Thailand’s Islamist Insurgency on the Brink

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 2 Issue: 18

With the pace of violence in Thailand increasing—the death toll since the renewal of the insurgency in January 2004 now exceeds 1000, making the region the most violent arena for Muslim violence outside Iraq—fears are growing that the Thai insurgency will take on more overtly regional features, and transform from a secessionist into a full-blown Jihadist-struggle. The Muslim dominated southern Thai provinces of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat have suffered severe economic damage from the constant barrage of bombings, murders and intimidation. One estimate puts the numbers of Buddhists who have fled the region since the renewal of the insurgency in January 2004 at over 34,000.

Bangkok’s response to date—that the violence in the south is an internal problem it can handle on its own—underpins the nature of the security response. This has taken the form of a troop presence of roughly 30,000 additional soldiers and police forces, as well as heavy-handed suppression. There has been no decrease in the violence as a result of this policy, yet on July 17 the Thai Cabinet issued an emergency decree granting Prime Minster Thaksin Shinawatra more sweeping powers in the three southern provinces and immunity to security forces in the emergency zones ( The insistence on further intensification like this has led observers to ascribe the pursuit of the tactic to Shinawatra’s need to rescue his sinking public approval rating.

The issue of the insurgency’s ‘internalization’ was recently highlighted by former army commander General Kitti Rattanachaya, a security adviser to the Prime Minister, who warned on September 29 that Indonesian fighters are involved, contradicting government insistence on its purely domestic dimensions ( Thai militants have thus far maintained the local nature of the insurgency, but add that training is taking place within Thailand, again contradicting Bangkok’s objections that Malaysia is not doing enough to suppress training camps on its bordering territory in the north. An AP report ran a telling comment by rebel leader Lukman Lima to the effect that the insurgents were receiving financial support from abroad, “especially from Islamic sympathizers in Malaysia and Saudi Arabia.”

If so, this puts an entirely different complexion on the future of the southern provinces. Foreign mujahid intervention almost exclusively means extreme Islamist influence will be added to the equation. There is already evidence that many of the victims of the insurgency are Muslims themselves, considered to be ‘collaborationist’ for the moderate nature of their views. The longer the absence of a resolution, the greater the prospect of the Thai Muslim insurgency succumbing to Salafist domination, whereby the local Muslim culture becomes subordinated to austere ‘Wahhabi’ influences, useful in providing a groundwork for exporting jihadi culture.

A taste of the threatened regionalization from the spillover into neighboring countries is already taking place. At the end of August, 131 Thai Muslims fled from the violence across the southern border into Malaysia. This fuelled a political dilemma for Kuala Lumpur as it wrestled with the domestic fallout of forcibly repatriating them. The cause of the Thai refugees has received popular sympathy and is being actively supported by members of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), a Islamist radical party that has control over the northern province of Kelantan bordering Thailand. This and the ongoing dispute over the reputed existence of training camps used by Thai Muslims in Kelantan, sets the scene for expansion. Meanwhile the image the conflict is presenting, of a Muslim community brutally suppressed, is doing the propaganda work for the Islamists, which may not have to draw reserves from far afield. As Indonesian troops withdraw from Aceh in the wake of the peace accord ending the separatist rebellion initiated in 1976, the question must be asked about how far ties of cooperation with tried-and-tested Muslim rebels in Aceh—with only the Straits of Malacca to separate them from Thailand’s southern provinces—have been established. This in addition to the historical evidence of Jemaah Islamiyah’s interest in Thailand, with the capture there of their operational chief Riduan Isamuddin (“Hambali”) in 2003, spell out an Islamist insurgency that is about to overflow.