Thailand’s Troubled Border: Islamic Insurgency or Criminal Playground?

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 10


Security in southern Thailand has been brought into sharp focus during the past five months as armed attacks have swept across the four Malay Muslim provinces of Pattani Narithiwat, Yala and Satun. In January, Islamic radicals carried out a series of near simultaneous attacks in the region, torching 21 schools, cutting off local communications and mounting a daring raid against a military camp that resulted in the seizure of over 400 firearms, including 380 M16s. More recently, on April 28, a series of clashes between Muslim militants and security forces left more than 107 people dead–32 of them in the famed Krue Se Mosque of Pattani–marking the bloodiest day of political violence in the Kingdom’s recent history. While the reasons for the escalating violence remain somewhat unclear, a combination of three factors seem to have been at play: a resurgence of local unrest; extremism instigated by outside forces and influences; and violence stemming from a confluence of vested criminal interests and official corruption.

A Resurgence of Local Unrest

The Thai provinces of Pattani, Narithiwat, Yala and Satun have long acted as a zone of Islamist discontent and violence. This situation has been fostered by local resentment of central government assimilation policies. The region’s poverty and underdevelopment relative to the rest of the country, administrative corruption and arbitrary (as well as often brutal) security measures enacted in the name of national security have also exacerbated the problem. The main vehicle for channeling Islamic discontent in southern Thailand has been the Pattani United Liberation Organization (PULO), a group set up in 1968 to forcibly separate the Malay Muslim provinces through the use of arms. From the 1970s through the 90s the group carried out numerous bombings and acts of arson in pursuit of its independence agenda, becoming particularly infamous for attacking Buddhist temples, schools, government administrators and other symbols of perceived Thai political and cultural dominance.

Although PULO continues to exist in name, the organization’s operational potential has become increasingly limited since 2000 for two main reasons: First, more effective border cooperation between Thailand and Malaysia, which has deprived PULO operatives of access to crucial safehavens and logistical basing facilities in the contiguous state of Kelantan; Second, greater sensitivity on the part of the central Thai government in addressing the economic, social and political grievances of the southern Muslim provinces. This has served to ameliorate memories of past discrimination and thereby helped to reduce popular support for armed separatism. In reflecting this, Vinai Sama-oon, vice-chairman of the Central Islamic Committee of Thailand, told a gathering of 500 Muslims at a mosque in April that there is no longer any justification for jihad in southern Thailand, as there was now an explicit commitment on the part of Bangkok to guarantee freedom of religion and expression.

This being said, there remains a very real potential for militant separatism in the south. While conditions on the ground have improved, lingering ethno-religious grievances persist among significant sections of the local populace, some of whom continue to view the majority Buddhist Thai state as a foreign occupying power. Moreover, PULO has proven to be a fairly resilient force, benefiting both from latent pools of support among the Thai Muslim community and the inherently porous nature of the frontier to the south, which continues to be highly prone to illicit cross-border crossings despite more concerted security patrols. At the time of writing, the group’s overall hardcore membership was still estimated to be in the hundreds (senior military Thai officials claim the figure is closer to a thousand)–constituting more than enough manpower to instigate and propagate acts of violence and terrorism. PULO has already claimed responsibility for much of the unrest that has swept through the southern Malay provinces, warning that more acts will follow as part of a renewed effort to bring added focus and vigor to the Pattani people’s legitimate right to national self-determination.

Violence Instigated by Outside Influences

Western intelligence officials fear that the latest wave of violence reflects more than a resurgence of local unrest and may in fact be indicative of a region that is emerging as a new operational and logistical beachhead for transnational Islamic terrorism. While it is still too early to conclude that this is indeed the case, a number of factors do lend support to this thesis:

The nature and scale of the violence that has hit the south this year is of a magnitude and sophistication that would seem to suggest at least limited external planning and support. Indeed, both the Thai Army Chief and commander of troops in the south (General Chaisit Shinawatra and Lieutenant General Pisarn Wattanawongkiri respectively), have already hinted as much. They claim that the perpetrators of the April 28 attacks were acting under orders received from outside the country, and assisted in their endeavors by militants possibly tied to Jemaah Islamiya (JI) or affiliate groupings such as Kumpulan Mujahideen Malaysia (KMM). At the time of writing, at least seven of those involved in the assaults had been identified as nationals from undisclosed third countries. Also, it is now known that Thailand has not only been the venue of past JI operational meetings–including one that supposedly gave the “green light” for the 2002 Bali bombings in Indonesia–but was also the base of al-Qaeda’s reputed point man in Southeast Asia, Riduan Isammudin (aka “Hambali”), prior to his capture in 2003.

