Ethnic or Religious Cleavage? Investigating the Nature of the Conflict in Southern Thailand

By Harish, S. P. | Contemporary Southeast Asia, April 2006 | Go to article overview

Ethnic or Religious Cleavage? Investigating the Nature of the Conflict in Southern Thailand


Harish, S. P., Contemporary Southeast Asia


Introduction

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. …

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