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Uncertainty, Knowledge, and Violence in Southern Thailand

This article compares competing analytic narratives that seek to account for the ongoing violence in southern Thailand through a focus on their spatial and temporal variations (when did the conflict begin, where is the conflict located, what are its boundaries) in order to draw out their tacit assumptions and implications. This discussion is followed by an examination of local accounts of the nature and causes of violence, accounts which stand at some remove from scholarly analyses, and which offer a very different picture of the state of affairs in this region. The final section returns to the issue of analytic uncertainty to propose that uncertainty and ambiguity are positive features of the political condition of southern Thailand, and to argue that a decline of uncertainty would be a sign of things getting worse.

Uncertainty, Knowledge, and Violence in Southern Thailand

This article compares competing analytic narratives that seek to account for the ongoing violence in southern Thailand through a focus on their spatial and temporal variations (when did the conflict begin, where is the conflict located, what are its boundaries) in order to draw out their tacit assumptions and implications. This discussion is followed by an examination of local accounts of the nature and causes of violence, accounts which stand at some remove from scholarly analyses, and which offer a very different picture of the state of affairs in this region. The final section returns to the issue of analytic uncertainty to propose that uncertainty and ambiguity are positive features of the political condition of southern Thailand, and to argue that a decline of uncertainty would be a sign of things getting worse.


casual visitor to Thailand’s three southern border provinces could be excused for assuming that there is little upsetting the tranquillity of a lush tropical landscape. During the day, there is no indication of anything untoward on the highways and rural lanes connecting the dizzy patchwork of over 1,500 villages across the districts of Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala. There are few visible signs of official Thailand: one is more likely to see roadside stands brimming with green vegetables and fruits, farmers transporting produce and building materials, and young people everywhere, especially on two wheels, converging at popular beaches and other local spots with apparently little to do but while away the day.

But this pastoral scene is deeply misleading. Once the sun sets, the roads empty, shops close, and stray pedestrians hurry home. Every night, stories of a new tragedy make the rounds of official news and underground rumour networks: an explosion near a police station in Pattani district, a shooting of a rubber tapper near Narathiwat, a school burned in Yala sub-district. The perpetrators of this violence, in official and mass media accounts, are shadowy figures belonging to one of the region’s separatist/ militant movements. Local rumours and informal channels of news, by contrast, often explain the very same events in sharply different ways: as revenge killings, drug deals gone wrong, and the “black lists” of death squads belonging to unaccountable military or police forces. Appearances notwithstanding, the three southern border districts of Thailand, home to over a million of Thailand’s Malay-speaking Muslim community, have been in a state of virtual siege since 2004 when a long-standing and simmering conflict burst out into the open.1

This endemic uncertainty, of both agency and explanation, is the most characteristic feature of a growing crisis in the borderland joining Thailand and Malaysia.2 It is a conflict marked by “red zones” and “black lists” set against a verdant countryside, by once peaceful Buddhist wats populated by “military monks”, by neighbours living in fear of neighbours who may have turned informer and use that power to settle old scores, by disaffected and frustrated youth often unable to find a place for themselves in Thai institutions, by an older generation equally doubtful of the state’s bona fides thanks to long memories of earlier struggles and insurrection, by Muslim and Buddhist villages emptying out due to the dual ravages of local political violence and global political economy.

The insecurities and uncertainties of everyday life are mirrored in conventional academic and policy understandings of the situation – the “problem” – in this region. Variations in expert understandings of the conflict are narratively distinct, offering different accounts of the nature of and reasons for the violence, leading to divergent and inconsistent recommendations for its mitigation.3

In what follows, the discussion seeks first to explore these competing narratives through a focus on their temporal and spatial variations (when did the conflict begin, where is the conflict located, what are its boundaries) in order to draw out their tacit implications. This discussion is followed by an examination of local accounts of the nature and causes of violence, which stands at some remove from scholarly analyses, and offers a very different picture of the state of affairs in this region. The concluding section returns to the issue of analytic uncertainty to propose that such ambiguity is a positive feature of the political condition in southern Thailand, and to argue that a decline of uncertainty would be a sign that things are getting worse. This section also proposes that the problem of violence in southern Thailand is clearly cyclical; hence, what is perhaps more important than discrete outbreaks of violence are their politicaleconomic underpinnings which have shown themselves, repeatedly, to be the greater and continuing source of local insecurity.

