II. A Brief History of Insurgency in the Southern Border Provinces

In this report, references to Thailand’s southern border provinces mean the provinces of Pattani,2 Yala, and Narathiwat, plus the districts of Jana, Thepa, Saba Yoi, and Na Thawi in Songkhla province, in which the majority of the population are ethnic Malay Muslims and speak a local dialect of the Malay language known as Jawi. This region constituted independent Muslim sultanates before being annexed by Thailand (then Siam) in 1902.

For more than a century the southern border provinces have been the scene of varying degrees of separatist activity rooted in the distinctive religious, ethnic, linguistic, cultural, and historical traits of the region. Attempts by the Thai authorities to suppress and assimilate those differences by various measures—from alteration of administrative structures to the assertion of centralized control over Islamic education and practices—as well as indifference toward the local economy, standard of living, the rule of law and justice have resulted in a general atmosphere of resentment and alienation among the ethnic Malay Muslim population. This has provided the context for resistance and insurgency, based largely on three ideological foundations—the belief in traditional virtues and the greatness of the Islamic Land of Patani (Patani Darulsalam), the Malay ethnic identification, and a religious orientation based on Islam.3

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, protests and rebellion were centered on members of sultanate families reacting to the policy of administrative centralization that had displaced them from power.4 More sustained and mainstream separatism began to take shape when Thai officials sought to control the curriculum of Islamic boarding schools (called ponoh in Jawi)5 through the Education Act of 1921. This put Thai authorities and their policy of compulsory assimilation in direct confrontation with teachers (tok guru) of village-based ponoh, who have for many years taken the role of defenders of the faith and upholders of ethnic Malay Muslim identity.6

In this context, the Patani People’s Movement was created by Haji Sulong (Sulong bin Abdul Kadir bin Mohammad el Patani), chairman of the Pattani Provincial Islamic Council. In 1947 Haji Sulong led a petition campaign for autonomy, language and cultural rights, and implementation of Islamic law. The nationalist military government of Field Marshal Phibun Songkhram arrested Haji Sulong together with several other religious leaders and Muslim parliamentarians on treason charges in January 1948. Haji Sulong was released from prison in 1952 but disappeared along with his eldest son, Ahmad Tomeena, in 1954. The presumed murder of Haji Sulong by Thai authorities transformed him into the symbol of ethnic Malay Muslim resistance.7 The ethnic Malay Muslim resistance spearheaded by Haji Sulong has became a mass movement, and importantly was the first time that a separatist movement in the southern border provinces was headed by religious leaders.8

The consolidation of ethnic Malay-Muslim resistance since the 1950s reflected the two sides of separatism in the southern border provinces—one that was led by the exiled sultanate families seeking the restoration of their power, and another that was led by religious teachers seeking to rally popular struggle based on the ethnic Malay Muslims’ self-awareness and identity under Islamic principles against a Buddhist Thai nationalist assimilation policy initiated by Bangkok.

In the early 1950s the Greater Patani Malayu Association (Gabungam Melayu Pattani Raya, GAMPAR) was formed with the objective of incorporating Thailand’s Muslim provinces into Malaya. Soon after that, Tengku Jalal Nasir (also known as Adul Na Saiburi), GAMPAR deputy leader and a former Narathiwat parliamentarian, established the Patani National Liberation Front (Barisan Nasional Pembebasan Patani, BNPP) in 1959 as the first organized armed ethnic Malay Muslim resistance group.9

In the following two decades, many different separatists groups were formed. These included the National Revolution Front (Barisan Revolusi Nasional, BRN), the Patani United Liberation Organization (PULO, Bertubuhan Pembebasan Patani Bersatu) and the Islamic Mujahidin Movement of Patani (Gerakan Mujahidin Islam Patani, GMIP).10 Each of these organizations was founded to establish an independent homeland by casting ethnic Malay nationalism in Islamic terms. On August 31, 1989, leaders of these groups formed the United Front for the Independence of Pattani (Barisan Kemerdekan Patani, Bersatu), which served as an umbrella organization for political coordination and pooling of resources for the ethnic Malay Muslim separatism. In addition, 60 other fringe groups comprised of both ethnic Malay Muslim separatists and criminal gangs were operating.11

In 1980 and 1982 respectively, then-Prime Minister Gen. Prem Tinsulananda issued two executive orders, resulting in a combination of military operations and political-socioeconomic measures. In addition to stepping up military operations and improving cooperation with Malaysia to control border areas and pressure members of separatist groups, the government of Gen. Prem sought to remove grievances and causes that had sparked insurgency against Thai authorities. The prime ministerial Orders Number 66/2523 (1980) and Number 65/2525 (1982) laid the ground for introducing proposals for amnesty deals, a participatory administrative structure, and economic development to the ethnic Malay Muslim population in the southern border provinces.12

In 1981 the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Committee (SBPAC) and the Civilian-Police-Military Taskforce 43 (CPM 43) were established to enhance mutual understanding and trust between Bangkok and the ethnic Malay Muslim community, while also improving intelligence gathering and coordination among various elements of the Thai authorities and security forces. CPM 43 was placed under the Internal Security Operation Command (ISOC) of the Prime Minister’s Office, while SBPAC was attached to the Ministry of Interior and made responsible for the overall administration of the southern border provinces. SBPAC was well known for being able to listen to complaints from the ethnic Malay Muslim population concerning corrupt, abusive, or inept government officials, and was believed to be able to order the transfer of those officials within a day.

