Graphic depictions of violence (often against civilian targets) coupled with a lack of information on the perpetrators of violence, led to numerous speculations on the causes of the conflict in Malay Muslim dominated Southern Thailand. Are Malays simply the victims of harassment or failed policies by the Thai Nation state? Is the insurgency only driven by an irrational desire for revenge or traditionalism? To what extent are Malay insurgents organised? Are they inspired by local nationalism or by transnational jihadist ideas?
This article approaches these questions without using structural explanations such as econometrics or Political Opportunity Structure (POS) models. Instead I try to take a more actor-orientated view that reduce the conflict to a perspective that is faced by every insurgent group that intending to use violence to pursue its aims against a state: how can one, staring from a position of weakness, achieve political objectives using violence and other strategies located in the military and political realms? In this sense, the current wave of violence in Southern Thailand is not an unplanned, spontaneous outbreak of popular will, but part of a long-planned local insurgency, i.e. “an organised, protracted politico-military struggle designed to weaken government control and legitimacy while increasing insurgent control”. It is assumed that insurgents are able to learn and act rationally, though they might be bounded by irrational assumptions. In other words, we do not ask so much why Malay insurgents rebel in Southern Thailand, but rather how they do it.
First, I try to throw some light on the social and educational background of insurgents with the help of statistical evidence drawn from official interrogation records. These will also support the argument that BRN-Coordinate (Barisan Revolusi Nasional-Coordinate) is the leading insurgent organisation in the South. Second, assuming this military dominance the article will then address the organisational structure, the ideology as well as the strategic planning of the group in a rather descriptive way. While the insurgency in Southern Thailand began in 2004, the area itself was systematically subject to BRN-Coordinate subversion probably from the mid 1980s onwards, a time when other groups gave up their armed struggle. We will also see that the group used a mixture of Islamic and nationalist elements to mobilize recruits and legitimate violence. This Islamo-Nationalism directly attacks Buddhist majority’s claimed moral superiority and right to rule Southern Thailand on two fronts. On the one hand, it refers to the violent occupation once-independent sultanate of Patani. On the other hand, insurgents argue that the integration of the region into the Thai nation-state has led to the destruction Islam in the region. Both arguments are used to justify of a (local) jihad against the infidel Thai nation state.
Reflecting on these aspects of the insurgency, it becomes clear that BRN-Coordinate was able to learn from the last wave of failed insurgency in Southern Thailand and thus adopted some aspects of new terrorist organisations (e.g. not taking credit for their actions, hyper secrecy, proliferation of amateurs taking part in terrorist acts, attacks on civilian targets with greater lethality, supplementation of nationalism with jihadism).Yet the group is basically not a network, but remains an organisation with more or less defined goals and a clear command-order-structure. For the sake of space some aspects of the insurgent organisation such as its economic dimensions, forms of violence and foreign influence have been neglected here.
Sascha Helbardt is a PhD candidate at the University of Passau, Germany. This extract is drawn from the introduction of a 10,000-word paper available here. Sascha‘s research is part of a three year project titled “Religious dimensions of internal conflict in Sri Lanka, Burma and Southern Thailand”.