III. BRN-Coordinate and Transformation of Separatist Insurgency

In 1961 the BRN was founded by ustadz (religious teacher) Haji Abdul Karim Hassan as a result of popular opposition among the ethnic Malay Muslim population to an attempt by Thai officials to put all ponoh under the regulation of the Education Ministry. Influenced by a potent combination of ethnic Malay nationalism and Muslim extremism, BRN-Coordinate (Barisan Revolusi Nasional-Koordinas) has emerged as the strongest among the various BRN factions (the others being BRN-Congress and BRN-Ulama). Over the period of “quiet years” in the lead-up to the widespread resurgence of separatist violence in 2004, BRN-Coordinate has focused on expanding its strength through the network of tok guru, ustadz, and jehku (teachers in tadika—village-based elementary Koranic schools), as well as the network of students of tadika, ponoh, and private Islamic colleges, taking the impetus for that expansion from deep-rooted resentment toward abuses, exploitation, corruption, and injustice on the part of Thai officials.18 Thai authorities reported that the expansion of BRN-Coordinate took place under the coordination of Sapa-ing Baso, owner of Thamma Witthaya Foundation School in Yala, and his lieutenant Masae Useng, who also played an instrumental role as secretary in the PUSAKA foundation, which represented the network of tadika in Narathiwat.19 

Reports by Thai military intelligence in the southern border provinces in 2004 indicated that, according to documents seized from Masae Useng’s house,  the resurgence and expansion of BRN-Coordinate has been focused since 1997 on a distinctly Islamist nationalist platform, known as the “seven-step plan”:20

  1. Creating public awareness of Islam (religion), Malay (nationality) and Patani homeland, invasion/occupation [by the Thai state] and the struggle for independence;
  2. Creating mass support through religious teaching [at various levels, including tadika, ponoh, private Islamic colleges and provincial Islamic committees];
  3. Setting up a secretive organizational structure;
  4. Recruiting and training [ethnic Malay Muslim] youth to become militants, aiming to have 3,000-strong well trained and well disciplined troops;
  5. Building nationalist and independence struggle ideology among government officials [of ethnic Malay Muslim origin] and ethnic Malay Muslims [of the southern border provinces] who went to work in Malaysia;
  6. Launching a new wave of attacks;
  7. Declaring a revolution.

A handwritten note in Jawi showing the seven-step plan from Masae Useng’s house. © 2004 Private

The organizational structure at the operational level in the villages and sub-districts is reportedly based on five units—political work and recruitment (often led by religious leaders); economic and financial affairs; women’s affairs;youth (pemuda); and armed activity.21 However, the structure and decision-making process at the top level remains shadowy and enigmatic.

Regarding the last of these—armed activity—the process of indoctrination and radicalization, particularly from the late 1990s, has created a new generation of village-based separatist militants operating in cell-like structures within the loose network of BRN-Coordinate called Pejuang Kemerdekaan Patani (Patani Freedom Fighters). The cells of Pejuang Kemerdekaan Patani are loosely connected together at tambon (sub-district) level, leaving a high degree of operational autonomy in each village—leaders at the village level are able to decide when, where, and whom to attack.22

Ibrohim (not his real name) recruits and oversees activity of separatist militants of BRN-Coordinate in Narathiwat. He explained to Human Rights Watch the transformation of BRN-Coordinate and the creation of village-based pejuang kemerdekaan Patani:

