A new documentary explores the escalating conflict between Muslims, Buddhists and the State and the threat of extremism in southern Thailand. Co-producers Timothy France and Alastair Graham set the scene.
Senior figures within the Pattani independence movement have voiced concerns over the encroaching influence of international Islamic radicals within Thailand’s restive southern provinces.
Patani, Narathiwat and Yala are in the grip of a bitter power struggle and Malay separatists hit international headlines again in August 2016 following orchestrated bomb attacks across the country, which killed four people.
For decades ethnic Malay Muslims have been fighting for an independent Pattani state, free from Thai rule and governed by Sharia law.
Many Malays have taken up arms against the Thai government, joining underground militant groups which have connections to international ‘terror’ groups such as Al Qaeda and Jemmah Islamia.
Local sources allege these connections have afforded Thai rebels military training and even financial support, but it is unclear how deep these relations run and which groups are involved.
Foremost commentators on the conflict insist that local interpretations of Islam are unique and incompatible with more bellicose doctrines that dominate areas of the Middle East, which insulates local ideologies from foreign extremist rhetoric.
The fact that ‘Pattani Merdeka’ (Pattani Independence) and not ‘jihad’ is hastily tagged on road signs across the border region implies nationalist ideologies remain intact, but the threat of radicalism is a legitimate concern.
Look first at the cause. Malay separatists are engaged in a political and violent campaign to free themselves of what they perceive as an oppressive foreign government with the aim of establishing an independent state under Sharia law. Islamic State (IS) is also fighting for an independent caliphate in Syria and the Levant, and is at war with foreign, non-Muslim forces.
Then consider the effectiveness of the tech savvy IS propaganda machine. Studies into social media activity within southern Thailand have unearthed postings of IS propaganda among local users, indicating sympathies and potential engagement with radical outfits.
This opens the doors for IS recruiters who prey on the impressionable and disenfranchised youth, and have proven highly effective in attracting volunteers from across the world — including the United Kingdom where returning agents pose a major security threat.
Subsequently, conflict ridden Southern Thailand presents a tantalising recruitment pool and lax travel controls make Bangkok an easy transit point. The bombing of Erawan shrine in August 2015 by suspected Uighur terrorists underlines the threat international terror cells pose in the Kingdom.
Cognisant members of the Independence movement confess that individuals within their ranks may already harbour connections with international terror groups, and warn that hard handed counterinsurgency tactics employed by the Thai military could push young Malays into the embrace of foreign extremists.
Timothy France and Alastair Graham are co-producers of the documentary, ‘Without invitation’, which examines the threat of Islamic extremism and ongoing insurgency in Southern Thailand. Watch the full documentary from Journeyman Pictures in the player below.