Uncertainty of Origins

(a) Separatist narrative: “In the beginning there was …” It is no secret that the starting point shapes the stories we tell in fundamental ways. This historiographical axiom has never been more true than when we consider the range of explanations for the troubles in southern Thailand. One account of the violence in the region begins at the turn of the 20th century with the annexation of the sultanate of Pattani by Siam in 1902. This was followed by the Anglo-Siam treaty of 1909, which demarcated the territorial boundary between the kingdom of Siam and the British colony of Malaya, in effect politically dividing what had been a single geo-cultural region. In 1903, the deposed sultan

Economic and Political Weekly June 16, 2007

of Pattani, Abdul Kadir, was arrested and later charged with treason. In the years following this treaty, and especially under field marshall Phibun’s reign, Thai state officials began a process of cultural assimilation that was deeply resented by the local Malay-speaking community. During the second world war, Abdul Kadir’s son, Mahyiddin, unsuccessfully sought British help to free Pattani from Thai rule.

Beginning an account with this historical moment has the effect of placing the contemporary crisis in relation to a moment that marked the arrival of the universal nation state model in peninsular south-east Asia, a period when empire, colony, and kingdom coexisted, when national territorial containers as we know them today were not yet the norm. Beginning at the start of the previous century makes the present struggle an effort to reclaim the lost sultanate of Pattani, which in today’s world would become a buffer state between Malaysia and Thailand. Such a move immediately internationalises the situation and brings into play the worst fears of contemporary state managers for whom the loss of territory is the first step in the death of the state. This particular framing may be used to identify the separatist school of thought who see the object of the militancy as either a desire to create a new state, independent from both Thailand and Malaysia, or as a secessionist project which seeks to leave Thailand and join Malaysia.

  • (b) Islamic-minority narrative: A second starting point is the middle of the century, 1947-48, a period marked by protests, riots and eventually the Dusun Nyor (Dusunayur) uprising. This was a popular struggle led by the charismatic teacher and leader, chairman of the Pattani Provincial Islamic Council, Haji Sulong. Reacting especially to the policy of increased Siamisation, and expressed through a popular idiom that combined calls for a Malay cultural identity with modernist Islamic precepts, Haji Sulong attracted considerable local support for his message of resistance. He was arrested by the Songhkla police in 1948, released four years later, and then disappeared in 1954: his body, along with his son’s, has never been found.
  • The implications of seeing the conflict today in terms set by the struggle of Haji Sulong are very significant. On the one hand, it is a struggle by a demographic and cultural minority shaped by local resentment against an overbearing and exclusivist Thai majority. On the other hand, it also becomes possible to see this as an Islamic struggle against a Buddhist state, where Pattani becomes a frontier shaped by a clash of opposing culture zones, a perspective which today slips easily into seeing this region as a south-east Asian node in the global “landscapes of the jihad”.4 Starting with the resistance movement led by Haji Sulong produces a narrative which foregrounds the minority and Islamic aspects of the conflict, a framing that has important and extraterritorial resonance in contemporary political discourse. In practical terms, however, the end point of this struggle is defined as greater political and cultural autonomy from Bangkok.
  • (c) National-liberation narrative: The period of the 1960s and 1970s marked a new phase of political tension in the region, with armed struggle led by newly formed groups leading to increased violence in the region and as far away as Bangkok. Best known among these new groups was the National Patani Liberation Front (BNPP) formed in 1959, National Revolutionary Front (BRN), formed in 1960, and the Pattani United Liberation Front (PULO), formed in 1968. This was a period when violence in southern Thailand took place against a backdrop of cold war geopolitics and increasingly close ties between the US and Thailand. The
  • ICG report on southern Thailand points out that the self-identity of these armed groups were often contradictory, including elements of international socialism, nationalism, and Islamism, while also having ties with communist parties in the region and criminal elements.5 By the early 1980s, a combination of state repression and more accommodative policies had led to a dropoff in violence and the organisational breakdown of many groups.