Thai officials thought we had given up during the period of quietness. They were wrong. We came back in less than a decade and began to carry out attacks in late 2001. We are different from the previous generation, who camped out in the mountains as an army of guerilla fighters with clear structure and chain of command. That made them easy to be identified, tracked down, and suppressed by Thai security forces. Our new strategy is more community-based, operating from a cell in each village. About two-thirds of all the villages [in the southern border provinces] now have our cells set up, and we are expanding. Islam has become much more important for our fight [compared to the previous generation] as the guiding principle. My generation is much more educated in Islam. The guidance of Islam is uniting us together, and keeping all of us true to our cause—that is to fight to liberate our land from the infidel occupation. The recruitment process takes time and we want to be sure that they are really committed. We watch them for many years—often since they were studying in tadika or ponoh. We only recruit those who are truly committed to Islam and their Islamic duty to fight for the liberation [of Patani Darulsalam] to join us. They must be pious. We also welcome those from other [separatist] groups to join us as long as they agree to live and fight for our two guiding principles—[ethnic] Malay nationalism and Islam. There are many young men who would like to join but they are not committed to these principles. They wanted to do it out of resentment and anger. That is a personal matter. Our members must truly believe in their higher cause towards the liberation of our land and our people. This cannot, and will not, be compromised through any negotiations or any deals with the Thai state.23

Seng (not his real name), an ethnic Malay Muslim villager in Narathiwat’s Sri Sakorn district, told Human Rights Watch that the influence of Pejuang Kemerdekaan Patani has grown significantly and rapidly in the past three years.

I still find it hard to believe that now we have to listen to these pejuang. Within three years [from 2004], they can now control everything in this area. Sometimes you can even see their patrol units—armed with AK-47s—on going around the village in broad daylight. Many village chiefs have been put in power with their consent and served as their puppets. Candidates contesting for positions in AorBorTor [sub-district level tambon administration council] are also in the same situation. It is very straightforward for us. If you do not belong to them or listen to their orders, you will be dead. You cannot argue with them. We are living in fear. Even the imam is scared of them. If they believe that you are doing something against their objectives [in the struggle for liberation], they will give you warnings—often three times—and your fate is sealed. I know that my village chief received such warnings twice. First, they sent him a letter written in red ink telling him that they were in control of the village now and that he must obey them. The second time, they came to his house—eight teenagers armed with Ar Kar [Thai abbreviation for AK-47]—telling him not to report their activity to the authorities. The village chief was also told to give one-third of the budget of our village defense unit to them. That money was supposed to be paid to me and other villagers who have been recruited to work in defense volunteer positions. If they want to use our guns to kill government officials, we will still have to give them our guns anyway. What choice do we have? I do not want anything bad to happen to me or my family. So, you should not be surprised to see pejuang becoming more and more powerful everywhere. I think the only solution is that government forces must give us a guarantee of round-the-clock protection. But that is not going to be possible. 24 

The generation of ethnic Malay Muslim men under age 30 constitutes the primary pool for recruitment into pejuang kemerdekaan Patani. Many of them were groomed for insurgency from a very young age during their education in tadika and ponoh, where students are taught that Siam (present-day Thailand) invaded and occupied Patani Darulsalam, enslaving the people, suppressing Islamic practice, and destroying the ethnic Malay identity. The process of indoctrination is intensified at sessions of religious and political discussion after the evening prayer. The recruits are often scouted and persuaded to join by their friends, classmates, relatives, neighbors, or teachers.

San (not his real name), a village chief in Pattani, recalled how ethnic Malay Muslim children and teenagers have been drawn into the process of ideological radicalization and, for some of them, recruitment to become militants.

It was about 15 years ago. The imam [of his village] said his son came back after finishing religious study from Thamma Witthaya School in Yala and would teach students in his ponoh. First, there was nothing suspicious. The new ustadz appeared to be very knowledgeable and passionate about teaching Islam. Everyone though he would be a good model for our children, keeping them away from drugs, gambling, and other bad things. He talked a lot about the history of Patani Darulsalam and the destruction of it by Buddhist Thais. Still, it was normal to let the children become aware of their roots. Even me, I am still very proud of our history. I began to notice that there was something strange and dangerous in his teaching when my own children told me that the ustadz told them that Patani Darulsalam can be resurrected and liberated by arms. They said the ustadz told them that it was their Islamic duty to do take up arms and fight for liberation of our homeland from the kafir occupation. He became popular and influential among young people in our village and beyond. He recommended many children from our village to have further education at Thamma Witthaya School. In return, he invited many graduates from that school, including those with higher degree from Indonesia, to come to teach in this ponoh. Some of them came here and began to teach young children [often from eight to 12-year-old] in tadika. Eventually, both ponoh and tadika fell under control of this group of ustadz. They then began to show their true face. They were militants. They recruited our children to be trained as militants. Each year, six or ten boys about 15 to 17-years old, were chosen. For months, they disappeared in the evening with the ustadz to have military training in the mountains. When they came back, those boys became very different. Their thoughts were rigid, with visible hatred of Buddhists. They said our homeland must be rid of Buddhists. They also warned us not to associate with Buddhists. It is terrifying now that we are being intimidated and controlled by these young men. I know that they will not spare us if they think that we disobeyed them.25 

