Thailand’s Deep South Smoldering Imbroglio: Causes and Exit Strategies

In 2014 Thailand’s insurrection in the far South seems as interminable as ever. After over 150 years of conflict, 10 years of exacerbated violence (since 2004), and attempted negotiations in 2013, the imbroglio continues unabated. In this light, seriously thrashing out the conflict’s causes and potential exit strategies need to be scrutinized.


The conflict is centered upon the modern Thai provinces of Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat, which, together with parts of northern Malaysia, once were part of the Muslim sultanate of Pattani. In 1786, Siam forcibly subjugated Pattani and eventually dissected it into seven provinces. Siamese forces quelled numerous insurrections and ultimately incorporated the provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat into Siam in 1902—the four others being ceded to Britain in 1909. Yet Siam’s forceful treatment of the people comprising the region provoked continuing resistance and revolt.

Where the Insurgency is occurring: Thailand’s far southern provinces of Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala, as well as parts of Songkhla

Thai policymakers hardly sought to address Malay−Muslim grievances in the deep South, leaving it to the army to handle matters—which they did with force.  In response, insurgent attacks mounted in rural Yala, Narathiwat and Pattani on government offices and police posts. In 1975, tensions boiled over following the Thai soldiers’ shooting of five Muslim youths and the Buddhist extremists’ killing of 12 Muslims. These incidents ratcheted tensions to an even higher level. During the 1980s, the government of Prem Tinsulanond allocated more money to southern security institutions and sought to enhance cooperation with moderate Muslim leaders. These policies seemed to work for a while.

But in 2001, new Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, considering the Malay–Muslim insurgents as mostly bandits, harked back to a policy of greater repression. Police and army officials engaged in increased human rights abuses, and many Malay–Muslims, incensed by these policies, increasingly felt subjugated by the Buddhist Thai state. Harsh state policies were met with a number of insurgent attacks.

In January 2004, these strikes culminated in a well-organized insurgent attack on an Army camp in Narathiwat province.  The militants seized close to 350 weapons and executed four soldiers. Not long after this, Thaksin declared martial law in Narathiwat, Yala, and Pattani. At this point fighting between insurgent and security forces began to soar and each was implicated in human rights abuses. Soldiers and police now worked together in counter-insurgency operations.  Security forces were soon accused of murdering the prominent Thai human rights lawyer Somchai Neelaphaijit, who disappeared on 12 March 2004 in Bangkok. He was defending five Muslims who were accused of having stolen some of the 300 guns (BBC News, August 8, 2006). In 2004 there were two massacres. On April 28, following a seven-hour stand-off with Thai soldiers, 32 suspected guerrillas took shelter in Krue Se mosque. Thereupon soldiers stormed the mosque, killing all 31, as well as 80 other insurgents (Thayer, 2007:13-14). Then on October 25, after soldiers arrested several protestors at the border town of Tak Bai and transported them to an army base, it was discovered that 78 had died on route because of suffocation. After the Krue Se and Tak Bai incidents, the Malay–Muslim community became infuriated and insurgent attacks skyrocketed. 

Massacres by Thai Security Forces have incensed Malay-Muslims.Top: Krue-se Massacre —April 28, 2004Bottom: Tak Bai Massacre —October 25, 2004

Massacres by Thai Security Forces have incensed Malay-Muslims.
Top: Krue-se Massacre —April 28, 2004
Bottom: Tak Bai Massacre —October 25, 2004

Moreover, the incidents left Thaksin with a poor public image and he subsequently replaced the Army Commander with his trusted cousin, Chaiyasit.  In 2005, partly to deflect his critics, Thaksin adjourned a National Reconciliation Commission (NRC) which was tasked to suggest ways to bring peace to the troubled South. The NRC published its recommendations in 2006, which included: (1) making Pattani-Malay (Yawi) the official language for the three provinces of Pattani, Narathiwat, and Yala; (2) establishing a single administration for the provinces; and (3) re-introducing Islamic law.  

Nevertheless, parts of Thailand’s security establishment and Thaksin himself brushed the NRC recommendations aside, increasingly relying on repression to address the chaos in the South. But the insurgency nevertheless continued. Criticism of Thaksin’s policies grew among some in the armed forces as well as among arch-royalists. Indeed, it can be argued that Thaksin’s southern policy played a role in his overthrow on 19 September 2006.

