Violence in Southern Thailand: More than Just Religion

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By Mio Shimma and Corey Sobel – Southern Thailand is home to a violent form of Islamic extremism that threatens the stability of both a key US ally and also of the region as a whole. The cause of this violent, decades-old conflict has been continuously attributed to the religious differences between Thailand’s majority Buddhist population and the ethnically Malay Muslim minority in the South. This explanation is unsatisfactory. Though religious differences do indeed play a part in the conflict, policymakers must also take into consideration how strong Malay nationalism and economic disparities have helped to fuel violence in the region. The need for a resolution is more urgent than ever: approximately 3,500 people have been indiscriminately killed since 2004 and, over 300 people have been reportedly killed this year alone.

Armed separatist groups in southern Thailand were formed in the 1960s as a reaction to the Thai government’s assimilation programs. These programs-intended to absorb ethnic Malay Thais into mainstream Thai society-began to be implemented in the late eighteenth-century and led the Southerners to believe that their culture was under attack. These unpopular initiatives largely disregarded the linguistic and cultural differences between Malay Muslims and the Thai Buddhists. A particular source of resentment was the removal of pondoks, Islamic schools that traditionally helped maintain the Malay Muslim identity. Another cause of friction was the reviled mandate that instructors teach students Thai instead of the traditional Malay dialect, Yawi.

In the 1980s, Bangkok took a different approach by promoting economic development programs that were intended to win the hearts and minds of the Malay Muslims. But these reforms have not been effective and the Deep South continues to be the least economically developed region in Thailand. This persistent economic disparity has left people in the South to view themselves as second-class citizens in Thai society: politically marginalized and denied equal opportunities to employment and education. Southerners are very distrustful of the Thai government and this distrust, in turn, has heightened Southerners’ sense of Malay nationalism (despite little actual support from Malaysia).

To further this feeling of resentment, hard-line military tactics were applied against the South by former Thai Prime Minister Shinawatra Thaksin in the early 2000s. Convinced that the violence in the southern region was a purely criminal activity, Thaksin radically reorganized Thailand’s security policy and used the guise of a “war on drugs” to sponsor a campaign of extrajudicial killings in the South that resulted in over 2,500 deaths. Nominally intended to eradicate all illegal activities that were suspected of supporting the armed separatists or “criminals,” Thaksin’s hard-line tactics only created an environment of fear and resentment in the South.

In July of this year, the Thai government announced that it would allocate an additional 63.1 billion baht (US$1.85 billion) for security and development programs in order to end the insurgency in the next three years. But, with the prevalence of corruption among military officials who control the budget, and an increased focus on ending the violence, the Thai government risks neglecting current and prospective development projects that could help demonstrate a long-term commitment to improving the daily life of Southerners. Residents of the Deep South have received the announcement of the new budget with little enthusiasm. Yousuf, a villager from Southern Thailand lamented, “Money can’t change what’s happening, no one can buy an end to the problems here… It’s the policies of Thai government that are to blame… They have to understand that our way of life is different to other Thais and money won’t make a difference.”¹

Although religious differences are certainly a source of tension between Bangkok and the South, economic disparity, political disenfranchisement, and Malay nationalism also significantly contribute to the ongoing violence. Past campaigns to end the conflict with brute military force have proved ineffective and there is no indication that recent influx of military spending will make any real difference. The scope of this conflict has grown in the past five years and there is a possibility that the violence that has so far been contained in the South could spill over into greater Thailand and the neighboring country of Malaysia. Though outside extremist groups such as Jemaah Islamiya and al-Qaeda in Thailand have not been implicated in the region’s violence, the longer the conflict persists, the more likely it is that the region will become an ideal breeding ground for extremists. In order to limit further radicalization, the Thai government and its allies must carry out economic and cultural initiatives that will make residents of the Deep South believe that they too have a stake in Thailand’s future.

1. Martin Petty, “Money won’t stop south Thai violence, Muslims say,” Reuters, June 18, 2009,

Mio Shimma is a former intern and Corey Sobel is a current Research Associate with the Regional Voices project at the Stimson Center.

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