Cha (not his real name), who joined a village-based cell in the network of BRN-Coordinate militants in 2003, told Human Rights Watch that he was recruited by a local ustadz after former students and his classmates from a private Islamic college impressed upon him for many years that it was a rightful duty for him to liberate Patani Darulsalam from infidels.

He [the ustadz] was very pleased to meet me. He said he has been watching me for some time because my friends—classmates and former students of my college—told him that I was a good Muslim and follow Islamic practice strictly. The ustadz told me that we must all have a stance on justice. He told me that our people [ethnic Malay Muslims] have been oppressed and abused by Thai officials for centuries. He said our homeland of Patani Darulsalamhas been invaded and occupied by kafir [infidels]. We must not let this continue. He told me that every day our people are bullied, arrested, tortured, and killed—even though they have not done anything wrong—by Thai officials, especially the police. Our generation has a duty to end this history of oppression. The ustadz always talked to me about these issues every time I met him. Later on, he invited me to visit his mosque and join the prayer. I met other ponoh students frommy village, in addition to those coming from my college, and older people—those with a job, already married, and some had children. What we had in common was that we were all good Muslims—being pious—and we all respected the ustadz. We all came to listen to the ustadz and discuss the history of Patani Darulsalam and the political situation every Thursday and Friday night. Then one night he told me that he believed I could be a good fighter to protect and liberate our people from the oppression of the Thai state. I was told to swear allegiance to the struggle on the Koran, then eat a piece of paper bearing 24 vows written in Arabic script, washed down with holy water blessed by the ustadz. I had a strange feeling after that—somehow I felt much stronger. The ustadz told me that only a devout Muslim would gain special power. He told me that I would no longer feel the fear or pain. He said I was ready now to become a real fighter, and I should not be afraid if I died. My death would make me become syahid (martyr).26   

Cha’s account regarding the recruitment process has been echoed by many other separatist militants whom Human Rights Watch interviewed. However, the recruitment does not necessarily mean immediate involvement in armed attacks or killings.27

After being indoctrinated with radical separatist and Islamist ideology from their elementary Koranic classes (often starting with seven-year-old children), the next step is to become members of pemuda. Then, still in their teens, the recruits will have to prove their bravery and commitment to the cause of insurgency—by scattering propaganda leaflets and death threats against infidels (Buddhist Thais) or collaborators (ethnic Malay Muslims known to be working or associating with Thai authorities).28 The next step is vandalism—for example, burning public telephone booths or destroying road signs (using spray paint or sledge hammers). After that, they can take part in actual militant attacks acting as a lookout or helping to block escape routes with felled trees, burning tires, or metal spikes. Sometimes they are enlisted to join in arson attacks targeting government buildings (commonly schools), security posts, Buddhist temples, and houses of perceived infidels and collaborators. Often at this point the recruits have also already gone through training to build up their physical strength and basic knowledge in military tactics. These trainings are not fixed to one location, but are rotated from rubber plantations to fruit orchards to school fields and remote forests. Later, some of the recruits will be chosen to receive training in machete fighting, firearms—using M16 or AK-47 assault rifles as well as shotguns, pistols, and semi-automatic pistols—and explosives. At the same time, they will receive more intensive training in ambush and attack tactics. These recruits will then take part in actual attacks and killings in various ways according to their skills and the preference of the cells that they belong to—ambushes, drive-by shootings, bomb detonation, summary execution with firearms, machete attacks, and beheadings. Those with more combat experience (often in their mid-20s) will operate as commandos under direct control of village-level cell leaders.29