    Defining armed groups in terms of national-liberation and revolutionary thinking seems anachronistic today, long after the great upsurge of de-colonisation, the demise of the Soviet Union, and the capitalist transformation of the People’s Republic of China. Nonetheless, the legacy of national liberation struggles is still important today in at least two senses. First is their transnational orientation, in that these groups often operated across national boundaries and in collaboration with like-minded groups from other countries, creating international networks that did not pass away with the end of the international communist movement. Second is their organisational legacy, which offered probably the most rigorous and experience-tested form of practical tactical knowledge to evade state surveillance and successfully conduct armed guerrilla struggle. The difficulty of identifying and eliminating armed groups in southern Thailand today is testament to this organisational legacy, even as the groups themselves may no longer subscribe to Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy.

    (d) Hybrid legacies narrative: In a version that is increasingly becoming popular among some scholars and analysts, the present day armed struggle, which is surprisingly difficult to name and identify unambiguously, has its operational origins in the change of strategy adopted in the early 1990s. This change of strategy was led by an earlier generation of national-liberation guerrilla leadership. They decided that in the face of an increasingly unequal military struggle against a powerful Thai military machine with strong international support, a different and long-term approach was called for. This new strategy began with the indoctrination of carefully selected young men, who it is said, form the core of the armed struggle today. Along with the identification of students enrolled in local Islamic schools (pondoks), a decentralised and dispersed militant organisational strategy was adopted, which would prevent the entire network from being threatened if one or another cell was discovered by state forces. This strategy would lead, on the one hand, to the attacks of January 2004 and the Krue Se mosque battle, and, at the same time, to official confusion when no representative and identifiable decision-making authority stepped forward to claim responsibility or to make political demands.6

    Written materials found on the bodies of those killed in attacks in 2004 and interviews suggest that militants were driven to violence by anger against the injustices faced by local communities and the overbearing attitude of Thai state officials, especially after prime minister Thaksin’s closure of the well regarded Southern Border Provinces Administrative Centre. But also, the history of Pattani before its incorporation into Thailand has become a recurrent feature of the discourse adopted by armed insurgents, reproducing the past as a source of pride. In the premodern period especially, Pattani was the intellectual centre of an extensive Malay language world stretching from present day Thailand to Mindanao in the Philippines, a centre which was justly famous for the quality of its Koranic exegesis and scholarship.7

    This hybrid narrative, which includes national-liberation-localminority-historical-Islamic traces in varying proportions, makes

    Economic and Political Weekly June 16, 2007 the conflict difficult to name, except in relation to its artful combination of (often contradictory) historical legacies. Much of the evidence outlined above has been drawn from interrogations of militants and suspects by the Thai police and armed forces, records of which have been made available to select scholars and analysts. This account of a change in strategy is powerful for its explanations of why the new phase of violence began when it did, for the difficulty in identifying the perpetrators, and the apparent lack of a formal organisational structure. But given the source of much of this evidence, a necessary degree of scepticism must also accompany its findings. Even if entirely accurate, such an account does not allow for the possibility that a single explanation may not suffice to cover all the violence that has taken place since 2004. Moreover, this account finds little resonance in local accounts of the nature and causes of violence (see below). Nonetheless, what remains most confounding about the hybrid narrative is its lack of clarity about outcomes. With so many starting points, a single end is difficult to determine: it could be independence, secession, autonomy, or something else

    – no one is quite sure.

    To summarise, different starting points produce different understandings of the purpose and meaning of the latest cycle of violence in southern Thailand. Whether intended or not, starting with either the claims of erstwhile Pattani royalty, the charismatic leadership of Haji Sulong, ideology-heavy national-liberation movements, or the hybrid account drawn from today’s police files, moves the narrative in different directions and offer considerable variation in explanatory strength. Alternative starting points lead to different outcomes – independence or secession; popular Islamic movements leading to sharia rule; national liberation struggles seeking to overthrow an oppressive ruling class; the resurrection of Pattani as a world-historic centre – and demand very different policy responses by the Thai state. The difficulty of identifying the “true” moment of origin is paralleled (and further complicated) in the difficulty of establishing an unambiguous location for the conflict and its spatial boundaries.

