Thailand has a special place among a number of South-East Asian countries, threatened by the spread of the jihadist movement, where for over a half-century, separatists and radical Islamists represent a threat to its security, acting under the slogan of creating an independent Islamic state of Patani on the border areas with Malaysia. This small Islamic sultanate, which has existed for over 500 years, became a part of the Kingdom of Siam in the beginning of the 20th century. But its Malay Muslim descendants make up 85% of the inhabitants of this region of Thailand, which has not come to terms with its loss of independence, maintaining hope and faith in its revival, and provoking continuous conflict with the Thai government, which maintains 60,000 soldiers in the area; one per every 30 residents. This, however, will not stop jihad, noted Abu Imad, leader of the separatist organization (Patani United Liberation Organization – PULO), created at the end of the 1960s.
Hatred towards the Thais became a motivating factor for the creation of a secret network of underground jihadist organizations, which did not have a common name or leader. But unlike other south-eastern Islamic extremists, they are not involved in international jihad and are not connected with ISIS or Al-Qaeda, mentioning that they have no use for them. However, this will not lead to a weakening of their struggle for independence, adopting violent forms of resistance against the authorities and all that, in their opinion, hinders the achievement of this goal.
The majority of Muslim extremists are young people who imagine themselves to be Mujahideen. Many representatives of the older generation of the separatist movement are watching with concern, as there is a shift in consciousness and mood of their younger “brothers in arms;” the replacement of nationalism with Islamic overtones will bring a wild jihad, accompanied by killing. But there is no split in the movement. The older generation recognizes the youth for their leadership and appreciates their militant attitude. As a representative of the older generation of separatists stated in an interview with the Global Post “the new fighters who are replacing them are better in many ways – they are more courageous than their predecessors and more determined. They have only one goal – to fight, and they are not afraid of death.”
Their armed struggle for independence, which has intensified in the last 10 years, has claimed the lives of 6,200 people, which is higher than the number killed in the Gaza Strip during the same time period. According to available data, Muslim extremists, active in South Thailand, presently commit more terrorist attacks in a year than jihadists in Yemen, or Somalia; 17,000 attacks between January 2006 and April 2014, mainly by fighters from the Mujahideen wing PULO.
Acting under the slogan, Reclamation of Patani, jihadists kill not only soldiers but also Buddhist monks, teachers (and according to data from Human Rights Watch they killed 170 people), tourists and moderate-leaning Muslims, which they considered “collaborators and traitors.” The latter account for 60% of terror victims. Rebels are hidden in every village. Murders occur daily.
The main terrorist groups operating in that area are BRN-Coordinate Barisan Revolusi Nasional-Koordinasi, its military unit Runda Kumpulan Kecil (RKK), Connected with BRN Pejuang Kemerdekaan Patani (Patani Freedom Fighters), and also GMIP and PULO.
BRN is currently the most powerful militant Islamic group in South Thailand, a group composed of 400,000, embracing Salafi Islamic teachings. The group enlists supporters through mosques and Islamic schools, preaching the idea of creating an uncontrolled central authority of territories, using for this purpose well-trained fighters who commit murder of soldiers and civilians. Armed fighters Pejuang Kemerdekaan Patani (Patani Freedom Fighters), although connected with BRN-Coordinate, act independently in the villages and represent the younger generation of separatists.
Runda Kumpulan Kecil (RKK), is one of the major military units of BRN, known for its cruelty in carrying out terrorist activities. The militants, mostly young, make bold attacks on solders and citizens, carry out arson, set explosives on the roads and in public places. And after committing a terrorist attack, they hide in Malaysia. Anti-terrorist activities against the group are complicated by the group’s secrecy and high mobility
Gerakan Mujahidin Islam Patani (GMIP), like BRN, entered into terror after 2001, pursuing its goal of creating a transnational Islamic caliphate. Its ideology is similar to that of Al-Qaeda.
Barisan Bersatu Mujahidin Patani (BBMP), also known as Bersatu, was formed in 1989 with the aim of becoming a parent organization to coordinate the insurgency in the south. But after the arrest of its leader in 2004, it ceased to exist as a coalition but survived as a terrorist group.
Patani United Liberation Organization (PULO) – a nationalist movement, formed with the aim of creating an independent state of Patani by any means, including armed struggle. The Salafi organization’s dominance today predetermines a strategic shift from the achievement of a purely nationalistic goal, the revival of Patani, to the creation of an Islamic caliphate.
The police and army have proved powerless in stopping terrorist acts and in suppressing the separatist movement. In the opinion of Srisompob Jitpiromsri, Director of the independent organization Deep South Watch, “”If we ignore Iraq and Afghanistan, then Thailand is the hottest spot in the world in terms of the unfolding violent armed struggle. And the situation can only get worse”. There is a real threat of the Islamization of South Thailand, which is in the interest of radical Islamists, operating in the territories of Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, with the support of Al-Qaeda, and now ISIS.
The political leaders of Thailand first talked about the formerly taboo topic – the creation of a “special administrative zone”, which implies granting greater autonomy to the Malay population of the southern regions of the country. Today, the country’s military leaders recognize the need to continue peace talks with the rebels, which were started under the former prime minister of Thailand, Yingluck Shinawatra, mediated by Malaysia, in February 2013, but were interrupted in December 2013 due to destabilization of the political situation in the country.
However, the achievement of a peaceful compromise with the Islamists in the south of the country is hardly possible today, when most of them believe that obtaining autonomy will not help achieve their goal of gaining full independence. referring to the experience of the struggle of the Palestinian people. “We want peace, they say. But in order to achieve peace, violence is necessary to attract attention”.
The problem of the deep south of Thailand has ceased to be purely internal and is turning into a factor threatening the security of the entire South East Asian region.
Natalia Rogozhina, Ph.D. in political sciences, a leading research partner at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.