Over 15 people were killed in southern Thailand after gunmen stormed a security checkpoint in Yala province on Tuesday. A policeman and some village defence volunteers were among the dead.
The three provinces of Yala, Pattani, and Narathiwat in southern Thailand constitute the only Muslim-majority areas in the Buddhist majority Southeast Asian country. An anti-government insurgency has been simmering in the region since 2001. The latest attack was the deadliest in the region in years.
On October 25, Muslims in the region observed the 15th anniversary of the Tak Bai Massacre that took place in Narathiwat province. On this day in 2004, 78 people suffocated to death while being transported to a Thai Army base in military trucks after being arrested. A few others died after security forces fired at protesters demanding the release of the detainees.
No personnel of the Thai security forces were prosecuted.
Origins of the insurgency
The origins of the insurgency go back further, lying in Thailand’s annexation of the Malay provinces in 1909, when the Anglo-Siamese Treaty was signed between the United Kingdom and the Kingdom of Siam (Thailand was known as Siam in the late 18th century).
Since then, many episodes of violent resistance have occurred. The resistance lost momentum around the 1980s, picked up in the 1990s and began to be officially acknowledged around 2004, when the number and intensity of the incidents increased in the form of roadside attacks and arson, assassinations and bombings.
After the sovereignty of the Patani region (different from the province Pattani) was transferred to Thailand post 1909, a set of policies attempting to assimilate the Malay Muslims who were linguistically, racially and religiously different from the Thai Buddhists, were enforced, fuelling resentment.
The Thai language was enforced as the medium of communication, alienating the Malay Muslims, who speak Jawi.
The Thai Constitution of 1932 declared the Kingdom was indivisible — part of the government’s efforts to unify the Thai people through notions of “Thainess” and “Thai Identity”. This has been seen as a major cause of the conflict.
Other reasons include mistrust of the government among Malay Muslims, desire for self-determination for the region of Patani, not enough freedom for political expression, heavy military presence in the area, and direct and indirect measures taken by the government to assimilate the Patani Malay culture.
Escalation after 2004
According to the Asia Foundation, the insurgency was not officially recognised until January 4, 2004 when insurgents raided an army camp in Narathiwat and ran off with about 400 weapons.
“Prior to (and even following) the January 2004 events, insurgents were dismissed as petty bandits working for influential figures or crime syndicates and creating disturbances for personal gain,” the report said. It described the insurgency as one of Southeast Asia’s “bloodiest unresolved conflicts”.
After 2004, the Thai military was powered to occupy the Patani region and set up over 1,000 checkpoints. In April 2004, over 32 suspected insurgents were killed by security forces in Pattani’s ancient Krue Se mosque.
Government policies, including the destruction of key conflict management structures undertaken by then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, have been blamed for the closure of important liaison channels between the Malay Muslims and the government in Bangkok.
The state’s response
A National Reconciliation Commission was set up by the government in 2005 to promote peace and reconciliation in Thai society. However, recommendations made in 2006 by the commission were not taken up. The recommendations included measures such as promoting cultural diversity, inter-faith dialogue, and dialogue with insurgent groups.
Shinawatra’s government invited armed secessionist groups to participate in a peace dialogue facilitated by the government of Malaysia. Through this initiative, the state engaged with one of the major underground insurgent groups, the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN).
However, the talks fell through over some BRN demands.
An estimated 7,000 people have died due to the insurgency during the last two decades.
Earlier this year, two Buddhist monks were killed and two others wounded in a temple in Narathiwat province. On October 4, a chief judge of the Yala trial court shot himself in the chest after he confessed that he was being pressured by his superiors to impose capital punishment on five Muslim defendants, against whom there was not enough evidence for a murder conviction.
In December 2016, separatists killed over six people, including two village chiefs, two Muslim civilians and a civil militia member in separate incidents in Pattani and Narathiwat.