Pockets of highly radicalized Islamic sentiment continue to exist in southern Thailand, many of which appear to gravitate to Middle Eastern Wahhabist information flows that portray Muslims as an oppressed people engaged in a unified struggle against a common enemy. For these radicals, the objective of a separate Pattani state will always be secondary to the imperatives of a wider jihadist campaign fought against infidels and non-believers. Indeed, in claiming responsibility for the April 28 attacks, PULO has already adopted an unprecedented anti-western tone, specifically warning foreign tourists against traveling to the deep south or beach resorts popular with Europeans and Americans such as Phuket, Krabi or Phang Na. Add to this the fact that a large number of Thailand’s Muslim community have a tradition of traveling overseas to study in the Middle East, some of who have doubtless returned with more hardline attitudes of the sort that can quickly resonate with the reasoning and rhetoric of charismatic, outside demagogues.

Furthermore, Southern Thailand’s infamously porous maritime borders, which lie contiguous to the Islamic Malaysian and Indonesian archipelagos as well as strategic maritime trading routes across the Gulf of Thailand and Andaman Sea, makes it a logical staging point for external jihadists seeking alternative operational hubs in Southeast Asia. Indeed, the region is already known to have played host to a plethora of outside religious groupings, including Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (GAM), Hizbollah, and Islamists from both Bangladesh and India. Finally, the Thai government’s explicit endorsement of capitalist materialism and the Kingdom’s close security ties with the United States and Australia make it an obvious target of aggression for anti-western extremists. This would include those that endorse and seek to propagate the ideas of Bin Laden and Abu Bakir Ba’ayshir (JI’s alleged spiritual leader).

Criminal Influences and Political Corruption?

While the violence may well have had external influences, several informed political and security analysts in Thailand believe the current spate of attacks has more to do with entrenched criminal interests than localized or imported Islamic radicalism. Certainly, the southern Malay provinces have an active tradition of black market activity, with syndicates participating in a range of illicit endeavors from non-licensed gambling and “under-the-table” oil sales to gun running, human trafficking, prostitution and drugs smuggling. These groups have often clashed in the past as they sought to expand their various enterprises and establish control over additional lucrative markets and sales turf. According to one leading scholar at the Prince of Songkla University, the violence that is presently spreading through much of the south is a manifestation of this of competition, the dimensions of which have expanded as more and more players have sought to enter what has been characterized as the “last criminal playground of Thailand.”

There has also been speculation about a marriage of convenience between local criminal syndicates and corrupt politicians/military officials seeking to promote their own business interests. One theory making the rounds is that the wave of violence over the last five months was deliberately engineered to create a fake insurgency to justify an influx of security funds, which could then be siphoned off by well-placed individuals in the local administrative and security apparatus. Others have postulated that the overwhelming use of arson reflects an attempt to ensure the institutionalization of long-term reconstruction contracts that can then be used as a medium through which to arrange mutually beneficial pay-offs and kick-backs.

The Future

A recent investigation by Deputy Prime Minister Purachai Piumsombun concluded that the recent bout of violence was 25% locally instigated, 25% externally inspired and 50% criminally oriented. Whatever the exact breakdown and causal factors, it is clear that the southern Malay provinces have yet to emerge as a stable, fully functioning and integrated component of the Thai state. It is imperative that the government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra move to quickly and effectively address the deteriorating situation through an appropriately tailored policy package that includes local law enforcement, regional intelligence and border cooperation and customized socio-economic development programs. If this is not done, not only will the south act as a fiscal drain on Bangkok–hotel bookings in the perennially popular south are already down twenty percent, with tourism constituting some six percent of the country’s gross domestic product–it will also heighten the risk of the region degenerating into yet another entrenched zone of lawlessness. This, then, would create problems of the sort that have been so apparent in other parts of Southeast Asia such as Mindanao and the outer wings of the Indonesian archipelago.