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Thailand’s Southern Insurgency

by Joshua Kurlantzick
December 16, 2009

While most of the US policy-making community focuses on the AfPak theater, in southern Thailand another violent insurgency, which has attracted virtually no media attention, has proven nearly as deadly. Last week the Thai and Malaysian prime ministers made a joint visit to war-torn southern Thailand; in the days just before the visit, militants in the south killed ten people. In fact, since 2001 the battle in the Muslim-majority south, which sits inside Buddhist-majority Thailand, has raged out of control, killing over 4,000 people. These days, southern Thailand looks as much like a war zone as a place like Iraq: Checkpoints and machine guns nests dot the roads, while IEDs detonate daily and insurgents routinely attack soldiers, teachers, monks, local officials, and even random innocent laborers, shooting them, bombing them, or kidnapping and beheading them.

What’s most intriguing – and difficult – about the southern Thailand insurgency is that today, eight years after it detonated, no one seems to have a clear idea of who is behind the attacks, or what they hope to gain. In the most detailed analysis of the conflict, Thailand specialist Duncan McCargo comes up with several theories: the insurgents are separatists who want to split off from the rest of the country (the South was a Muslim sultanate until the early 20th century); they are angry young people who have been cut out of politics, and its spoils, in the South; they are increasingly radical Muslims influenced by charismatic local preachers; or they are relatively moderate southerners radicalized by the intrusive presence of the security forces, which have allegedly been involved in disappearances, torture, and other severe abuses in the South.

Indeed, Thai security officials I’ve spoken with seem to have no clearer idea – they didn’t know who they could negotiate with to try to bring down the level of violence. In many cases, the Thai security forces were unsure if their interlocutors, usually local Muslim leaders, actually had any sway over the fighters.

In some ways, in fact, the southern Thai insurgency may represent a new type of war, one in which alienated young men (primarily men) get involved in violence for no obvious reasons – and with no obvious goals. If Bangkok wanted to offer significant political autonomy in the South, as McCargo suggests they should, would that placate the insurgency? I am not sure. Even compared to, say, insurgents in Iraq, who similarly caused chaos in 2006 and 2007, the Thai militants are leaderless, atomized, and with few real demands. Doesn’t make for real optimism about the South.

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