In January 1998, Malaysia arrested PULO leaders Abdul Rohman Bazo, Haji Daoh Thanam, Haji Mae Yala, and Haji Sama-ae Thanam, and handed them over to Thai authorities.13 The Thai government then announced a deadline of March 10, 1998, for ethnic Malay Muslim separatists to take up its amnesty offers.14 Nearly 1,000 ethnic Malay Muslim separatist militants, mainly from various factions of PULO and BRN, turned themselves in to join rehabilitation programs.15 They received amnesty and were reinstated to full citizenship rights through CPM 43-run reintegration programs, which provided plots of land as well as vocational training.16 A number of ethnic Malay Muslim leaders also began to seize the new political openness to move away from armed struggle and take part in electoral politics at the local and national levels.

By 2000, the Thai authorities were confident that ethnic Malay Muslim insurgency had largely been quelled. That year, CPM 43 estimated that only 70-80 separatist militants remained active in the southern border provinces, while around 200 leaders of various ethnic Malay Muslim separatist groups were living in exile.17

2 “Patani” is the Malay spelling of the province. It refers to the Sultanate of Patani, which has been used by ethnic Malay Muslim separatist groups to express their aspiration for liberation and independence from the Thai state. “Pattani” is the official transliteration of the name used by Thai authorities.

3 For discussions on the history of separatism in the southern border provinces, see: Surin Pitsuwan, Islam and Malay Nationalism: A case study of the Malay-Muslims of Southern Thailand (Bangkok: Thai Khadi Research Institute, 1985); Uthai Dulyakasem, "Muslim Malay in southern Thailand: Factors underlying the political revolt," in Lim Joo Jock and Vani S, eds., Armed Separatism in Southeast Asia (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies Regional Strategic Studies Program, 1984), pp. 220-222; Thanet Aphornsuvan, "Origins of Malay-Muslim 'separatism' in southern Thailand," Asia Research Institute Working Paper No. 32 (Singapore: National University of Singapore, 2005); Supara Janchitfa, Violence in the Mist (Bangkok: Kobfai, 2005), pp. 273-274.

4 David Brown, “From Peripheral Communities to Ethnic Nations: Separatism In Southeast Asia,” Pacific Affairs, vol. 61, no. 1 (Spring 1988), p. 52.

5 Ponoh (also known as pondok) refers to an Islamic boarding school, comprising groups of huts in which students live within the compound owned by the head teacher (tok guru). There are around 400 ponoh in Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat currently registered with the Education Ministry—some include additional curriculum on secular subjects, while others focus only on Islamic studies. In addition, there are 127 unregistered ponoh, which do not receive government support and are not obliged to be under official supervision.

6 Anthony Davis, "School system forms the frontline in Thailand’s southern unrest," Jane's Intelligence Review, November 2004.

7 Aphornsuvan, "Origins of Malay-Muslim 'separatism' in southern Thailand," p. 7.

8 Ibid., p. 14.

9 Chidchanok Rahimmula, “Crisis in the Southern Border” (“วิกฤติการณ์ชายแดนใต้“), in Uthai Dulyakasem and Lertchai Sirichai, eds., Knowledge and Conflict Resolution (ความรู้กับการแก้ปัญหาความขัดแย้ง) (Bangkok: The Asia Foundation, 2005), pp. 7-8.

10 Ibid.

11 Many separatist militants operated in a gray zone of crime on the one hand, and Malay-Muslim ethnic/religious consciousness on the other, which facilitated recruitment from criminal gangs for separatist groups and vice versa. Human Rights Watch interview with Chidchanok Rahimmula, Pattani, July 5, 2006.

12 This policy was known as “Tai Rom Yen,” which translates into “the South under a cool shade.”

13 "Terrorists asked to surrender in a month's time," The Nation (Bangkok), January 27, 1998. The Thai government was successful in negotiating security cooperation with Malaysia in order to seal off escape routes and hiding places of separatist militants. Whatever sympathies Malaysia may have had for the plight of ethnic Malays in Thailand, it, too, did not want an Islamic insurgency operating from its territory, fearing blowback.

14 Ornanong Noiwong, Political Integration Policies and Strategies of the Thai Government Toward the Malay-Muslims of Southernmost Thailand (1973-2000) (PhD dissertation, Northern Illinois University, 2001), pp. 149-150.

15 Rahimmula, “Crisis in the Southern Border” (“วิกฤติการณ์ชายแดนใต้“), pp. 24-25.

16 Noiwong, Political Integration Policies and Strategies of the Thai Government Towards the Malay-Muslims of Southernmost Thailand (1973-2000), p. 161.

17 Senate Committee on Armed Forces Presentation, Parliament Radio Broadcast (Thai), March 14, 2006.