Kuala Lumpur in March 2012, involving Thailand's former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and exiled Muslim politicians from the south of Thailand – whose sway over the militants is unknown – were followed days later by deadly bomb attacks, with 10 people killed in Yala, suggesting that the meeting backfired.

Today another former prime minister, Abhisit Vejajjiva, now leader of Thailand's opposition, suggested that the government talk to the Pattani United Liberation Organization (PULO), but this was dismissed by the Thai Army chief responsible for the south, who said that PULO  "has no role in the three southern border provinces."

Links among elite

There are links between prominent Muslim leaders in the south and Thailand's current government, led by Yingluck Shinawatra, however. Holding up his cellphone, Jehismail Jehmong points eagerly to the screensaver, a photograph of himself posing alongside Mr. Thaksin, who is Yingluck's older brother.

“I last met him last year in Dubai,” he says of Thaksin, who fled Thailand in 2008 after receiving a two-year jail sentence for corruption, a verdict seen by Thaksin's supporters as politically driven.

Jehismail and Thaksin go back a long way, graduating from the same police academy class in 1973, long before the latter went on to establish a multibillion dollar business empire, and later shook-up Thai politics with landslide election wins before being ousted in a 2006 coup. Jehismail also left the police force and went on to become a Thaksin-allied politician, but now heads The Muslim Development of Pattani Foundation, a local charity.

Yingluck's Peua Thai (For Thais) party, seen as a Thaksin proxy, handily won Thailand's 2011 election. Despite pledging to decentralize some powers to the region, Peua Thai failed to pick up a single seat in the Deep South. That wipeout is likely a legacy of Thaksin's administration, which was tarnished by security force abuses, such as the Tak Bai massacre in 2004, when 85 civilians were killed – mostly suffocating in trucks after being arrested.

Violence cuts both ways, however, and the militants have a reputation for ferocity, sometimes beheading civilians – local Muslims included – likely on the suspicion that they are informants. Teachers have been targeted, with more than 150 murdered in the region over the course of the nine-year insurgency, some shot point-blank in front of schoolchildren.

Despite the dangers, Hambalee Jehma runs an English-language academy in Yala, giving evening lessons to local kids who want to improve upon what they learn in high school. “It's sad for people in my work here,” he says, referring to a recent upsurge in attacks on teachers, mostly directed at Buddhists deployed to the region's government-run schools.

Cultural ties with Malaysia

Eighty percent of the region's 1.8 million people are Malay Muslims and share close cultural ties with Malaysia, seen in motifs such the prevalence of Islamic dress on both sides of the border, and road signs in Jawi, an Arabic-derived script sometimes used for writing in Malay. Those cross-border kinship ties aside, there's no indication that the insurgency has links to terror groups in southeast Asia, such as the Al Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiyah or Abu Sayyaf.

English-language schools attract foreign students, despite the dangers. Speaking in the grounds of the town's Central Mosque, a Saudi-Arabian student named Abdullah Bakah says “I come to Yala for English school.” Yard-high foot-thick concrete pillars line some of Yala's sidewalks, aiming to protect shopfronts and pedestrians from car bombs and shrapnel. He says he is aware of the dangers, adding, “I am here just four months now, and if anything bad happens, I can go to our family house in Krabi,” a resort town on Thailand's southwest coast.

Locals such as Hambalee Jehma say they will stick it out: “This is our home, we have to work here.” Suggesting a disconnect between this part of Thailand and the rest of the country, he complains that “when soldiers die here it is in the news, but when ordinary people die here, nobody cares in Bangkok.”

That view is largely shared by Jehismail Jehmong, who though he says that the current government's policy in the south is improving, overall he believes that officials in the capital do not understand the region.

“We call here 'Patani',” says Jehismail, referring to the to the eponymous Sultanate, which was annexed by Siam, now Thailand, in 1902. "Here is like Kota Bharu,” he adds, referring to the Malaysian city three hours drive south, much closer culturally and geographically than the far-off Thai capital. “We don't like gambling, we don't like karaoke, we don't like drugs,” he adds, pointing out what he says are clear social differences with other parts of Thailand.

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