    Uncertainty of Location
  • (a) “From Crossroads to Backwater”: The spatial narrative that is most common in the local recounting of the Pattani conflict often borrows the trope of “crossroads to backwater”, a term used by historian Michael Montesano. This is a narrative of local decline, most obviously, as the increasingly hegemonic power of the modern territorially bounded nation state came to dominate what Thai historian Thongchai Winichakul has called the “geo-body” of Siam-Thailand.8 In this official statist account, Pattani is represented as the “Deep South” of Thailand, a marginal out-of-the-way place, which needs to be brought into the mainstream of the country. The peripheralisation of Pattani in relation to a dominant centre, the view from Thailand’s capital, Bangkok, is consistent with Bangkok’s historically tense relations with other regional peripheries, both north-west and north-east. The importance given to Pattani history, especially its rich cultural-Islamic past among the militants today, becomes an effort to recentre Pattani as the locus of a world framed in non-nation state terms, an act of anachronistic resistance against a Bangkokcentred political order.
  • (b) Pattani as a post-colonial location: By identifying Pattani in political and social terms as a minority region, by virtue of
  • both electoral and demographic size, as well as cultural difference, analysts are implicitly drawing attention to the assumed normalcy of the majority national culture, a set of characteristics that only make complete sense following the establishment of the modern territorially defined state. The Anglo-Siam treaty of 1909, which divided a culturally relatively homogeneous area into (what would become) two countries, becomes the foundational event in the making of this minority region and culture. Once this act took place, a political minority (in southern Thailand) would be divided from an ethnic majority (once Malaysia became independent) by a political boundary, even as historical, cultural, and social ties would continue to tie this community together. Pattani becomes a location marked by the immanent contradictions of informal social congress in a context of formal political estrangement.

    This juxtaposition of a minority and a majority across a nation state border is a characteristic feature of post-colonial Asia and Africa, the contemporary outcome of cartographic imperialism by European colonial powers. Sri Lanka, for instance, struggling to control its Tamil-speaking minority, identifies the large Tamil community in neighbouring India as a source of refuge, material support, and eventual irredentism. Pakistan’s forays into Afghanistan over the last six decades cannot be separated from the perceived threat from large Pathan and Baloch minorities within and across its national boundaries; secular and democratic India’s perceptions of its large Muslim minority population is always shadowed by the spectre of a fifth column within the national body politic. In this scheme, a minority population is coterminous with a threat to national security, allowing for the rapid militarisation of the threatened region and securitisation of the community whenever political circumstances call for it.

    The asymmetries produced by colonial cartography have to be set against the standpoints of the modern Thai and Malaysian states. The southern districts of Thailand form what may be called a borderland with the northern areas of Malaysia, producing a frontier zone which, though divided politically, identifies more closely with its proximate partner than either Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur. Within this borderland, people, goods, and ideas move back and forth, taking advantage of the benefits of different rules in each national territory without committing to exclusive and complete identification with either one, conducting their lives according to a complex portfolio of local social norms and national laws. Such everyday and uncivil transgressions make this borderland, like all borderlands, a zone of anxiety for both faraway capitals.9 By the same token, it offers a standing excuse to reduce all local problems to the fulsome embrace of national security.

    (c) Pattani as homeland of a Malay Muslim diaspora: The Pattani diaspora can be primarily be found in Malaysia to the south and Persian Gulf sheikdoms and Saudi Arabia to the west. Residents of this region have migrated to Malaysia in search of better jobs and higher wages, considerably aided by the knowledge of a similar Malay language and the likelihood of a warm reception as fellow Muslims. Once in Malaysia, however, for all this ease of travel and residence, the residents of Pattani are recognised as Thais, and a number of them work in or own restaurants specialising in the food of central Thailand. Increasing numbers of women now migrate to Malaysia as the local fishing industry shrinks and traditional maritime occupations become less economically viable.

    Residents of Pattani have also long migrated to Egypt, the Gulf states, and Saudi Arabia. Once they may have moved west for

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    refuge or in order to study in famous seminaries; increasingly, they do so for economic reasons. In a manner little different from other similar transnational social formations, this diaspora remits funds and ideas through a variety of formal and informal channels. Such material and ideational remittances are indistinguishable from potentially subversive flows, including aid and support for militants, as they typically use the same channels and mechanisms to bypass state control and overt regulation. This illicit flow, the extent of which is little understood, easily becomes circumstantial evidence of transnational support for local groups who seek to commit acts of violence against the Thai state.

