Religion and Conflict in Southern Thailand: Beyond Rounding Up the Usual Suspects

By Joll, Christopher M. | Contemporary Southeast Asia, August 2010 | Go to article overview

Religion and Conflict in Southern Thailand: Beyond Rounding Up the Usual Suspects


Joll, Christopher M., Contemporary Southeast Asia


The present conflict in Thailand's far south continues to attract much attention from academics and analysts. While applauding approaches framing aspects of this conflict in the wider context of Thai society that is facing a range of crises, many remain concerned with establishing local connections to global jihadi movements. (1) Such an approach resembles the rounding up of the "usual suspects" ordered by inspector Louis Renault in the closing scene of the 1942 classic movie Casablanca. Anthony Johns likens this to studies of Southeast Asian Islam where the interrogation of the usual suspects has become a routine exercise. While there may be ways to make people talk, there are many more questions to ask and interrogators are capable of putting into suspects' mouths what they want them to say. In short, there is the need to "discover ways and means of moving beyond what has become habitual, of finding new questions to ask and more suspects to round up". (2)

This article sets out to achieve a number of goals in the discussion on the role of religion in Thailand's southern conflict since 2004. Before asking new questions of Thailand's southern Malay Muslims, the paper begins by rounding up some "unusual suspects", specifically, the uncivil elements of Thai Buddhism. This approach resembles that of Juergensmeyer's study of religious violence which examines the logic of violence by Christians, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs and Buddhists. (3) The article also seeks to develop Imtiyaz Ynsuf's persuasive proposal that the southern violence represents a conflict between the competing exclusive ethno-religious worldviews of Thai and Malay religions.

Attempts at a clear and coherent discussion of religion in southern Thailand are complicated by more than the inseparability of Islam and Malayness. Dynamics viewed as religious also relate to local history, politics, education and economics. For instance, chronic unemployment explains the ease with which young Malay men are recruited by insurgents, for two reasons. (4) First, the large number of Malay Muslim migrant workers in Malaysia means that many parents are unable to protect their children from being recruited by the insurgents, and these recruits themselves would be less attracted to the movement if they were engaged in gainful employment. Joining such movements--like a religious education and involvement in da'wah (Arabic for Islamic "missionary" movements) groups--bolster the cultural capital of unemployed Malays. Second, the reduction of space shared by ethnic Thais and ethnic Malays in southern Thailand has been perpetuated by the preference of Malay Muslims for private schools teaching Islam (PSTI) (rongrian soon satsana Islam), or reformed pondok over Thai state schools. Not only do PSTI students have less contact with Thai Buddhists, but on graduation are also less equipped to find places in Thailand's modern economy?

This article begins by rounding up some new suspects in the ethno-religious conflict, before beginning the important task of asking new questions about the usual suspects.

Rounding Up New Suspects

Michael Jerryson's research on the role played by monks in southern Thailand offers correctives to what he regards as the misconception that Buddhism is a mystical and inherently peaceful religion. This, according to Jerryson, has led to a lack of attention to the role of Buddhists in a number of conflicts. (6) The context for Jerryson's study is the attack in 2004 of nine Buddhist temples (War) in which four monks were killed, and two others injured. The most highly publicized of these was the murder of monks and novices at Phromprasit temple in Panare in October 2005. Following this incident, the Sangha committee of Pattani published a twenty point declaration which included calls for the abolition of the National Reconciliation Commission (NRC) (of which more later). Despite assertions by McCargo that this initiative was backed by elements of the military, and the names of some monks were included without their consent, the Pattani Sangha claimed the NRC to have shown little interest in the plight of local Buddhists. …

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