Review of Tearing Apart the Land: Islam and Legitimacy in Southern Thailand, Duncan McCargo, Cornell University Press 2008

Duncan McCargo’s recent study, Tearing Apart the Land, sets itself apart from other ‘political studies’ on the troubling Thai ‘deep south’. Based on empirical data, the book brings a breath of fresh air; it at least shows the author has made an attempt go down on the ground, trying to address the turbulent southern crisis from a ‘bottom-up’ and complex perspective. Religion, ethno-nationalism, and ‘national’ policies that delivered more harm than effective results, are all covered. They point towards the main theme of the book — political legitimacy (or the lack of it) — the argument McCargo develops to structure the flow of his chapters.

The book’s Introduction begins with the author’s intent to move beyond existing ‘theories’ of the causes underpinning the destructive militancy in the southern provinces of Narathiwat, Patani, Yala, and parts of Songkhla since 2001. It then draws upon his previous theme, the network monarchy, to capture a recent political struggle in which King Bhumibol’s men and Thaksin Shinnawatra’s Thai Rak Thai (TRT) competed head-to-head to gain legitimacy over the deep South. McCargo observes that the trouble in the South and the policy handling it sank during the Thaksin administration (2001-2006); but he does not gloss over the fact that Thaksin was not the only explanatory cause of the southern turbulence. The ‘Thai structure of power’, which functions itself by a guiding hand of ‘virtuous leadership’, has never been addressed as a democratic issue. This monarchical form of legitimacy, as McCargo argues, seems to be eroding its persuasive power in the South. After Thaksin was ousted in the 19 September 2006 coup, the attempt to bring about changes has largely failed to improve conditions in the South.

The four following chapters titled Islam, Politics, Security, and Militants are a co-ordination of empirical data and McCargo’s line of thought. In the chapter on Islam, the author analyses a development of Patani Islam over the last four decades. He aptly describes a flagging traditionalist Islam, a sect that has, from about the mid 1980s, been perceived by a new generation of modernists, to be Malay-centric. The rift between these two sects is however not as explicit as McCargo suggests. He is not wrong to point out that locals have become disillusioned and isolated from religious leaders who have abandoned their spiritual authority and been fully absorbed into the state’s politicization process. But to suggest that this cause has marginalized traditionalist Muslims, prompting a radicalization within pondok (traditional Islamic) schooling, is debatable. The June Report of International Crisis Group, Recruiting Militants in Southern Thailand (22 June 2009), argues that a majority of young militants are, via ustadtz, recruited from large modern private schools. McCargo, more than the ICG reporters, views the unabated violence in the south as irrelevant to the global jihadist movement. This view is reemphasized in the final chapter, Militants, where he argues that distortions of Islam may have been employed, but ‘Islam is a resource that the militant movement mobilizes for political ends’ (Tearing Apart the Land, p. 180). The militant movement in the Thai Deep South maintains its identification with Melayu-Muslim nationalism; but the nature and objective of the perpetrators have ‘become lost in an angry shared cause’ (p. 181). The militants ‘on the ground are very real, but their organization is much less so’ (ibid.). Simply speaking, there are two arguments which the author generates; one is that the militancy in the Thai Deep South is ethno-centric rather than religious in its characteristic, and another is that it lacks structural planning. Only time can tell whether these readings are correct.

The other two chapters, Politics and Security, in my opinion, make better use of empirical evidence. Politics is engaged with the question of the form of legitimacy in parliamentary politics. The author argues that, similar to what Buddhist-Thai electorate expected from their politicians, the Malay-Muslims in the South upheld morality, righteousness, personal integrity, and endurance to be the qualifying assets when they selected their political representatives. The early 1990s saw a palpable assimilation of Malay-Muslim elites into the Thai national politics. At the height of Thaksin, leading Muslims such as Wan Muhammad nor Matha and the Wadah faction were seduced to TRT’s electoral clout; these politicians eventually lost their credibility among the Muslim voters following the Krue-Se and Tak Bai incidents in 2004. The post 19 September coup saw a return of Prem’s sor or bor tor style of governance. Surayud Chulananont, the then Privy Councilor appointed PM, galvanized this into a rhetoric of “justice”; albeit by the time Thaksin took his exit, the fruit of discontentment had ripened. McCargo suggests that radical Malay-Muslims have opted for violent means, rather than co-operative politics, to voice their agendas to the Thai state.

The chapter on Security dissects the Thai state’s failure in claiming legitimate rule within the border provinces. The ‘south policy’ has completely gone awry because of the lack of strategic and coordinated partnership between various security forces. McCargo is cogent in highlighting specific problems confronting each security force. But although military, police, and intelligence units are assigned with different work tasks, his analysis indicates that these forces operate under similar climates of mistrust and uncertainty. This resulted in a complete breakdown in communication and co-operation. There is a serious question of leadership, applying all the way from the highest office down to the headmen’s village level. The absence of clear objectives, without plans of target and direction means that the unknown militants have had the upper-hand in controlling psychological warfare in the South for quite some time. McCargo completed his book before Abhisit Vejjajiva of the Democrat Party took over the premiership in December 2008. If we accept his themes of ‘legitimacy’ in this book, we should expect no sea-change during the Abhisit administration. PM Abhisit has already begun talking ‘politics over military’ (kan muang nam kan ta-harn); but his face symbolizes a return of the ‘virtuous rule’, which according to McCargo, has lost its appeal, and become as dysfunctional as Thaksin’s failed legitimacy.

What I like most about Tearing Apart the Land — the author writes with clarity. He makes intensive use of a primary data set, rather than clinging to the cited-sources that area specialists as well as the media generally recycle. What I don’t like — the book is full of ideas but does not foot us on a decisive and coherent policy track. McCargo is undoubtedly a serious researcher who stimulates readers to think outside the box. But if I am to spend an evening reading a book of 235 pages, I expect the author to deliver beyond a new framework of thought. It’s good to be able to address new and insightful questions, but one should not waste time writing a book on the violence which has so far ended 3600 lives abruptly if one is not keen to provide, right or wrong, a policy proposal to amerioliate the situation. Tearing Apart the Land does have the sub-title that executed its core argumentation: Islam is de facto the only legitimacy in this troubling land. Why can’t the boundary of this legitimacy be pushed for creative policy-formation?

A verdict: the book deserves to be read by everyone with strong interest in Thailand’s turbulent South. It is a bit dense in a few sections, and you might need some background knowledge of Thai politics before you start reading. For light-foot travelers, don’t bother; Stewart Wavell’s The Naga King’s Daughter (1965) will suffice.