    To summarise, the spatial reckoning of Pattani as simultaneously a historic intellectual centre, a contemporary political margin, a region where a political minority is in the numerical majority, a borderland of popular movement and illicit traffic, and a homeland for a migrant people, offers rich evidence for the political projects of analysts and insurgents alike. As a result, conceptual fluidity is inescapable and becomes, at the same moment, a primary cause of intellectual uncertainty. State agents seek to define the issue in ways that practically constrain the problem and make it institutionally tractable, but with such a wide range of available evidence, the outcome is always less satisfying than desired. The spatial excess of Pattani’s location manages always to raise the suspicion that another reading is possible and may produce contradictory findings, a suspicion that is only bolstered in the absence of political success in managing or ending the insurgency.

    The all-important analytic choices of when to begin and which spatial boundaries to adopt produce considerably different accounts of the “problem” in southern Thailand. This conceptual ambiguity is a matter of concern for both state agencies tasked with resolving the problem as well as for insurgents whose political cause is never quite clear. Independent analysts are likewise unable to offer unambiguous accounts of the perpetrators of violence and their rationale, compounding the uncertainty effect. Operating at a different register altogether are local accounts of the violence and its meanings, accounts which do not identify with either state or insurgency, and which are given short shrift in the dominant narrative of political violence. Questioning both dominant meanings and their significance, these local accounts identify sources of change in terms that suggest that a crisis will continue even if the current violence may come to a close, and that implicitly highlights the dangers of the reduction of the social complexity of this region.

    Local Knowledge, Uncertainty and Violence

    Conflict-related knowledge generated by the state comes from its institutional memory of prior events deemed relevant, interviews with local notables, journalists, and other civil society sources, analysis of captured documents, as well as intelligence gathered from informers and the interrogations of suspects. This knowledge is duplicated across state agencies and synthesised in different ways to become the basis of its own actions. Also, the state circulates necessarily incomplete versions of what it knows through the media that then become authoritative accounts of what is taking place. Authoritative though these accounts may be by their very nature as state knowledge, we know these are incomplete from another standpoint, namely, state knowledge has not proved adequate to its primary mission, the ending of violence and the capture of militants.

    At the other end of the scale is the knowledge held and deployed by the insurgents, including military knowledge such as guerrilla tactics and the use of a variety of weapons and explosive devices, as well as counter-counter-insurgency knowledge, based on information covertly passed on to them by supporters and via their own interrogations. This knowledge has proved effective in allowing these groups to remain incompletely identified: however, it has also proved to be inadequate politically. Without a coherent set of political demands and without seeking to claim credit for actions undertaken, these groups are unable to make a credible and viable political claim to represent something or somebody. As a result, the violence performed by these groups appears to be an end in itself, and conflict in the south takes on an anarchic quality. Varieties of theories generated by civil society and the state circulate about the nature of these groups, their true objectives, and their ultimate goals. The groups themselves are not able to control their message and in that sense are always placed defensively vis-à-vis local communities, media, and state agencies they presumably seek to influence.

    The endemic uncertainty that marks the accounts produced by the primary agents to this conflict, the state and the insurgents, has become a characteristic feature of the violence that racks southern Thailand. Scholarly and expert studies of this region similarly reflect this uncertainty, producing an overall sense of insecurity, both material and conceptual. What is largely missing from the discourse on this region are the voices and understandings of local communities and individuals who have their own interpretation of events, a view that is beholden to neither side, and that includes aspects neither side considers.10

    Local modes of knowledge about the conflict, the information and theories that circulate among the communities affected by violence, do not claim to have authoritative certainty about the origins of violence or its ultimate purpose. Among local communities, doubts and insecurities are rampant, exacerbated by the fear that because of state and insurgent penetration of their communities they too could become unwitting victims of violent action or retribution. Rumours, conspiracies, official news sources, and religious sermons become primary modes and channels of information flow, leading to results that sometimes contradict and usually stand opposed to both state and insurgent accounts. A vivid example of this local counter-information is the account of why a certain Buddhist monk was killed. According to Michael Jerryson,11 what appeared to be a typical act of violence by insurgents seeking to terrify non-Muslims in the south was dismissed in local versions. Local accounts proposed instead that the monk was a habitual user of illicit drugs and was killed because he had repeatedly failed to pay his supplier on time. On the whole, local narratives do not bother to discuss in any systematic way the origins of violence or its locations, or to identify its significance in political terms: local recounting of the violence habitually begins in relation to being its potential victims.

