Muslims are often treated as second-class citizens in Buddhist-dominated Thailand. They are relatively poor, ill-educated and under represented in the government and live mostly in the south, which has lower incomes and higher crime rates compared to the rest of the country. Southern Muslim have long complained about discrimination, especially in education and job opportunities. Muslims in the three “Sultan provinces” also resent efforts to forcibly assimilate them. Even though the three provinces involved in the violence are 80 percent Muslim they have never had a Muslim governor.

Southern Muslims have always felt alienated from other Thais, believing they are treated as second-class citizens. Government soldiers, who have mostly been brought in from other parts of the country to deal with the violence, treat the Muslims with suspicion or worse. Mark Magnier wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Many local Malay Muslims believe Bangkok is trying to assimilate them out of existence. "Anyone who speaks up is considered an insurgent," said teacher Hama. "Our voices aren't being heard." Thai Buddhists, for their part, often write off the troubled provinces as a violent area racked by drug abuse. Mutual distrust is worsened by prejudice, mythology and years of tit-for-tat attacks. "In southern Thailand, the truth gets distorted, lost and manipulated," a rights activist said. [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times April 4, 2010]

Many of the attacks were carried out by militants recruited by local religious teachers. The militants were often young people angry about the general treatment of Muslims and particularly outraged by the crackdown on Muslims after the violence on the south began in 2004. There were frequent reports and rumors of attacks on Muslims by Thai security forces. One police official told the Washington Post, “These young people believe they have to carry out these attacks as their mission to serve their God.”

Muslims have complained of the abduction and killing by Thai security forces of Islamic teachers accused of being insurgent recruiters and have said that soldiers sometimes prevented them from leaving their villages to go to work. They are also angry by the way that attacks against Muslims are only given half-hearted investigations while those carried out insurgents, especially when soldiers or police were victims, were rigorously investigated, and often accompanied with brutal crackdowns. "The arrest or killing of a relative is a strong incentive to join the movement; so are cases of torture and enforced disappearances," the report by the International Crisis Group said.

The mother of one Muslim victims killed on a government crackdown said, “Peace will prevail in the three southern states only when there is justice.” A Muslim villager in a village targeted for a crackdown by Thai security forces told the Asia News Network, “We don’t ask for a lot. Just allow us to live normally. People are uncomfortable with the soldiers around...Anything that is government-related is bad.”


Views of Buddhists and Muslims in Southern Thailand Towards Each Other

Gothom Arya of Manidohl University’s Research Center for Peace Building wrote: “When two ethnic groups, such as Buddhist Thais and Melayu Muslim Thais in the South, are living in the same area, they will have to adjust themselves to accommodate each other. Harmony or divide will develop depending on the perception one group has about the other. Of course, the perception of others is complex and varies from one member of the group to another. Still, it is worthwhile formulating negative perceptions that seem to exist so that we can gauge the divide and reflect on ways and means to bridge it in order to achieve greater harmony... Buddhist Thais represent the minority group in Deep South. It is normal that they feel insecure and the normal tendency is to regroup geographically into Thai (as oppose to Muslim) villages or in municipal areas. Now both ethnic groups are increasingly sending their children to separate schools. The tendency toward segregation is worrisome as it re-enforces the ‘us-them' divide. [Source: Gothom Arya, Manidohl University’s Research Center for Peace Building, August 2005*]

“I once met a former student of mine who is Chinese Thai, native of Pattani and now a high-ranking official. He quickly informed me that ‘they [the Malay Muslims] don't want to be Thais, they don't want to speak Thai'...they think the land is theirs and tell everyone that Chinese descendants and Thais always take advantage of them despite the fact that they offer the hospitality of land.’Another retired Central Thai teacher who spent 35 years in the South wrote to us: ‘why do we have to learn a local language not spoken anywhere else, why don't they learn Thai and be integrated into the present world? Other ethnic groups in Thailand agree to speak central Thai which is our official language, can't they do the same?' *

“On the other side of the divide, I heard comments like these: ‘with our Melayu Muslim name, we are less well treated by officials', ‘why do they have to change the names of our villages? Sometimes the translation was done without knowing the meaning of the original word', ‘we want our children to learn Thai but after six years in school, how come they can't even read and write in Thai', ‘you know, my Thai is not strong, please don't laugh at me if I say something wrong'. The language is an important issue that has to be dealt with sensitively. To overcome this divide, I would suggest the goal of quality multi-lingual education that provides a good command of three languages namely Thai, Melayu, and English to every school children. *

“When I first heard about the concern of Buddhist Thais, expressed through an opinion pool, that Melayu Muslim Thais are too prolific in producing offspring, I thought it was a joke. Later, I was told of this concern by many others: a van driver, a monk, and also our retired teacher whom I quote: ‘the number of children born is frightening, they have many children as they consider them as the gifts of God but they neglect to raise them well while putting the blame on government.... So, as Thais are fleeing from death, there will be only them remaining on this land'. I asked my Muslim friend about this and got an affirmative answer, he says ‘our religion is not in favour of family planning', he added however, tongue-in cheek, "but there are ways and means'. He did not elaborate and I pretended to understand. Here the Thais' concern seems to be valid, not on the ground that the Melayu Thais plan to crush them out by the weight of an overwhelming population, but in the sense that Melayu Thais should adopt discretely certain birth control methods to be able to have healthy and wealthy family. *

