The separatist insurgency in the majority Malay provinces of Thailand’s so-called “Deep South” is a vexing conflict. It is frequently categorized in Western media sources as a “just enough” concern – just violent enough to matter, but just peaceful enough to not warrant close attention. In Thailand as well, the conflict remains a perpetual middle-level priority for the government, overshadowed by the more existential threat of anti-government student protests and regional security concerns like the coup in Myanmar, which has led to an influx of refugees into Thailand. In April 2020, the largest separatist rebel group in Southern Thailand, the “functional” faction of the Patani Malay National Revolutionary Front (BRN-C), declared a unilateral ceasefire in response to the spread of COVID-19, placing the conflict even further onto the backburner.
Nevertheless, separatism in Thailand’s Deep South has the potential to claim more lives, attention, and headline space in the months and years to come. Religious and political fracture points still persist in the region, raising the potential for a resurgence in violence at any moment. This is evident in the very low COVID-19 vaccination rates in the southern provinces of Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat, with low uptake rates at least partially connected to Patani Malays’ general mistrust of the central Thai government, which is administering the vaccines.
Increasingly, Thai security and policy circles recognize the risks of a perpetual conflict. A recent article in the Bangkok Post argued for lifting the 16-year-old Emergency Decree over the Deep South provinces, citing local activists who argued that the decree has been ineffective in reducing violence and violates the human rights of southern citizens. The decree, which must be renewed every three months, allows for the internal rendition of terror suspects, military involvement in police raids, and the right to keep any suspects in military detention for up to 30 days without charge. It is the crucial legal framework that permits the Thai security services to conduct anti-terror operations in the Deep South with impunity. The article cites claims by the Duay Jai aid group that over 7,000 people, including 24 women and at least 132 children, have been detained on military bases without charge and without any access to family members or legal assistance. Additionally, 144 former detainees allege being tortured at the hands of Thai security forces since 2010.
The current ongoing round of violence in the Deep South is fairly described as beginning in 2001-2002. Then, under the leadership of the populist “red shirt” Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the conflict grew from a local to national concern after both militants and government forces willingly escalated levels of violence in response to mutual provocations, such as the 2004 Tai Bak massacre of civilian protesters by security forces. Perhaps partially to counter the royalist “yellow shirt” smears that Thaksin’s populist politics were insufficiently “Thai,” he committed the Thai state to its most aggressive campaign of militarized assimilation of Patani Malays to date. Thaksin eventually assumed near autocratic powers over the region after a declaration of emergency in 2005. Thaksin’s assertive and securitized posture towards the southern conflict continued until his removal from power in a 2006 coup by the armed forces that led to his replacement with a royalist-military government.
For its near-countless anti-democratic faults, the post-2006 coup regime brought a mildly more humanitarian approach to the Deep South conflict. It slightly wound down Thaksin’s war of choice, and committed to programs of community outreach under a “hearts and minds” campaign, albeit a well-armed and ideologically inflexible one. While this campaign did not succeed in immediately reducing levels of violence, it did establish a framework for civil society and humanitarian groups to enter the region and provide long-neglected access to public services.
Yet the real change ushered in by the 2006 coup was the reassertion of the authority of Thailand’s monarchy in managing the conflict. As first identified by the scholar Duncan McCargo, Thailand hosts a unique governing system of a “network monarchy,” where the monarchy lacks legal authority yet still controls the state, military, and society through indirect means. Prem Tinsulanond, the powerful president of the Privy Council, personally embodied this system of governance, which prioritized the inculcation of positive feelings towards Thailand’s self-professed governing pillars of nation (chart), religion (sasana), and king (phramahagasat).
The royalist military provided something Thaksin’s populism never could: some modicum of autonomy for the southern provinces. This existed in the form of a special military administration for the Deep South region termed the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Center (SBPAC), managed personally by Prem. As an extension of the network monarchy and the royalist-military state, the SBPAC developed a form of de facto autonomy for the Deep South, chiefly by co-opting local political and financial elites. In this manner, the Deep South found more “real” autonomy than under the populism of Thaksin’s rural “red shirts” movement, albeit a fragile and securitized form of autonomy.