Doma (not his real name), who provided a training ground for the network of separatist militants of BRN-Coordinate in Pattani, told Human Rights Watch that some of the trainers are of an earlier generation of separatist militants, from BRN or other groups, with battlefield experiences in the southern border provinces or overseas—particularly Afghanistan in the 1990s. Other trainers are former conscripts of the Thai army, which makes them familiar with Thai army troop organization, deployment, and tactics. “We are very capable of conducting good training by our own men,” he said. “There is no need to get foreigners to help us in our struggle.” Doma told Human Rights Watch that even the instruction to make trigger parts in improvised explosive devices (IEDs) can be done by “someone with the same level of knowledge of electronic circuits as those who can repair mobile telephones or digital watches.” Doma also stressed that their weapons, both firearms and explosives, have been acquired locally through robbery, extortion, and the black market. “We have enough supply to fight for many years,” he said.30  

By February 2005 the SBPPBC was estimating that separatist militants had infiltrated and established control of 875 out of the total 1,574 villages in the southern border provinces.31 With regards to the military strength of separatist militants, the Police Forward Command in the southern border provinces estimated in June 2006 that well-trained separatist militants (known as Runda Kumpulan Kecil, or RKK, after the title of their training course in small patrol unit tactics) were active in 500 villages, while there were more than 4,000 permuda members across the southern border provinces.32 

Sori (not his real name), a 17-year-old ethnic Malay Muslim student, told Human Rights Watch that the climate of fear has been heightened as a result of the brutality of separatist militants, leaving villagers with no choice but to provide supplies and sanctuary to separatist militants or give up their children to become members of pemuda or pejuang kemerdekaan Patani

They sent me a message through the imam, telling me that eventually I would have to join the movement or be killed. I have one more year left of high school. I want to finish high school, get a job, and take my family out of here. We cannot go on living like this.33

Poh Meng (not his real name), a senior commander of PULO now retired and living a quiet life in Narathiwat, voiced his concern to Human Rights Watch about the influence of radical Islamist ideology, growing brutality, and unconventional tactics used by members of pejuang kemerdekaan Patani

They called themselves pejuang and are very ruthless with what they are doing. In this area they live on the other side of the highway [which practically divides his tambon]. On this side, people still listen to me and respect me. I put down my weapons nearly 20 years ago, and all I need to do is keep my community safe and secure. Those pejuang have been trying to set up a cell in our village. They wanted to recruit our young men, but I intervened. I instructed people here in our community to stay out of it. I told them that I am speaking from experience that there is no justification to take up arms to kill innocent people—Buddhists and Muslims—in the struggle. I fought for years in the jungle against the Thai state. I am still very much a[n ethnic Malay Muslim] nationalist and still dream of a free Patani Darulsalam. I will never hesitate to take up arms to fight again. But not like this, not the way this generation is conducting it. It seems like they are just killing for killing’s sake—creating fear to increase their power and control our people [ethnic Malay Muslims]. We did not kill monks or innocent Buddhist Thai civilians. Buddhist temples and school teachers were off limits. If anyone in my unit was caught violating these rules by harming innocent people or attacking unjustifiable targets, they would be investigated and punished by our council of elders. I think their elders [of BRN-Coordinate] in Malaysia realize that the kind of wanton brutality we are seeing on the ground hurts their legitimacy as the protectors and liberators of our people. Many of these young men receive no real guidance from knowledgeable elders, and often they take matters into their own hands.  If their elders can get them back in line, we will be seeing more systematic, better coordinated attacks against Thai authorities and fewer controversial incidents that put the struggle for freedom in a bad light.34

Poh Meng is in contact with other members of the previous generation of separatist militants. Bor Heng (not his real name), Poh Meng’s colleague who used to operate as a PULO local commander, spoke strongly against the current campaign of killing Buddhist Thai civilians: 