Following Thaksin’s ouster, the appointed Surayudh Chulanondh government sought to revive Prem’s policy of conciliation, even issuing a public apology to Malay–Muslims and announcing a new economic stimulus program for the five southern provinces. Yet Surayudh also placed southern policy more squarely under the control of the Army.  However, the insurgency refused to disappear. Meanwhile, rebel attacks against Buddhist temples (where the Thai military sometimes stored its hardware) between 2004 and 2007 resulted in the deaths of five Buddhist monks and exacerbated tensions between Malay–Muslims and southern Thai Buddhists.  After 2008 there was an upsurge in violence perhaps given that security forces, through their increased counter-insurgency operations, were simultaneously violating more and more human rights which exacerbated Malay–Muslim grievances against the state, which then again gave insurgents more propaganda to rationalize continuing support for their cause.


Yingluck Shinawatra, the 28th and current Prime Minister of Thailand

In July 2011, the Yingluck Shinatra-led Puea Thai Party won a landslide election and there was hope for changes in Thailand’s southern policy. In the run-up to that election, Puea Thai publicly discussed the notion of making the three southernmost provinces a special administrative zone.  However, once in office, Puea Thai changed its mind. This possibly was owed to the fact that Puea Thai failed to win a single seat in the far South and, thus, saw no reason to show special attention to the area. The idea, however, would resurface again in 2013.

The new government was almost immediately hit with an upsurge in southern violence. In mid-September, a series of explosions erupted near the Malaysian border, resulting in the deaths of five Malaysian tourists as well as 110 injuries.  This was perhaps an indication that the insurgents were now taking the insurrection to a new level, targeting more civilians, including foreign ones. By early 2012, the Yingluck government was continuing to focus on a policy of sticks over carrots—repression over conciliation—in weakening the insurrection, as a state of emergency remained in effect.  In 2013, her government began serious negotiations with one rebel group but as violence continued, the talks have thus far achieved little.

2014 brings southern Thailand to its tenth year of relentless insurrection with over 6,000 people killed and 10,000 wounded since the upswing of violence in 2004.  Meanwhile, according to Deep South Watch, bombings have grown from 276 in 2012 to 320 in 2013. (Deep South Watch, 2013). Ironically, in 2013, a year in which serious peace negotiations appeared to begin in earnest, violence skyrocketed to a level not seen since 2005-2007.


Car bomb near the police station in Pattani.
Photo: Tuwaedaniya Meringing.

Resolving the Crisis

As for resolving Thailand’s far southern “problem”, there have been a plethora of solutions offered. These are:

A. Simple Repression: Continuing the status quo offers only short-term solutions to dealing with the southern insurgency. In 2013, 150,000 soldiers, police and paramilitaries are locked in a seemingly unending clash with approximately 3,000-9,000 Malay-Muslim guerrilla fighters. Yet simple force has led to no long-term exit toward peace. Though the violence seemed to diminish in 2007, it grew again in 2009 and refuses to fade away. Meanwhile, the state has expended a great deal on various military and political efforts. A continuation in this state of affairs simply means more deaths; increased financial costs for the security effort; continuing domestic and foreign criticisms of Thailand; and, an inability to safely exploit the resources of the region. 

B. Secession: Thailand’s principal insurgent groups have long advocated the secession of Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat as well as a few parts of Songkhla province to establish some sort of independent Pattani Republic. If the three provinces were to secede together, they would be following the model of Timor Leste (East Timor) which was allowed to secede from Indonesia in 1999. Clearly, this would be the final option for the Thai government because it would mean a loss of territory. The advantages would be that Bangkok would appear magnanimous and achieve a positive image in the world. Also, secession would save lives, time, and finance in the long term. Finally, it would prevent any more human rights violations by Thai police, soldiers, and paramilitaries. However, Muslim violence against Buddhists in the seceded state might continue. Also, a new problem might arise about how to relocate Buddhists or other people from the seceded territory. At the same time, after secession, radical Muslims might carry out an increased number of revenge attacks against more moderate Muslims considered to be “collaborators” by the extremists. Moreover, an independent Pattani would be faced with stark economic challenges, as the new country would have to find ways to attract investment and employ its people. Furthermore, secession would bring forth new frontier demarcation problems. Finally, the Thai state (particularly the Army and arch-royalists) is highly unlikely to accept secession, whatever the costs of maintaining the far South as part of Thailand. As such, secession offers an unlikely outcome of the southern insurgency.

