The Separatism of the Southern Provinces

Thailand's Southern provinces have a long separatist tradition. But whereas in the 1960s and 70s the opposition to Bangkok was mainly leftist, it has now turned Islamist. Henriette Wrege talked to Farish Noor, Islam expert and political scientist

photo: AP
Violent Islamist groups targeted – Thai soldier in front of the Krue Se Mosque in the troubled province of Pattani

​​Violence is part of everyday life in Thailand, says human rights activist Farish Noor. The political scientist from the Center for Modern Oriental Studies (ZMO) in Berlin has been devoting his attention to the uprisings in southern Thailand for a long time.

From January 2004 to August 2005 approximately 800 people have been killed and over 1,000 injured. In the provinces near the Malaysian border, the army and the police are trying to restore peace with forces of 20,000 men.

War on two fronts

Farish Noor believes that the main victims of this operation will be innocent bystanders. When Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra came to power several years ago, he resolved to eliminate the two greatest threats to security in Thailand: the Thai drug cartel and the Muslim insurgency in the southern provinces.

During the campaign against the drug mafia, in which several thousand people were killed, only the media and human rights groups protested against the violent attacks of the government, according to Noor. Then Thaksin turned to the south:

"Many Muslims live in the south," explains the political scientist and human rights activist, "but they are just normal citizens and not criminals. Furthermore, the south is the stronghold of the opposition Democratic Party."

The religious schools – the "madrassas" – h ave become the target of the police and the army in Pattani. Last October, six teachers at a madrassa were arrested and accused of preparing young fighters ideologically for holy war against Thailand's majority Buddhist population in their school. During a protest in front of the police station where the teachers were being held, 86 demonstrators were killed.

The death of so many peaceable citizens shocked the Muslim population, says Farish Noor. The madrassas are anything but recruitment centers for Islamist fanatics:

"All we know beyond that is that it is a local issue in southern Thailand. We also know that a very moderate, traditional form of Islam is taught in the madrassas in this area. The Malays living in southern Thailand never wanted to adopt Arab-style Islam. For that reason, the programs financed with Arab funds were never successful in Pattani, either."

Against Wahhabi influences

Thai Muslims also take a critical view of Saudi Arabian Wahhabism. The Islam that is taught in the madrassas might perhaps be regarded as conservative or old-fashioned, but never violent, according to Noor.

For years the Pattani region was considered to be "unlegislated territory." The tropical rain forest used to serve as a refuge for Malaysian communists, and in the 1960s and 70s the separatists also hid in the jungle.

Furthermore, there is hardly another region in Thailand where the density of secret service agents is as high as it is in Songkhla, Pattani, and Yala. Nevertheless, the government is powerless against the phenomenon of these violent cells, which operate independently of each other.

"At the beginning, especially after the bomb attack on Bali, there was much speculation about where these groups come from and who finances them," explains Noor. "The activists of the 60s and 70s were separatists fighting for Pattani's independence. But today's militants have entirely different goals. As a rule, they are not even 20 years old, they are all Thai citizens, and there is no indication of outside financing."

Random terrorism against the civilian population

Unlike the separatists, who were fighting for the autonomy of the province of Pattani and primarily attacked the military and the police, today the extremely militant, aggressive young Islamists are killing their neighbors. What is new about the violence in southern Thailand is that innocent civilians, shopkeepers, poor farmers, teachers, and Buddhist monks are being murdered indiscriminately.

"Southern Thailand is very poor and has a long tradition of corruption and abuse of power by the local elite, the army, and the police. Human rights violations are nothing out of the ordinary," says Farish Noor. "As a result, the population has a rather hostile attitude toward the government. The people in the region have the feeling that they are treated like second-class human beings in their own country."

Against this backdrop, Noor's chief concern is that the situation will neither improve nor worsen, but that everything will continue as before – no day without violence, no day without an attack in southern Thailand.

This is aggravated by the fact that the people have learned to see nothing, to hear nothing, and to keep secrets to themselves – no matter whether they concern drug trafficking, secret service operations, or terrorism.

Henriette Wrege


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