“This brings me to the last divide of the day (there are so many others): religion. Apparently there seems to be unanimity that we all enjoy religious freedom. But let's listen again to our retired teacher who I think summarizes well the negative perception as follows: ‘they blindly believe their religious leaders. They think there is no future in this world: only the next world is real. The leaders keep them in the dark and in a close community so as to hold power over them. They receive financial support from rich Islamic countries because of worldwide Islamic solidarity...As a result, there are extremists who project themselves as fighting for right causes but in fact are just creating trouble in the land'. I disagree with her when she blamed it on Muslim leaders. I believe that the great majority of them are persons of integrity who live a frugal life. They command the respect of their peers because of their proven good conduct. However, I would like to beg them to use their leadership to renew their efforts to bring understanding and love to the land: to bridge the divide for that matter.” *

Insurgents and Separatists in the Muslim South

The insurgents and separatists in the Muslim South are believed to be comprised of around 1,000 armed fighters and 10,000 second-line hardcore sympathizers, led by a coalition of regional groups. It is not really clear what the insurgents want or who their leaders are. They hardly ever take credit for the attacks and don’t publicize their demands. Researchers who have had contact with them say they want to establish a separate Islamic state, destabilize the central government and drive Buddhists from southern Thailand. One report by the Thai military issued in 2005 said the militants had stockpiled more than 7,000 weapons at that time.

Most of the militants are young, children of families in the areas where the militants are active. One Muslim village chief whose son was killed by militants told Human Rights Watch, “There are 10 Muslim youth in this village who joined the militants. They have been trained to become guerilla fighters.” According to the Thai government new members are recruited by Islamic teachers. Among the few suspects that have been arrested, many have been Islamic teachers or former Islamic school teacher such as Mase Useng and Waeyuso Waedoramae, who have been accused of masterminding attacks.

Francesca Law-Davies, International Crisis Group told AFP, “It still isn’t clear who is behind the day to day violence... The exile not control much of what is going on the ground. The pattern that is emerging is small, village-based cells that have received rudimentary military training.”

A statement issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Thailand in response to the Human Rights Watch report dated 25 January 2011 says that violence in the southern border provinces is perpetrated by a small number of extremist elements with the intention of creating divisions and hatred in a uniquely and historically harmonious, multicultural, and multiethnic society.[Source: Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department]

Muslim Separatist Groups in the Muslim South

Despite the insurgency begining in 2004, the Thai government has yet to publicly identify any of the militancy’s leadership, and no rebel groups have claimed responsibility for deadly attacks. In the early 2010, some of the attacks were thought to be carried out by shadowy Muslim groups, such as the Pattani-Malay National Revolutionary Front Co-ordinate (known by its Malay initials, BRN-C).

The Thai military attributed the violence in the early 2000s to Guragan Mujahideen Islam Pattani (GMIP, Pattani Islamic Mujahideen Movement), an offshoot of Gerakan Mujahidin Islam Pattani (GMP) which the Thai military has said was thought to be an al Qaeda affiliate established in 1995 as a constituent group of Bersatu (United Front for the Independence of Pattani). Bersatu was established in 1989, and both organizations have the goal of establishing a Muslim state in southern Thailand. These groups and said to have ties with criminal gangs, smugglers, drug traffickers and gun runners. Many of their weapons are believed to have been stolen from Thai security forces.

Some blamed the early attacks in 2004 on Mujahideen Pattani, a local group, with the help of foreign terrorists, possibly the Kampulan Mujahideen Malaysia, a Malaysian group with ties to the Al-Qaida-linked regional terror network Jemaah Islamiiyah, a group linked to the 2002 Bali nightclub bombings that killed 202 people.

The Pattani United Liberation Organization (PULO) and the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (National Revolution Front Cordinate), are believed to be behind many of the attacks. These groups have traditionally have had sympathizers and supporters in Malaysia and have sought safe haven in Malaysia. The group’s leader Lukman Lima and representatives are based in Sweden. PULO and Bersatu, an umbrella group for a number of insurgent groups, were at their peak in the 1970s and 80s.

The main groups have developed cells in many towns, cities and villages. It is easy for them to draw recruits from disenfranchised youth. But no group claims to controls all the groups or activities. Many of the older groups such as the PULO are considered out of date or obsolete. Village-based militants that call themselves the Pattani Fighters have taken credit for some attacks and several beheadings. Thet claim southern Thailand is a religious “conflict zone” and want the Muslim areas to be rid of Buddhist “infidels.” They call the government presence in the region an “occupation.”

