Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Religion in the southern Thailand conflict

Religion in the southern Thailand conflict
Published 10 Oct 2014 

Since 2004, a low level insurgency has festered in the three southern Thai provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat, as well as parts of Songkhla. To date, over 6100 people have been killed and 10,000 wounded.

Insurgency is not new to this region, dominated by ethnic Malay and incorporated into Siam in 1909. Persistent efforts to impose Siamese values, language, customs and mores on the Muslim Malay were resented and fueled a long-running rebellion. But the insurgency, which finally sputtered out in the 1990s, was confined to rural areas and the majority of targets were security forces or government officials. It was further hampered by competing groups who differed on ideology and goals, and included both secular, ethno-national and Islamist groups. While many groups were bought off by offers of amnesty, the hardliners incubated until early 2004 when they resumed their armed struggle. Though there are still several groups involved, they are all clearly more religiously oriented than in the past.

Yet this conflict is not about religion, it's essentially about ethnic identity (it's not always easy to desegregate the two as ethnicity is largely identified with religious affiliation). Malays, who comprise 80% of the region's two million people, are Muslim and feel there is no space for them among the three pillars of the Thai state: the nation (ethnic Thai), the King (who is worshiped like a god), and religion (Buddhism). There is a palpable fear among the Malay of being assimilated into Thai culture, and of losing their ethnic and linguistic identity. Religion is an essential part of that identity. 

Both the militants and the Thai state (or Buddhists in the south) use religion to not only sanction violence, but to increase its scope and drive wedges between the respective communities.

The militants have played up sectarian divisions for several reasons. First, they have an active campaign of ethnic/sectarian cleansing. Their goal is to drive Thai Buddhists from the region. While this is less evident today than it was a decade ago, it is still a concern. Although some estimates that up to 50% (200,000) of Buddhist have fled are too high, estimates of 20% are more credible. Violence, especially against teachers (some 175 have been killed), has driven many Buddhists from the countryside into the cities. Integrated villages are a rarity and Buddhists who live in the countryside tend to live in well armed enclaves. [fold]

The more profound change has been in targeting and the scope of violence. In the past, insurgents targeted neither civilians nor members of their own community. Since 2004, more than 65% of the victims have been civilians, and over half of those have been Muslims.

Today, women and children are routinely attacked. Over 460 women have been killed since 2004, and their rate of casualties has climbed in 2014. In July 2014, for example, nine of the 15 civilians killed were women and children, including two female nursing students who were shot and killed in front of their hospital in Yala. Religion has also sanctioned mass casualty attacks against purely civilian targets, such as the 25 July bombing in Betong, which killed three and wounded 50. Such attacks are commonplace.

Militants also engage in types of violence inspired by radical co-religionists overseas, in order to terrorise the local population. These grisly attacks include 12 beheadings, most recently of a female civil servant in April, and the desecration of some 47 corpses, usually set on fire or hacked apart. In a March 2007 attack all passengers on a minivan were executed on the side of the road. There was a public backlash and the militants largely eschewed such attacks afterwards.

Militants have also gone after moderates in their own community that support reconciliation with the Thai state. This is partly a battle for power within the Muslim community, but there is also a religious aspect. Insurgents have systematically targeted Muslim clerics who denounce them or support the Thai state, such as the Imam of Pattani, gunned down on 5 August 2013. Other killings of imams are more complicated, but often play into the insurgents' hands. Many times they can eliminate rivals while making it look as though the victim was targeted by government security forces. Too often the truth is never clear, such as in the 29 September killing of an ustadz (a Muslim religious teacher) in Pattani. Thai officials quickly denied any involvement, and it is just as likely that it was an intra-Muslim conflict, but the narrative clearly puts the Government on the defensive.

Insurgents have also targeted Buddhist monks while collecting alms. In part this is done to remind Buddhists that the state can do little to protect them, but such attacks also lead to heavy-handed government responses or Buddhist vigilantism, such as the attempted extrajudicial killing of an Imam suspected of being an insurgent, which led to the death of his three sons in February 2014. When monks are killed or wounded, this is front page news, with the King, or more often the Queen, paying for the medical care or funeral rites. In the past decade, six monks have been killed and at least 10 wounded, while more soldiers and other members of security forces have been killed or wounded while protecting them.

While no Thai monks have been as outspoken as the Burmese U Wirathu, who has incited violence against the Rohingya and Rakhine communities, many monks have been vociferous in their calls for security forces to crack down on the insurgents, and have encouraged Buddhist vigilantism. The Queen has been outspoken in her call for the defense of Buddhists in the south and the Queen's Guard — in which Gen Prayuth Chan-Ocha and other coup leaders including current RTA chief Gen Udomdej Sitabutr served — have armed one of the two Village Defense Volunteers organisations (the other is armed by the Ministry of Interior). Village Defense Volunteers often train on Buddhist temple compounds; the symbolism is lost on no one. Most are Buddhists, and there is a large degree of mistrust towards Muslims wishing to join the Volunteers, with security forces assuming they would hand over their weapons to insurgents.

What is noticeably absent, especially on the Buddhist side, are calls for interfaith dialogue and social justice. On the Thai Buddhist side, you do not have a clergy speaking out against abuses by Thai security forces, who have near blanket immunity for their operations in the south. Among Muslim clerics, there is a wide diversity of opinion, ranging from reconciliation to independence to the restoration of a caliphate. 

Unlike the southern Philippines, where the Bishops-Ulama Conference played a major role in forging peace, there is nothing similar in Thailand. Religious leaders could play an important role in reconciliation, but for now the chasm between the two communities is growing.

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