    Most common in local accounts are concerns that have to do with the changing political economy across this region. Long dominated by fishing communities, in recent years, and especially following the Asian financial crisis, there has been significant economic transformation in this region, not all good.12 Among other things, there has been considerable alienation of land and natural resources by outsiders to this region seeking to establish lucrative new commercial enterprises such as shrimp farms. In a story now familiar across south and south-east Asia, the

    Economic and Political Weekly June 16, 2007 resulting pollution of coastal waters from fish farms has forced fishermen to travel deeper into ocean waters in order to make their daily catch, where they must compete in an unequal contest with large mechanised trawlers.13 Village common lands and access to customary usufruct natural resources often lack proper legal title, leading to land grabs, fire sales, and alienation from access to common properties.

    The resulting impoverishment has created new reasons for international migration, including women in larger numbers, as they are more likely to be employed in Malaysian enterprises and factories, according to local sources. The growing participation of women in a modern workforce and the increasing tendency of women to travel long distances in order to find employment, while not entirely new, appear to have increased considerably. By the same token, this reflects the growing inability of men to provide a sustainable family income based on customary economic activities, leading to complicated shifts in household relations, expected gender roles, and reproduction of family norms. When both parents have migrated overseas to work, and are unable to visit their home villages for weeks and months, child rearing falls to older members of the family such as grandparents. The acute social effects of this migration, social absence, and the effect on the family are yet to be explored; its full impact, especially on children, may not be visible for some years to come.

    Resentment against carpet-bagging outsiders and provincial government (often Muslim) officials who have not helped to cushion local communities against the social impact of these external changes is considerable. At the same time, what also seems clear is that villagers and small-scale producers do not identify local large business houses as a primary cause of the economic hardships they now face. Often of mixed Chinese-Thai origin, and entirely assimilated into the local region and its particularities, this small group of locally based entrepreneurs wields considerable economic power and have long acted as a mediating element between this region and Bangkok. In spite of the economic losses they must have faced from the insurgency, little is publicly known about their responses: whether, for example, there has been capital flight from this region, if planned investment has been delayed, or how the costs of doing business is now measured. If such defensive actions have not been taken by local capitalists, why not? Is it possible they do not fear the insurgency and have not been affected by its impact? If so, how have they managed to insulate themselves in this way? What does it mean for one powerful local community to have such a different interpretation of the problem that their actions appear at odds with dominant social behaviour?

    Local accounts of the nature of violence in southern Thailand differ considerably from authoritative versions. For one, they identify themselves as the victims of political violence emanating from both the state forces and the insurgents, without necessarily allying themselves with either side. In other cases, locally contextualised explanations cast a very different light on what appear to be acts of terror and random violence. Incomplete and partial accounts of short-term effects and meanings of political violence are set against repeated and consistently articulated concerns about a changing regional political economy. Individuals represent themselves as victims of social violence emergent from rapid technological change, increased capitalisation, and ecological deterioration in the locally pre-eminent fishing and agricultural sectors. In the absence of state-provided institutional protections and safety nets, local communities have adopted a variety of self-help mechanisms, especially international migration, in order to cope as best they can. The problems they face, as they see it, have little to do with accounts of political violence that define this region today; they appear to care little for the political visions espoused by either state or insurgency. But this may change.

