The deep roots of Thailand's southern insurgency

Thailand’s National Security Council Secretary general Paradorn Pattanathabutr and Malaysian-based National Revolution Front chief Hassan Taib shake hands after exchanging signed documents

Bangkok: Hopes of peace have been raised after Thailand on Thursday signed its first-ever public agreement with a rebel group in its Muslim-majority south, pledging to work toward ending a festering insurgency.

Here are some key details on the nine-year rebellion.

When did insurgency start?

The current phase of the conflict started in January 2004 and has claimed more than 5,500 lives, mainly in Thailand’s three southernmost provinces of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat which border Malaysia, and in four districts of Songkhla province.

But the roots of the insurgency — or movement as it is known locally — draw on long-standing Malay nationalist antipathy to Thai rule, which started when the region was annexed in 1902.

Since then rebellion has flared sporadically from within a local population which is 80 percent Muslim and shares a language, culture and customs distinct to the rest of predominantly Buddhist Thailand.

Analysts say successive Thai governments have comprehensively failed to address the root causes of the insurgency.

Who are the insurgents?

A lattice of shadowy militant groups are held responsible for the violence, however little is known about their precise identity and structure.

The largest and most active rebel group is a faction of the highly secretive Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), known as the BRN-C (Coordinate). The older Patani United Liberation Organisation (PULO) maintains some militant cells in the south, although its overseas-based leadership is less influential.

Thailand puts the number of militants at around 9,000 operating from highly autonomous village-level cells. In recent years the militants have improved their capacity to launch major attacks and are increasingly well organised, aggressive and ruthless.
They have developed advanced bomb-making skills and increasingly carry out carefully orchestrated ambushes involving scores of rebels before melting back into the forests.

The insurgents are devout Muslims but there is scant evidence that they are perpetrating an Islamist insurgency or have links to wider global jihadist networks.

What do they want?

PULO wants the Muslim-majority southernmost provinces to secede from Thailand but has previously indicated a willingness to accept some level of regional autonomy.

The publicity-shy BRN-C is also seeking separatism, although its exact demands are unclear. The local population which sustains the insurgency demands an end to perceived discrimination by Thailand, recognition of their unique culture and justice for a litany of alleged abuses by Thai security forces.

Major incidents

On January 4, 2004, insurgents raided an army base in Narathiwat, killing four soldiers and seizing more than 400 guns, mainly assault rifles, in what is seen as the resumption of the rebellion.

In April that year an army siege and subsequent raid on Krue Se mosque in Pattani left 32 insurgents dead. It was followed in October by the death of 85 Muslims — the majority by suffocation in the back of a truck — after a botched police crackdown on a protest in Tak Bai, Narathiwat.

The two incidents are held up as examples of ongoing abuses by the Thai security apparatus and the impunity they allegedly enjoy.

Who are the victims ?

Near daily attacks — including shootings, bombings and even beheadings — mean violence is a part of life for many in Thailand’s far south.

The estimated 5,500 victims range from security forces, Buddhist monks and villagers from both religions to Muslims perceived to have collaborated with the Thai state.

Nearly 160 teachers — both Muslim and Buddhist — have been executed for their supposed collusion and schools have frequently been firebombed or forced to shut under threat from the militants.

Conflict analysts Deep South Watch say 484 people died because of the insurgency in 2012.