On 30 April, one of the founders of the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), an Islamic cleric, Masae Useng died in Kuala Lumpur. He had been on the run from Thai authorities, since 2004 when he was charged with rebellion. He is believed to be the author of a seven-step blueprint for the insurgency. Below is an edited profile that originally appeared in the Bangkok Post in March 2015 on Masae Useng’s madrassah, the Samphan Wittiyah school, the spiritual heart of the insurgency.
Joh I Rong is a downtrodden rural community in central Narathiwat province. For 11 years it’s been a “red zone”, a locus of insurgent operations and violence. As you enter town, there is a small police post hidden behind concrete barriers, black netting and concertina wire. The security forces remain hunkered down, hidden. There is no community policing here. Across the railway tracks that have been the recent target of insurgent attacks, there is a long row of elegant, though dilapidated shop houses. Their clapboards are weathered dark and have none of the pastels that one might see in the old parts of the provincial capital, Narathiwat. There are a handful of tea shops, small stores with only the basics, and a few warehouses for agricultural products. If there is any disposable income here, it is well hidden. The town is really just this one narrow road, the village is nestled into the forested hills that climb behind it.
Down a small road to the north is a mosque, and across the street is the Samphan Wittiyah school, painted in an array of greens and turquoise. Nearly eleven years on, there is still a very deep divide between Thailand – both Thai citizens and the Thai state – and the local Malay community on whether Samphan Wittiyah is the cause of the insurgency or its cure.
Samphan Wittiyah has been in the state’s cross hairs for 11 years and has become the stuff of legend. When insurgents raided a nearby army outpost on 4 January 2004, an act that is usually used to date the start of the current iteration of the insurgency that has claimed the lives of more than 6,200 and wounded almost 11,000, the school’s headmaster, Masae Useng went underground. He and Sapaeng Basoe, the headmaster of the Thamiwttiyah Foundation School in Yala, are said to be leaders of the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN). They had rejected amnesty or the peace deals that the governments had reached with PULO and other groups in the 1990s, and they used their madrasahs as breeding grounds for a new generation of insurgents. After the unrest resumed, both schools were frequently raided and many of their teachers were arrested or detained for suspicion of being involved in insurgent operations. And some were clearly involved. But even today, students and teachers of both schools describe constant surveillance, harassment and intimidation by security forces.
But the core of the problem is that neither side can even agree on whether a school like Samphan Wittiyah is part of the problem or the solution to the insurgency.
Samphan Wittiyah is a private Islamic school that comes out of the Sha’afi tradition. It is not a Salafi/Wahhabi madrasah. The sad thing is that so few Thai security officials whom I’ve met even know or care about the difference. That said, Samphan Wittiyah, like Thamawittiya, is a very conservative school and the Sha’afis in southern Thailand and Malaysia have become increasingly pious and conservative. The rapid spread of Wahhabism has forced them to be more conservative.
The Thai government and army see the school as the root cause of the problem. Despite the sign and slogans in Thai and the Thai flag flying in front of the school – the only one that I saw in the entire town apart from the police post – security forces still believe that the school is fueling the insurgency and providing the movement with ideological succor and indoctrinated youth. “They don’t teach in Thai, only Malayu,” said a senior Thai Army officer to me. The number of such private Islamic schools that teach in Malayu is growing and creating a new generation that has become unassimilated into the Thai nationstate.
Thai officials warn that the heavily weighted Koranic education dominates the curriculum and that the national curriculum is under-taught or not taught at all. This makes the local Malay uncompetitive for nationwide exams and limits their career prospects, creating another cycle of frustration and aggression. Narathiwat and neighboring Pattani are the the third and second poorest provinces in Thailand, but it is in educational achievement that they truly lag.
And that has always been the crux of the problem: the Malay are the only minority in the country that have refused to assimilate into Thai society. Hill tribes, Lao, Shan, Khmer all assimilated for the sake of citizenship. But the Malay do not see any space for them in the construct of the Thai state: the monarchy (a Hindu god king), religion (Buddhism) and the nation (Thai), whose southern border was codified in 1909, and which Pattani nationalists believe to be occupied territory.
So any school that reinforces a separate identity is deemed a threat to security. It is that same reason that insurgents have killed over 180 teachers since the start of 2004 and torched almost 200 schools, including six in October 2014: the schools are the primary agents of assimilation.
Buddhists comprise roughly 20 percent of the population of the south, though the RTA estimates that it is actually down to 10 percent. While that is unlikely, it is clear that there really are few mixed communities left in the countryside. Buddhists live in heavily defended enclaves or have moved to the cities. Coupled with the low birth rates amongst Buddhists and high birth rates amongst the Malay, Thai security forces fear losing hold of the entire countryside.
Joh I Rong is a case in point. There is one small Buddhist community left, but they live in their own enclave tucked behind a garrisoned wat, which has been bolstered by a royal development project that brought in some 30 families from Issarn and established a heavily subsidized demonstration farm. Without this, and the added security presence to defend them, the Buddhists would have fled long ago. The Queen of Thailand has sponsored other projects whose primary aim is to reseed Buddhists from the northeast, establish demonstration farms that pay daily wages, and concentrate the Buddhist communities into defensible compounds. The newest of these is in Chanae where 150 families have been resettled from Issarn.
But for the Malay, Samphan Wittiyah is the hope to end the insurgency. It is where they can study their religion, learn in their native tongue and reinforce their Malay identity. Without this “space” to be Muslim Malay in Thailand, they would all pick up arms and join the insurgency. What Malays often complain about to me is that there is nothing equivalent to the concept in Indonesia’s founding ideology, Pancasila, of “unity in diversity.”
Today, there is an uneasy peace. Samphan Wittiyah is expanding. A new building is going up to accommodate growing enrollments. But government officials believe that insurgents compel families to stop sending their children to state schools, or families have done so simply because state schools have been weakened by arson and violence against teachers. At the same time, violence across the south has dropped considerably, and for the past three months has been at historical lows.
Peace talks are a long way off and, indeed, the two sides have fundamentally different definitions of peace. While the Thai government is content with the violence being at acceptably low levels that can be ascribed to criminality, the Malay want the right to grow and expand schools like Samphan Wittiyah without any fear or harassment. Thais seek to fully integrate the school into the national curriculum to end the poverty that has fueled endemic violence across the Deep South. Short of that, the Ministry of Education has established a program to run 33 tutoring centers across the south to help these students compete in nationwide exams.
But the one thing the two sides agree on is that if their vision isn’t realized, Samphan Wittiyah is just producing the next generation of insurgents.
Zachary Abuza is a professor at the National War College, where he specializes in Southeast Asian politics and security. The views are his own, and do not reflect the Department of Defense or the National War College.