A Thai insurgency grows by being misunderstood
Thailand's deep south, along the Malaysian border, should be a hotbed of tourism. With warm sparkling blue seas on both sides, this region of rubber plantations and palms and sandy beaches seemed, in better times, to be the archetype of a tropical paradise.
But most visitors to the deep south these days are Thai army units and occasional foreign diplomats who travel from Bangkok in armoured carriers to observe one of the world's bloodiest - and least-known - insurgencies.
The Muslim-majority south has seen 4,000 die in a decade of war between separatist insurgents and Thai security forces, which are dominated by Thailand's Buddhist majority. The fighting has left the region looking more like Iraq than the popular image of Thailand. The most recent violence was unleashed yesterday, when assailants attacked a school in the deep south, killing at least four Thai soldiers.
Ten years after September 11, 2001, the effects of that day in Manhattan can still be felt in Thailand's south - and in many other places. But while 9/11 focused the world's attention on Islamist insurgencies, it also incorrectly tied many local struggles to Al Qaeda. The struggle in Southern Thailand is one of them.
Thailand's insurgency draws fuel from local racial, linguistic and religious divides, not from global Islamism. In places like this, supposed or weak links to Al Qaeda obscure the true challenges, and make it far harder to address the real causes of insurgency.
Thailand's ethnically Malay, Malay-speaking Muslim south, annexed from an independent sultanate in 1902, has long chafed at rule by Buddhist-dominated Bangkok.
In the 1960s and 70s, a separatist insurgency was quelled by promises of development and amnesty for militants. The current insurgency erupted in 2001. No one can say why with certainty, but the respected International Crisis Group blames decades of linguistic, religious and racial discrimination.
However, after 9/11 many foreign analysts, and some Thai officials, rushed to connect the militants with Al Qaeda. It is true that some funding from Saudi charities had flowed into southern Thailand, and that several prominent Muslim leaders had trained in hard-line schools in the Middle East. And a few militants from Jemaah Islamiah, a Southeast Asian Al Qaeda ally, had apparently passed through the south.
Still, the most knowledgeable analysts, Don Pathan of Bangkok's The Nation newspaper and Joseph Liow of Singapore's Rajaratnam School of International Studies, have concluded that any links to foreign militants were minor and inconsequential. The insurgency was about local self-identity.
But this reality was ignored. Foreign journalists descended on southern Thailand, as they did on the southern Philippines and parts of Indonesia, to find supposed Al Qaeda links. Terrorism "watchdogs" claimed Al Qaeda was targeting the region. The government said militants were receiving money from Al Qaeda.
"Suddenly, we were focused really hard on southern Thailand," said a longtime American diplomat. "There was pressure from intelligence agencies … to see international terrorism there."
The US military trained Thai forces for counterinsurgency. Other Western nations launched development programmes. A senior US Marine called for US special forces to be deployed.
All this attention backfired, especially since the government made many missteps in the early 2000s. It detained numerous young men. Many disappeared. New emergency laws erased civil rights while giving security forces blanket amnesty. Death squads began shooting suspects in the head.
The global focus did reap benefits. Attention from organisations such as Human Rights Watch taught both sides they could not act with impunity. The US-based Asia Foundation tried to promote development and inter-faith dialogue. By the mid 2000s, some in the government had realised that the tough approach had not helped. They switched to promoting Malay culture and rights, and to tackling economic grievances.
But the hard line proved hard to reverse. By 2009 foreign governments and aid agencies, and many Thai liberals, had stopped paying attention. Insurgents and security forces realised that few outsiders were watching.
As the world turned away, both sides have doubled down. Thailand's military budget has more than doubled since 2006, and the military has stepped up operations. The government encouraged the south's Buddhist minority to create vigilante groups.
Brutal insurgent attacks on civilians have become more common: four or five people are killed on a typical day. Draconian emergency laws allow the security forces to target anyone they want. Activists such as prominent Muslim lawyer Somchai Neelapaijit have vanished, and no one has been punished.
Ten years after 9/11, the region's chaos offers an object lesson. Linking a local insurgency to Al Qaeda allowed security forces to take a tough, if misguided, approach. Then, as it became clear that Al Qaeda was not to blame, foreign powers turned away, ignoring the consequences of the crackdown they had promoted.
These mistakes have been repeated in the southern Philippines, where US special forces have trained the Filipino army, and in Somalia, where US and Ethiopian intervention in the mid-2000s obscured local grievances and backfired, helping to radicalise many Somalis and make the country a haven for real Al Qaeda-linked groups. It's a tragic - and avoidable - pattern.
Joshua Kurlantzick is Fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations
Published: September 29, 2011 04:00 AM