Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

The Southern Thai Conflict Six Years On: Insurgency, Not Just Crime

Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

The Southern Thai Conflict Six Years On: Insurgency, Not Just Crime

Article excerpt

The violent conflict in southern Thailand which re-emerged in the popular consciousness in January 2004--more than two years after it first resumed--has been the subject of a wide range of alternative readings and interpretations. Many of these explanations tell us as much about the commentator as about the conflict itself. This article argues that the basic underpinnings of the conflict are now quite clear. The conflict in the far south is a political struggle concerning the extent to which Bangkok can exercise legitimate authority in the "Patani" region, that is, the modern Thai provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat, plus four adjoining districts of Songkhla. For a variety of reasons, however, the core nature of the conflict has been played down, misrepresented or inaccurately characterized; as Marc Askew has pointed out, people have been reluctant to "name the problem". (1) Some analysts have preferred to emphasize other explanations for what is clearly a complex and multi-causal conflict, attributing it to the rise of global Islamic militancy, socio-economic grievances, or tensions among the Bangkok political elite. The article examines the changing patterns of violence using the statistical database created by Deep South Watch, and reviews these alternative explanations in the light of the evidence. It then examines how the government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva views the problem, and suggests ways in which the Thai state could seek to increase its legitimacy in the region through policies of regionalization, administrative reform or devolution. Finally, it offers four alternative future scenarios.

The Changing Character of the Violence

According to the database of Deep South Watch, during the 73 months from January 2004 to January 2010, there were a total of 9,446 incidents of unrest, resulting in approximately 4,100 deaths and 6,509 injuries: 10,609 casualties altogether. If the families of the deceased and the injured are included, an estimated 53,045 people were directly affected by the violence. (2) While most Thais tend to assume that Buddhist fatalities exceed those of Muslims, in fact the deaths of Muslims have outnumbered those of Buddhists, though the majority of those injured have been Buddhist. Statistics (see Figure 1) show that 58.95 per cent (2,417) of the deceased were Muslims, while 38.02 per cent (1,559) were Buddhists. Among the injured, 59.82 per cent (3,894) were Buddhists, while 32.17 per cent (2,094) were Muslims.

A close scrutiny of trends in violence over this six-year period reveals several interesting patterns of change. Since 2004, the level of violence in the region has fluctuated. There were 1,838 incidents in 2004, 2,173 in 2005, 1,847 in 2006 and 1,850 in 2007. The number of incidents briefly declined after 2007, with only 821 in 2008. In 2009, however, the cases of violent incidents rose to 1,035 (see Figure 2). At the same time, the frequency of incidents is only one indicator of the level of violence. When losses and casualty rates are considered, the violence can be divided into three phases.

[FIGURE 2 OMITTED]

Phase one, from 2004 to 2007, saw a higher number of deaths and injuries; there was a wave-like pattern of incidents, fluctuating with alternating highs and lows, month after month. The most violent months were October 2004, with a total of approximately 316 deaths and injuries, and June 2007, with approximately 304 fatalities. There was a concentration of violence following the 19 September 2006 military coup, in an apparent attempt to test the resolve of the security forces. During the period from November 2006 to June 2007, four months saw more than 200 deaths and injuries and in only one month were there less than 150 deaths and injuries.

During phase two, from July 2007 to the end of 2008, the situation changed due to tactical adjustments by the state. In response to the increased violence following the 2006 coup, the military adopted the more aggressive "Southern Territory Protection Plan", which involved deploying troops to surround insurgent strongholds and arrest militant leaders. …

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