Although Thailand has been under the rule of a similar royalist-military regime since the 2014 coup, the political situation has changed dramatically since the early post-Thaksin era. The current government of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha is far more ham-fisted, and even more anti-democratic in its royalist politics, than the 2006 government. Prem himself died in 2019, symbolizing a changing of the guard away from the delicate management of relations with restive regions of the country. On the other side of the political divide, the ongoing youth protests have evolved past Thaksinite populism and embrace a nearly unprecedented level of nihilism towards the shibboleths of nation, religion, and king.
Despite seemingly sharing a common enemy, however, the Bangkok protesters and Patani Malays share little overlap in their goals and movement. In some ways, the strange bedfellows nature of Thailand’s post-coup politics places the Patani Malays closer to the royalist camp, for reasons of both ideology and political expediency. Despite their anti-Thai state views and skepticism of any militarist-royalist regime after decades of human rights abuses, Patani Malays are similarly uninterested in a return to the democratic populism that brought Thaksin to power in 2001.
Certainly, Patani Malays are deeply cognizant of the importance of being involved in Bangkok’s politics. The population mobilized during the contentious 2019 national elections with the majority of the region voting for a single Malay Muslim bloc, the Prachachart Party, led by Wan Muhamad Noor Matha (Wan Nor). While his political ambitions for the Prachachart Party reach beyond the Deep South region, so-far without much success, his powerbase amongst Patani Malays is a result of his leveraging the historical “Wadah” faction of Thai Muslim political leaders. Although himself once a supporter of Thaksin, Wan Nor’s party flirted with aligning itself with Prayut’s ruling royalist faction, although he finally chose to sit in opposition.
This potential for a seemingly paradoxical alignment between royalists and separatists demonstrates the complexity of the Patani conflict. The memories of Thaksin’s violence are still vivid to many in the region and, given the choice between identitarian royalists and anti-establishment populists, many Patani Malays would likely prefer the former. In fact, the institution of the “network monarchy” could be used as a mechanism to widen the scope of autonomy available to Patani Malays within the confines of Thai nationalism. What is required is a certain political will by the royalist-military elites to engage with Patani Malay militants and society and consider a process for demilitarizing the conflict.
Yet the Prayut government has so far failed the test of reducing violence and tensions in the Deep South. This can partially be explained by the region’s diffuse politics. While not necessarily an internally-divided movement, the separatists can be described as somewhat fractious and decentralized. The Thai government touts its somewhat-frequent peace negotiations with the Majlis Syura Patani (MARA Patani), a coalition of mainly defunct separatist groups represented by ex-militants residing in Malaysia. MARA claims to represent the secretive leadership of the BRN-C without much evidence. Indeed, substantial negotiations between the BRN-C political wing and Bangkok directly have not progressed beyond opening talks in January 2020.
Nevertheless, the lion’s share of the blame for the conflict still rests squarely on Bangkok. The Thai government has demonstrated little flexibility in its response to militants, sowing the seeds for the future evolution of the conflict. The Royal Thai Army still dominates policy toward the region, leaving almost no room for social or political outreach to Patani Malays. Leaders in Bangkok similarly show little to no interest in extending more de jure local powers to the southern provinces, let alone to implement any real form of federalism, thus undercutting the stated aims of elected pro-peace and pro-autonomy Malay leaders. With few benefits to show for their political involvement, these elites could see a loss of support in favor of more locally-engaged violent groups. Bangkok would be wise to seize control of the growing interest in elected politics inspired by the 2019 elections while it has the chance, before a new generation finds inspiration in BRN-C separatist rhetoric.
Luckily for all sides, it appears that incentives do not exist in this immediate moment for any escalation of the conflict from either side. Violence has certainly not ended in the Deep South, but it remains at an acceptable level for all parties, enabling them to focus on other political imperatives, chiefly their response to the spread of COVID-19 in Thailand. Frankly, the surge in COVID-19 cases and the need to open tourism in Thailand’s lush south is a shared concern of both Bangkok and Patani Malays.
Yet to assume that separatists have laid down their guns to pick up masks is a fundamental misunderstanding of the situation in Thailand’s troubled south. Patani Malay mobilization has been ongoing throughout the COVID-19 pandemic in the form of pandemic response, rather than direct militant recruitment. However, such actions give separatists organizations like the BRN-C a new level of local clout and even international legitimacy as they fill a gap left by the state. While these activities can be cynically (and accurately) explained by a desire to gain relative advantage in any future negotiations, the results of this goodwill will not immediately fade when, someday, the virus does. Observers should not be surprised if violence in the Deep South seizes more headlines in the months and years to come.