    Considerable social science research from around the world has highlighted the effects of political violence on social identities.14 When extensive violence is carried out in the name of a political cause, it often has the impact of making that cause a primary form of social identification, for either positive or negative reasons. When, for instance, the police and armed forces enter a village where a militant is alleged to be hiding, for the security forces, usually operating without reliable information, everyone in the village is a potential suspect. From the state’s point of view, the village is divided into suspects and nonsuspects; no other meaningful possibilities exist. Backed by the military force of the state, such a limiting definition weighs heavily on village residents who find themselves with no choice at all, and closes off the possibility of articulating positions of mutual indifference or neutrality. When insurgents seeking shelter and support enter a village, they are equally suspicious of anyone who does not espouse their cause, for fear they may be police informers. Villagers indifferent to the political objectives of both sides may find themselves forced to make a Hobson’s choice in order to protect themselves and their families from the violence that could come from either state or insurgents. This process affects both Muslim and Thai villagers, albeit in unequal proportion, and plays no small role in the increasingly narrowing definition of identity as either “Thai” or “Muslim”, in contrast to an earlier period when such exclusivist identities were less common.15

    In similar fashion, it has been shown that young men, always prime suspects during times of political strife, increasingly adopt the identities attributed to them by suspicious security forces as violence and political strife become the environmental norm. As by definition suspicious youth are increasingly treated in forceful ways that privilege their Muslim-minority potential subversive identity, they may indeed turn to that identity as a source of refuge and strength. In some cases, adoption of such a primary identity happens as a reaction to anger, humiliation, and confusion; in others, it may happen due to exposure to and indoctrination from genuine insurgents that takes place in jail cells and police lockups. In other words, as the state of conflict in this region continues, and as violence gradually begins to affect greater numbers of people, we can expect to see the present range of social identities continue to narrow. At that point, the worst fears of state agencies may become true, and what was once a fragmented, disorganised, and inchoate conflict may transform itself into a separatist/ Muslim/liberation struggle.

    In Conclusion

    In 1988, General Wisit of the Fourth Army region wrote:

    There are many sources for the problems of the…border provinces. First there are problems that arise out of natural conditions. There are also the problems that arise out of differences in the ways of thought of some people of the nation, particularly of some groups of Thai Muslims that create strong divisions among citizens which has come down to the present as a chronic problem – that is, the problem of separatism in the south. This arises from the thinking

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    and acts of Thai Muslims who have a partiality for Malaysia. Besides this, there are important problems such as that of [communists], that of persons with dual nationality, the problem of the education of Thai Muslims, the problems of fishermen, the problems of determining the border between Thailand and Malaysia, and that of boat people…16

    This comprehensive assessment of the key issues (from the state’s point of view) facing southern Thailand leads us to ask why this diagnosis is still more or less valid, two decades later. If the state was able to acknowledge multiple sources of insecurity so long ago, and if the conflict persists in spite of such official recognition, the Thai government must ask what has prevented the alleviation of these long-standing political problems for so long.

    A two decade-old quotation from a Thai general, and repeated references to past struggles in the discussion above, remind us that this is not a new conflict. It has only returned to prominence in new guise shaped by the representational exigencies of a very different international context. Looking back over the last century, we can see this region racked by a cycle of violence that breaks out roughly every two decades. The best evidence that structural political issues are at the heart of the problem can be adduced from the realisation that while economic concerns have shifted enormously during the last century, moments of decline of violence are closely linked to ameliorative political actions taken by the state. It is when the government acts in ways that are sensitive to the long-expressed needs and concerns of local communities that political violence comes down. At other times, the habitual behaviour of the Thai state, especially its exclusivist nation-building agenda, reproduces the conditions for political unrest in this region.

    But there is good news too. The premise of uncertainty – of agency and explanation – should not be seen as a problem, but as a source of long-term strength. That the region and its people cannot be classified in a singular way as either borderland or periphery, Thai Buddhist or Muslim Malay, is a good thing. What it means is that the conflict has not yet gone so far as to constrain the range of available social identities to an either/or political condition: state or opposition, loyalist or insurgent. As long as ambiguity and uncertainty remain characteristic features of this conflict, there is hope that the problem in southern Thailand may yet be resolved without the chaos that would result if one exclusive identity were pitted against another. The tragic example of a multi-ethnic Yugoslavia that transformed itself in short order into a land of Croats, Serbs, and other exclusive identities, is a case in point. From this standpoint, the most dangerous condition of the crisis in southern Thailand is the problem of unintended consequences, of expectations about the character of the conflict becoming self-fulfilling, due to the importune actions of security forces operating without clarity and policymakers with too much of it.