There are thought to be warlords, numerous splinter groups and independent groups as well business and political rivals involved in conflict. Srisompob Jitpiromsri of Prince of Songkla University told the Los Angeles Times, “People on the street may know who is responsible, they may even know them, but everyone is too afraid to say anything aloud, or even speak in private about the attacks. That, to me, is a the mark of a successful insurgency.” One Muslim leader told the Time of London, “This is such a complicated situation and there are so many different factions involved. It’s like a traditional dish called kao yam. You have rice mixed with salty gravy, hot chili, sour mango and fresh vegetables, all the flavors mixed together.” Making the whole hting

Foreign Involvement and Muslim Separatist Groups

Thus far the uprising seems to be totally local. There is no evidence of foreign involvement with a group such as Al-Qaida. It is possible but unlikely that some members passed through al-Qaida camps in Afghanistan. Members of Jemmah Islamiyah—which has been active throughout Southeast Asia, particularly in Indonesia—have passed through southern Thailand, with the Bali-bombing mastermind Hambali himself visiting at least three times, but there is no evidence they have been involved in any attacks. Many fear the consequence if international terrorist groups do become involved.

The Thai military has said that Muslim militants in southern Thailand have trained with Indonesian militants and that southern Thailand has more potential for becoming a Southeast Asian terrorist hub than locations in Indonesia, the Philippines or Malaysia. Prime Minister Thaksin has said that the militant have been brainwashed by Muslim extremists from Indonesia and trained in Malaysia.

Radical Islamic clerics in Indonesia have threatened to launch a jihad in Thailand if the situation there doesn’t improve. The fiery Indonesian cleric Rizeeq Shihab said, “Grant autonomy to the the Muslim Community in the south, or else we Muslims from the Malayan region will go there and help our brothers.

Mark Magnier of the Los Angeles Times wrote: “The movement appears to have some contact with Southeast Asia's Jemaah Islamiah, said Srisompob Jitpiromsri, director of Deep South Watch. But the strength of the ties is a matter of debate and the insurgency has so far avoided attacking Bangkok, the Thai capital, or tourist resorts, presumably wary of attracting unwanted global attention in a post-Sept. 11 world.” [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times April 4, 2010]

Thai Muslim Insurgents Draw Recruits from Schools

Authorities see southern Thailand's network of Muslim religious schools as a key source of recruits for the insurgency. In a typical southern Thailand madrasa, 125 boys in undershirts and sarongs wake up at dawn and spend 12 to 14 hours studying the Koran. In private Islamic schools, insurgents recruit young Malays through extracurricular activities, according to International Crisis Group, a non-governmental organisation that works to resolve deadly conflict.

Grant Peck of AP wrote: “Thailand's shadowy network of Muslim separatist insurgents does much of its recruiting at Islamic schools in the country's deep south, which have become "the battleground for the clash of cultures and ideologies," an independent report. The Brussels-based International Crisis Group said the government is unlikely to stop the recruiting or the insurgency until it comes up with a political solution to local Muslims' grievances over discrimination and mistreatment. The report said that the separatists are not part of the global jihadi movement exemplified by such groups as al-Qaida. Instead, they are a localized movement whose main appeal is to historical claims of separateness from the Buddhist-dominated Thai state, it said. [Source: Grant Peck, AP, June 22, 2009]

The region is among Thailand's least developed, but its economic troubles are not the only factor driving the insurgency. Recruiters looking for prospective fighters also appeal to a sense of Malay nationalism and pride in the old sultanate, said Rungrawee Chalermsripinyorat, the ICG's Thailand analyst. "They tell students in these schools that it is the duty of every Muslim to take back their land from the Buddhist infidels," Rungrawee said.

The report describes the classroom as "the point of first contact" for recruiters who invite devout Muslim youths to join extracurricular indoctrination programs in mosques or disguised as football training. "Schools are particularly important as recruiting grounds because they have been the battleground for the clash of cultures and ideologies fueling the conflict," the report said. "Many Malay Muslims view state schools as a vehicle to inculcate 'Thai-ness,' while the government sees Islamic schools as a tool for Malay nationalist indoctrination."

The report warned that trying to control the school recruitment efforts without making political and social reforms — including increasing respect for Muslims' distinct language, religion and culture — will fail. "Attempts to re-educate Malay Muslims or create a counter-ideology of Thai nationalism in absence of real changes to government policies will be ineffectual," it said. "The grievances that have long fueled the insurgency must be addressed with demonstrable results."

Mark Magnier wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “The Islamic teacher sat on the wooden porch of his house smiling politely, his infant son playing at his feet. Those who study the Koran are automatically suspect, Dul Nasir Hama said, adding that he's not a terrorist nor are his students part of the insurgency. As he spoke, a Thai army patrol skirted the grounds of his madrasa in Pattani. "They're afraid to come in here," he said. "They think I'll put a spell on them." [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times April 4, 2010]

Entrenched Interests Keep the Struggle in the Muslim South Going

Mark Magnier wrote in the Los Angeles Times: entrenched interests make the standoff more intractable, some analysts believe, including a Thai army that has seen its budget soar. "Not solving this doesn't do any harm to a lot of army careers and bank accounts," said Anthony Davis, an analyst with Jane's Defense Weekly.[Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times April 4, 2010]

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourist Authority of Thailand, Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

Last updated May 2014

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