C. Diffrerent Types of Autonomy: Autonomy has slowly come to be a possible solution to the crisis in the South.  And indeed there are different possible forms of autonomy, which might be possible.

1.     Decentralization
In this sense we are talking about administrative decentralization, in some form or another for the areas threatened by Malay–Muslim insurgency in the deep South.  Decentralization gives citizens or their elected representatives more power in public decision-making. Administrative decentralization refers to the devolution of control, responsibility and management of finances to different levels of governance. Thailand made a major move toward political decentralization in 1994 with the passage of the Act on Tambon Councils and Tambon Administrative Organizations (enshrined in the 1997 and 2007 constitutions). Through focusing on the sub-district level, this Act initiated the path toward elected officials at the sub-district, metropolitan and provincial levels. Although direct elections for provincial governors have not come to fruition in Thailand, such a policy alternative might help the people of Pattani, Narathirwat and Yala accomplish the degree of autonomy that all sides can accept.

An alternative form of decentralization would be to establish a special administrative district for Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala—one of the proposals suggested by the National Reconciliation Commission (NRC) in 2006. In 2009, the pro-Thaksin Puea Thai Party—began pushing strongly for the establishment of such a Nakhon Pattani or “Pattani City”—as a political solution to the southern insurgency, though the party partially backed off on this idea in 2011.

Decentralization in either form would be a means by which southern Malay–Muslims can gain more control over policies affecting them, at least at the local level.  Indeed the use of decentralization, somewhat successful as a means of satiating dissent in local areas, perhaps saved Indonesia from falling apart after 1998.  But Thailand is a unitary state and decentralization reined in was still tightly controlled by Bangkok. Also, most Buddhists in the far South are vehemently opposed to granting such decentralized elections as it might diminish Buddhist political influence in the region.  

2.     A Ministry of Southern Affairs
In 2008, a proposal was put forth outlining administrative reorganization arrangements in the three southern provinces, including the creation of a new ministry to manage the region.  This ministry of southern border provinces would be overseen by an MP (member of parliament) from the region and would have power over the region’s budgetary and policy affairs in socio-economic, educational, though it would not control security. Under the aegis of the ministry, several local councils were to be created, including a regional people’s assembly composed of various occupational groups’ representatives which would act in a consultative capacity. This idea of a ministry for the southern border provinces is useful because it does not tread on the military’s monopoly on security policy. However, the danger is that the ministry will simply become a peripheral actor so long as the military continues to dominate policies of security and development for the deep South.  Also, what good is such a ministry without some form of autonomous zone or provincial decentralization?

Ultimately, any notions of autonomy or near-autonomy will continue to meet resistance by bureaucratic and local Buddhist interests.  At the same time, advocates of such proposals must be careful not to offend royal prestige given that the southern frontier area is part of the Kingdom of Thailand (McCargo, 2010:265).  


Photo: Nakharin Chinnawornkomal.

D. Negotiations with Insurgents: A major challenge facing those seeking to quell the insurgency has been the inability to identify the person/persons responsible for the attacks since no organization has ever claimed responsibility or specified demands.  At the same time, over the years, there have been splits in older extremist groups while new ones have arisen. This has created serious obstacles for the Thai government and, as such, it has tried to negotiate with groups which it believes can influence the insurgency. The Surayud appointed government, followed by the pro-Thaksin elected governments of Samak Sundaravej and then Somchai Wongsawat, and the anti-Thaksin, Democrat-led government of Abhisit Vechachiwa, were unable to establish any substantial talks. Then, on June 8, 2009, members of a government death squad entered a mosque full of worshippers and opened fire, killing 10. Thereupon, the militants demanded that the state arrest the gunmen or the peace process would be in tatters. The government was slow to respond and negotiations were temporarily derailed.  Thailand’s military publicly remains in favour of peace talks, but only in conjunction with security measures so as to pressure the insurgents to come to the table.  Meanwhile there are several potential spoilers of any negotiations: arch-royalists, military hardliners, newer militant groups; crime syndicates affiliated with local politicians; and, Buddhist vigilantes. 

