Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Thailand’s Simmering Security Crisis Gathers Steam

A quiet but increasingly deadly struggle is taking place in Thailand’s deep south.

But why has the security crisis in the three southernmost insurgency-affected provinces of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat proved to be so intractable and drawn out? And why have the Thai authorities struggled to find a viable solution to the problem? What is it that makes the situation there so hard to understand and so long-lasting?


The answer is a confluence of factors.

Thailand has grappled with insurgencies in its peripheries over the years. Thais of the central plains, who dominate the central government in Bangkok, have been loath to see the unitary power of the state diffused in some federated model akin to that found in neighbouring Malaysia.

For most of Thailand, the unitary approach has proved workable. But in southern Thailand it has failed to resonate with an ethnic and religious minority who share little in common with their Thai Buddhist counterparts.

Thailand is an overwhelmingly Theravada Buddhist country. One’s karma matters enormously and delineates one’s inherent merit and place in the social order. The predominantly ethnically Malay, religiously Muslim and linguistically Yawi-oriented people of the ‘deep south’ don’t fit readily in this model — except as a group considered with pity, if not disdain, by the Bangkok elite.

The people of Thailand’s deep south have long chafed at rule from Bangkok. The National Revolutionary Front — or Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) — that formed in 1960 originally evolved out of a violent uprising led by a local Patani leader in the late 1940s. A generation of separatist fighters emerged under various banners, including the Pattani United Liberation Organisation (PULO) in 1968. The 1970s and 1980s also saw Thailand plunge into a communist-linked insurgency. The Communist Party of Thailand, with ties to China and Malaysian counterparts, flourished in the deep south until 1976 when the effective implementation of Thai counterinsurgency methods suppressed most of the unrest. PULO still managed to carry out a series of actions that saw several killed at their hands in the 1980s and 1990s. By the time of the implementation of Thailand’s 1997 ‘people’s’ constitution, the deep south was considered pacified.

But in reality , while the insurgents appeared to have been suppressed, they had learnt an important lesson: to succeed, they needed to avoid providing obviously identifiable targets for the security forces to destroy — as PULO and BRN had. No longer would the separatist insurgents provide convenient and easy-to-target leadership structures for security forces to focus resources on and to eliminate. Instead, the insurgent network would be diffuse, obviating the need for hierarchy or significant infrastructure.

The election of Thaksin Shinawatra and the onset of the so-called global war on terror in 2001 altered the equilibrium. The search for international terrorist links surged. But the local dynamics didn’t readily fit in the Salafist Sunni extremist mould of Al Qaeda. Instead, the sense of identity and grievance in Thailand’s deep south had its own unique characteristics.

While elected, Thaksin’s party failed to gain parliamentary seats in the deep south. Not beholden to the established powerbrokers, Thaksin decided in 2002 to hand over security responsibility to the local police. This decision saw the abandonment and subsequent destruction of the Army’s circle of informants — a network that had enabled the central authorities to remain abreast of issues of concern before they got out of hand. With the network gone, the authorities were effectively blind.

A break in at an Army unit armoury in 2004 was the key turning point. With 400 military weapons and stocks of ammunition taken, the insurgents escalated the simmering conflict dramatically.

But the subsequent lack of restraint by government security forces which saw protesters beaten, jailed and even killed — was appalling. With Thai commanders feeling honour-bound to shield their subordinates from external judicial scrutiny, there was little prospect of those directly responsible being held to account. And so the sense of injustice festered further.

The decade since has seen organised crime proliferate in the area. There is also rivalry between the police and the military and their paramilitary spin-offs, each with reputations to be made and maintained. But to dismiss the conflict as principally about organised crime or interagency rivalry is to misread a more complicated story.

Thailand’s insurgents have learnt to master the art of improvised explosive devices, adapting and improving as they go. Avoiding readily discernible patterns, the insurgents have alternated their preferred techniques and targets.

Many Muslims have been killed in tit-for-tat exchanges, but intimidating Buddhists seems to be the principal driver for insurgents. Retaliations have perpetuated the resentment and the violence. Buddhists are virtually cantoned in armed and patrolled villages and major towns. Despite government efforts to encourage Buddhist Thais to live there, they are being slowly squeezed out of many parts of the south.

While earlier generations of insurgents have elicited substantial demands, the current crop of insurgents has studiously avoided declaring a manifesto. With little in terms of a political agenda to negotiate over, and in the absence of a readily identifiable and genuine leadership to engage with or target, the government’s efforts have continued to be frustrated.

The May 2014 military coup could have led to a renewed and perhaps more efficient and effective counterinsurgency campaign. But negotiations with the BRN initiated by Malaysia have broken down — partly because of the BRN’s lack of genuine influence. Insurgent violence has continued with 50 deaths a month by mid-2014.

The separatists’ military wing has proved to be innovative, adaptive and lethally unpredictable. Yet politically they have continued to be strategically cautious, conservative and ideologically anchored — not driven by the harsh ideological spin-offs witnessed in Iraq and Syria.

Today, the Thai authorities have a great challenge on their hands to resolve their Bangkok-centred political crisis, while finding a way through the morass of the deep south. Some additional concessions from the central authorities appear to be the only way of breaking the political impasse. Yet the measures most likely to satisfy the separatists’ demands are the ones the central authorities are least willing to concede.

Dr John Blaxland is a senior fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University. He is the author of the Australian Army from Whitlam to Howard (CUP 2014) and is also on Twitter.


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