It is not our duty to call them kafir simply because they are Buddhist Thais. Only God knows who is truly a rejecter [of Islam]. We are not in a position to judge them and sentence them to death. Most of them are good people who live with us in the same village for many decades with courtesy and friendship. They have never done anything to infringe on Islamic practice. Our children grew up playing with their children. But now our children are killing them and burning their houses. Those pejuang attacked and killed Buddhist monks. That never happened when I was still fighting in the jungle. Buddhist monks are men of religion and cannot be harmed. But if that is not bad enough, those young pejuang are also persecuting our people [ethnic Malay Muslims] accusing them of being munafig [hypocrites] who collaborate with Buddhist Thais. The judgments are often made hastily, carelessly, and unfairly. Many people have been shot or hacked to death in this way.

Nevertheless, I must say that I think it is fair game to execute those truly found guilty of being government informants. There are many people among us [ethnic Malay Muslims] who work for the Thai state and want to please their bosses, including those who have come under the recently initiated temporary employment [in government agencies], by making groundless accusations against ustadz and their neighbors.

Every decision back then was not made hastily by inexperienced fighters and ustadz who misinterpret Islam and Koranic codes of fighting like today. Even when someone from our [ethnic Malay Muslim] community was accused of being a munafig, the council of elders would be convened to listen to the case carefully. Even if the accusation was true, we would give them an opportunity—often with three warnings—to change their behavior before we handed down an execution order.35

18 Human Rights Watch interview with BRN-Coordinate members, Narathiwat, July 25, 2006.

19 International Security Operation Command (Fourth Region, Second Division), “Specific Report Regarding PUSAKA Foundation and Terrorist Network,” (“รายงานการศึกษาเฉพาะกรณีเรื่องมูลนิธิ PUSAKA  กับเครือข่ายโจรก่อการร้าย”), June 2003.

20 International Security Operation Command (Fourth Region, Second Division), “Specific Report Regarding the Involvement of Ponoh in Terrorist Movements,”(“รายงานการศึกษาเฉพาะกรณีเรื่องความเกี่ยวพันของโรงเรียนปอเนาะกับขบวนการโจรก่อการร้าย“), January 2004.

21 “Adul Saengsinghkeo Named RKK Perpetrator of Southern Violence,” Isara News Center, July 2, 2006, (accessed July 4, 2006).

22 Human Rights Watch interview with BRN-Coordinate member (name withheld), Narathiwat, November 28, 2006.

23 Human Rights Watch interview with Ibrohim, Narathiwat, November 28, 2006.

24 Human Rights Watch interview with Seng, Narathiwat, June 28, 2007.

25 Human Rights Watch interview with San, Pattani, July 10, 2007.

26 Human Rights Watch interview with Cha, Narathiwat, July 12, 2006.

27 Human Rights Watch interview with BRN-Coordinate members in Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat, April 2004-November 2006.

28 These leaflets and death threats bear no identification (neither the name nor symbol) of BRN-Coordinate. In most cases, propaganda leaflets or threats targeting Buddhist Thais are typed or handwritten in the Thai language, with a signature of the “warriors of Patani” (”นักรบปาตานี”) or “freedom fighters of Patani” (”นักสู้เพื่อเอกราชปาตานี”—a literal translation of pejuang kemerdekaan Patani).

29 Human Rights Watch interview with BRN-Coordinate members (names withheld) in Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat, April 2004-November 2006.

30 Human Rights Watch interview with Doma, Pattani, December 10, 2006.

31 “Adul Saengsinghkeo Named RKK Perpetrator of Southern Violence,” Isara News Center, July 2, 2006, (accessed July 4, 2006).

32 Ibid. Each RKK unit has five or six men—making that at least 2,500 to 3,000 well trained separatist militants now operationally active.

33 Human Rights Watch interview with Sori, Narathiwat, November 12, 2006.

34 Human Rights Watch interview with Poh Meng, Narathiwat, July 20, 2006.

35 Human Rights Watch interview with Bor Heng, Pattani, December 26, 2006.