Thailand’s most serious attempt at negotiations commenced on February 28 2013, when the Yingluck government’s National Security Council Chief Paradorn Pattanabutr signed an agreement with a member of one insurgent group (the BRN-C or Barisan Revolusi Nasional-Coordinate) to commence formal peace talks. These negotiations were facilitated by secret discussions in 2012 among Thaksin, the BRN-C and the government of Malaysia. The agreement has so far given way to three rounds of talks: in March, April and June of 2013. Yet there have thus far been few tangible results, although the negotiations (with Malaysia participating) have helped to legitimize the insurgents’ cause. However, at least the fact that talks are occurring is preferable to no talks at all.

It was at these negotiations that the Yingluck government brought up again its earlier support for a special administrative zone in southern Thailand—a proposal which the army was dead set against. Simultaneously, BRN-C representatives demanded the withdrawal of Thai security forces from the three far southern provinces; the release of all insurgents from prison; and, participation in the negotiations by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) as well as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The base BRN-C demand continues to be either secession for Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala or a special administrative zone, which offers extreme autonomy.

Meanwhile, violence has intensified while any gains from the talks have been few.  After July 2013, both the BRN-C and Thai army became increasingly rigid in their positions. As a result, Yingluck’s government continued to put off the next negotiating round. At the end of November her government cited Thai political turmoil as a reason to again delay the talks. However, the BRN-C in December announced that there would be no more negotiations if Thailand did not accept all of its demands. By the end of 2013, for all intents and purposes, negotiations were close to dead. In early 2014, with no Thai government holding official office, the talks are at a standstill.

Divisions between the Army and Yingluck’s government about far southern policy have weakened the Thai position regarding negotiations, with the Army Commander voicing criticism of the talks while the Prime Minister has defended them.  The military has denounced the negotiations, contending that the BRN-C is only one of the insurgent groups; that it can hardly control other southern such groups; that Thailand must not surrender territory to appease the rebels; that even granting autonomy cedes too much control to rebels; and, that the BRN-C has been insincere in its negotiations. The Royal Thai Army perceives Thaksin and Malaysia as meddling in its traditional control over far southern affairs. Unfortunately for Yingluck, though she has wanted to pursue negotiations, she cannot proceed without support from the army, as it remains the dominant security force in southern Thailand.

Meanwhile, insurgent groups themselves are divided. Though the BRN-C has negotiated with Thailand, other insurgent groups such as PULO have been autonomous from BRN-C directives, and actually in competition. Such insurrectionist disunity diminishes the legitimacy of the BRN-C as representative of all insurgents to the Thais, making the negotiations rather fruitless.


Photo: Fuad Waesamea.


Today Thailand’s southern insurgency is perhaps the most violent in East Asia. Insurrection-related violence is again on the rise, confounding the Thai government as to how to adequately respond. The Yingluck goverment appeared to recognize that structural reforms in the southern border provinces were necessary. But its stance in negotiations was slow and sabotaged by hardliners, such as the Army. Meanwhile, the insurgents themselves were unable to unite behind a common goal. 

Only with greater commitment to negotiations and enhanced trust on both sides can any substantive dialogue with southern militants commence. Moderates in the three provinces need to work with the Thai state to guarantee security from Muslim and Buddhist militants alike. Only with wholesome reforms, especially increased autonomy, enhanced legal rights and educational freedom for Malay–Muslims in the far South, can the beginning of a secure peace be achieved in southern Thailand. The key to attaining this goal, however, is for both sides to become willing to compromise seriously. Yet compromise necessitates a unity of position for the Thai state (army and government) as well as insurgent groups alike. Right now, there is no unity on either side. Only a unified commitment by each side to move toward compromise—and to sacrifice most-favoured objectives—will usher Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala toward a reduction in tensions. 

Paul Chambers 
Chiang Mai University

Dr. Paul Chambers is Director of Research and Lecturer at the Institute of Southeast Asian Affairs, Faculty of Political Science and Public Administration, Chiang Mai University.  He is also concurrently Research Fellow at the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt and German Institute of Global and Area Studies, Hamburg, Germany. He has written extensively on security sector reform, democracy, and peace studies, especially in Southeast Asia and has published widely as the author of books and journal articles alike.