The wave of violence in Southern Thailand (1) that began in January 2004 has continued unabated to date. Nearly 2,000 attacks have taken place in the region and the bloodshed has claimed almost 1,000 victims. (2) Media reports tend to represent the insurgency as Islamic in nature and portray attacks as revenge against the Buddhists. Increasingly, the perpetrators of violence in Southern Thailand are being depicted as suspected "Islamic" or "Muslim" militants. But is it accurate to suggest that the adversaries in the Southern Thailand unrest have always been Buddhists and Muslims? Surveying the century-old conflict suggests that the rise of the religious factor in the Southern Thailand strife is only a recent occurrence.
Contemporary literature on the conflict in Southern Thailand has attempted to study the turmoil through the lens of international terrorism and this has led to an extensive analysis of the active terrorist groups in the region (Chongkittavorn 2004; Gunaratna, Acharya, and Chua 2005). Some analysts have further implicated the strife in the southern provinces of Thailand with "jihad" at the regional level (Sheridan 2004). Other recent inquires (Che Man 1990; Chalk 2001; Yegar 2002, pp. 73-181) too are predisposed towards emphasizing the role of Buddhism and Islam since the beginning of the conflict. They do not question whether religion has always been a factor since the inception of the unrest and if not, the raison d'etre for the change.
Earlier studies on the Southern Thailand unrest place less emphasis on religion (Suhrke 1975; Haemindra 1976; Suhrke 1977). They instead consider the antagonists as chiefly Thai and Malay. A few studies recognize this change and make the analytical distinction between ethnicity and religion (Pitsuwan 1982; Christie 1996, pp. 173-90) in the Southern Thailand conflict. The notion of being Thai or Malay is identified primarily by cultural symbols such as language and education. The idea of being Buddhist or Muslim is established by references specifically to Buddhism or Islam. These attributes are located within local and global events, state policies as well as the aims, demands and actions of the rebel groups in the unrest.
This analytical difference between ethnicity and religion is significant to facilitate the accurate classification of the opponents in the discord. While some scholars highlight that the notion of being Thai is closely associated with being Buddhist and the idea of being Malay is synonymous with being Muslim (Farouk 1988; Che Man 1990), they do not acknowledge that being Buddhist is not limited to being Thai and the conception of being Muslim is much broader than being Malay. Loosely identifying the two warring sides in an insurgency can lead to the implementation of flawed policies and aggravate the violence.
The aim of this article is twofold. First, it seeks to explain the transformation of the Southern Thailand conflict from a primarily ethnic "Thai versus Malay" discord to a predominantly religious "Buddhist versus Muslim" strife. Second, it evaluates the consequences of dealing with the insurgency as a solely religious predicament. However, it does not contend with the root causes of the conflict. (3) It is more interested in how these grievances are translated into framing the adversaries of the conflict.
The main argument of this article is that it is flawed to treat the Southern Thailand conflict as entirely between Buddhists and Muslims. Despite the rise of the religious component in the strife, ethnic divides are still deeply entrenched in the insurgency. The article is split into five parts. The first section briefly outlines the genesis of the conflict in Southern Thailand. The second segment will address the surfacing of ethnic Thai and Malay divides in the rebellion. The third part will study the emergence and development of religious Buddhist and Islamic partitions in the revolt. The fourth section explains the shift from Thai-Malay friction to Buddhist-Muslim hostility and also examines the media's portrayal of the conflict. The final part of this article will question the extent to which the conflict in Southern Thailand is purely religious and investigate the consequences of treating it as one.
The Origins of the Conflict
The provinces of Pattani, (4) Yala, Narathiwat, and Satun once constituted "Patani Raya" or "Greater Patani" (Che Man 1990, p. 32), wedged between the Siamese empire to its north and the Malacca sultanate to its south. Although it was the target of influence of both neighbours, their domains of authority diverged. Culturally, the people of Patani were aligned with Malacca but politically, they found themselves under Siamese suzerainty. The southward expansion of Siam, especially after the defeat of Malacca by the Portuguese in 1511, forced the Malay sultanate of Patani to enter into a tributary relationship with Siam. They were obligated to pay an accolade of gold flowers called Bunga Mas (Che Man 1990, p. 34). Although the Malay sultans viewed this gift as a sign of friendship with Siam, the latter regarded it as a symbol of allegiance (Yegar 2002, p. 74).
The Malay raja of Patani detested their vassal association with Siam and each time the latter was perceived to be weak, they stopped paying tribute. The initial revolts by Patani occurred between 1630 and 1633 (Che Man 1990, p. 34). Conflict once again erupted after the Burmese ransacked the Siamese capital of Ayuthya in 1767. Frustrated with these frequent rebellions by Patani, King Rama I decided to abolish its tributary status and in 1785 undertook a campaign to absorb it into the Siamese empire along with Malay sultanates of Kedah, Kelantan, and Trengganu (Haemindra 1976, p. 198). In the process, the existing rulers of Patani were sidelined and leaders loyal to Siam were appointed. This led to revolts by Raja Tengku Lamidin during 1789-91 and later by his successor Dato Pengkalan in 1808 (Che Man 1990, p. 35). Bangkok managed to stave off these challenges and decided to divide the region into seven smaller provinces. Despite these measures, trouble in Kedah led to fresh bids for independence in 1832 and 1838 but these came to naught (Haemindra 1976, p. 200). This further caused the split of Kedah and the creation of present-day Satun province (Che Man 1990, p. 35). (5)
The nature of the resistance against Siam until the early 20th century was aristocratic. Matrimonial bonds were formed between the Siamese and Malays and their dealings were directed by concerns over power rather than notions of ethnic or religious solidarity (McVey 1989, p. 34). A united opposition was forged largely in the 19th century after King Rama I's decision to incorporate the Malay kingdoms directly under the Siamese that led to the isolation of existing elites. The joint confrontation was showing fledgling signs of ethnic Malay camaraderie but the revolts against Siam were still primarily a quest for political independence or, at the very least, autonomy.
The Emergence of the Thai versus Malay Conflict
Faced with an increasing threat from the British in Malaya (Farouk 1984, p. 236), King Chulalongkorn decided to accelerate the process of assimilation and centralize the administration of the southern provinces under Bangkok. The creation of the "Area of the Seven Provinces" administrative body in 1901 to govern the southern provinces was a key move in this strategy. This alienated the Malay raja and nobility in the region but most accepted the reparation offered by Bangkok. The then Raja of Patani, Tengku Abdul Kadir, was among the few who resisted the change and was jailed for his opposition but was released a couple of years later after he signed a guarantee to renounce politics (Haemindra 1976, pp. 202-3). The British also opposed the administrative rearrangement and concluded a treaty with Siam in 1909 in which Bangkok had to relinquish Kedah, Kelantan, Perlis, and Trengganu. Although this resulted in the political segregation of the Malays, the broad cultural, commercial, and personal bonds between the Malay communities on either side of the border were sustained (Farouk 1984, p. 236).
The Siamese government began to emphasize the use of Thai language after 1910. There was a concerted attempt to educate the Malays in Thai (Dulyakasem 1991, p. 141) and this led to periodic protests in the southern provinces. …