    1 Data on trends in violence in this region may be found in Srisompob Jitipiromsri, with Panyasak Sobhonvasu, ‘Unpacking Thailand’s Southern Conflict: The Poverty of Structural Explanations’, Critical Asian Studies, 38, 1, March 2006. See also Saroja Dorairajoo, ‘Violence in the South of Thailand’, Inter-Asian Cultural Studies 5, 3, 2004.

    2 See also Andrew D W Forbes, ‘Thailand’s Muslim Minorities: Assimilation, Secession or Coexistence?’ Asian Survey, 22, 11, Novemebr 1982, for an older assessment of uncertainty which is echoed in the more recent article by S P Harish, ‘Ethnic or Religious Cleavage? Investigating the Nature of the Conflict in Southern Thailand’, Contemporary Southeast Asia, 28, 1, 2006.

    3 The best concise summary of the history of violence in Thailand’s south is in the International Crisis Group report, ‘Southern Thailand: Insurgency Not Jihad’, Report no 98, May 2005. For a sample of the range of explanations and analyses see also the special issue of Critical Asian Studies, 38, 1, March 2006, Joseph Chinyong Liow, ‘Muslim Resistance in Southern Thailand and Southern Philippines: Religion, Ideology and Politics’, East-West Centre Policy Studies, no 24, 2006, and Surin Pitsuwan, Islam and Malay Nationalism: A Case Study of the Malay Muslims of Southern Thailand, Westview, Boulder, 1985.

    4 Faisal Devji, Landscapes of the Jihad: Militancy, Morality, and Modernity,

    Cornell University Press, 2005. 5 ‘Southern Thailand’, pp 6-11. 6 This account is exhaustively covered in the ICG report, ‘Southern


    7 Michael Montesano, paper presented at the workshop ‘Violence, Peace Constituencies and Justice in Southern Thailand’, organised by the East-West Centre, Washington, and IDSS, Singapore at October 30-31, 2006 Pattani, Thailand.

    8 Siam Mapped: A History of the Geo-Body of a Nation (University of Hawaii, Honolulu, 1994).

    9 Willem van Schendel, ‘Spaces of Engagement: How Borderlands, Illicit Flows and Territorial States Interlock’ in Willem van Schendel and Itty Abraham (eds), Illicit Flows and Criminal Things: States, Borders and the Other Side of Globalisation, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 2005.

    10 For an exception see May Tan-Mullins, ‘Voices from Pattani: Fears, Suspicion and Confusion’, Critical Asian Studies, 38, 1, 2006.

    11 Paper presented at the workshop ‘Violence, Peace Constituencies and Justice in Southern Thailand’, organised by the East-West Centre, Washington, and IDSS, Singapore at October 30-31, 2006, Pattani, Thailand.

    12 See Patrick Jory, ‘Political Decentralisation and the Resurgence of Regional Identities in Thailand’, Australian Journal of Social Issues, 34, 4, November 1999.

    13 Another customary occupation is smuggling. For an account of how oil products are smuggled by sea into southern Thailand, see Pasuk Phongpaichit, Sungsidh Piriyarangsan and Nualnoi Treerat, Guns, Girls, Gambling, Ganja: Thailand’s Illegal Economy and Public Policy, Silkworm Books, Chiang Mai, 1998. For a similar analysis of divergence between local and regional narratives see Tania Li, ‘Situating Resource Struggles: Concepts for Empirical Analysis’, Economic and Political Weekly, 38, 2003:5120-28.

    14 See most recently, Amartya Sen, Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny, Norton New York, 2007.

    15 Alexander Horstmann, ‘Ethnohistorical Perspectives on Buddhist-Muslim Relations and Coexistence in Southern Thailand: From Shared Cosmos to the Emergence of Hatred’, Sojourn, 19, 1, 2004.

    16 Quoted in Gehan Wijeyewardene, ‘The Frontiers of Thailand’ in rev edition, Craig J Reynolds (ed), National Identity and Its Defenders: Thailand Today, Silkworm Books, Chiang Mai, 2002, p 146.

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