Since 2004, insurgents in southern Thailand have fought to achieve an independent state for the region’s 1.8 million Muslim ethnic Malays. The conflict, which is the most lethal in Southeast Asia today, has left approximately 5,500 people dead and nearly 10,000 wounded.[1] Although it has settled into a stalemate, a recent political development has given rise to hope that peace is possible. On February 28, 2013, the chairman of the Thai National Security Council (NSC), Lieutenant-General Paradorn Pattanatabut, and a representative of the separatist Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), Ustaz Hassan Taib, signed an agreement to begin formal peace talks.[2] The agreement, which garnered significant media attention, was the result of Malaysian[3] mediation following nearly a year of back-channel talks that were started by ousted Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the brother of current Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.[4]

While there have been various attempts to negotiate an end to the conflict in southern Thailand since 2004, this marks the first time that there has been optimism that the talks between the Royal Thai Government and the shadowy insurgents will achieve progress. There are many reasons to question this optimism, however. The Royal Thai Army (RTA) chief, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, and many analysts have expressed skepticism that Taib and the BRN have any command-and-control over the horizontal network of insurgents.[5] Moreover, few political analysts see any meaningful concessions from the government on the issues of devolution of power and autonomy. Nonetheless, this marks the first time that a Thai administration has been willing to publicly commit itself to the notion that the conflict can only be resolved through the implementation of meaningful political reforms. Although the talks may not result in a durable peace immediately, they do lay the foundation for a negotiated political agreement.

This article provides background on the insurgency in southern Thailand, examines the recent political agreement, and then explains how the negotiations will likely proceed.

The current iteration of the insurgency in southern Thailand is now in its 10th year, although the origin of the insurgency dates back to the 1909 Anglo-Siamese Treaty that demarcated the border between Thailand and Malaysia and left three provinces, of which 80% of the population is comprised of Muslim Malays, in Thailand—Narathiwat, Yala and Pattani. Thailand spent much of the century trying to assimilate the Malay into Buddhist Thai society. Low-level insurgencies smoldered from the early-1970s to the mid-1990s, yet the insurgents were divided on ideological grounds (ethno-nationalists, Islamists, or those tied to the Malayan Communist Party) and differences over their ultimate political objectives (independence, union with Malaysia or autonomy).

Violence during this period remained in the countryside, and insurgents rarely targeted civilians. The Thai government exploited the insurgents’ inability to work together, and quelled the insurgency by the mid-1990s through a mixture of general amnesties, economic development programs, burgeoning economic growth on both sides of the border, and the establishment of a durable interagency institution, the Southern Border Province Administrative Committee (SBPAC).[6] While moderate and more mainstream dissident groups such as the Pattani United Liberation Organization (PULO) accepted amnesty and surrendered in large numbers, by the mid-1990s hardliners went underground where they indoctrinated and recruited a new generation of insurgents.

The insurgency that erupted in January 2004 is both quantitatively and qualitatively different than its predecessors. While it began at a low level, the movement grew following the implementation of a series of failed counterinsurgency policies, while the Thai government remained largely in denial about the insurgents’ goals.[7] Violence peaked in mid-2007, when the Thai army surged the region with some 60,000 troops, and the number of incidents and casualties fell steadily through the first half of 2008.[8] Yet by the end of 2008, violent incidents had risen. Since January 2009, the violence has remained steady.[9]

Between January 2009 and February 2013, an estimated 1,473 people have been killed and 3,241 have been wounded, an average of approximately 30 deaths per month and 65 wounded per month.[10] The victims since the start of 2009 include approximately 118 soldiers, 68 police, 227 rangers and defense volunteers, 128 village headmen or their deputies, 885 civilians, 39 teachers and four monks.[11] Security forces including RTA regulars, police, paramilitary rangers and village defense volunteers represent 28% of those killed and 38% of those wounded since 2009.[12] Approximately 158 teachers have been killed, a category of targets that puts additional pressure on the Thai state as they lead to prolonged closures of schools.[13] There have been more than 40 beheadings, including the most recent one in August 2012.[14]

While most of those killed are the victims of shootings, since January 2009 there have been 595 improvised explosive device (IED) attacks, an average of 12 per month.[15] Most IEDs are small, in the 11 pound range, although 50-100 pound IEDs are not unusual.[16] IEDs are typically hidden alongside or buried under the road to target passing security details, although they are frequently employed in the cities, often concealed in motorcycles. Insurgents use grenades when they acquire them, and engage in frequent arson attacks. There have been no suicide bombers in southern Thailand.

While there are months where the violence spikes, the rate of violence is surprisingly consistent, as if the insurgents have calculated the appropriate frequency of attacks to assure their immediate goals of driving the Buddhist population out of the region and discrediting the government and weakening public institutions. To date, Thai security forces have been unable to stop the violence.

While the exact number of insurgents is unknown, in an August 2012 order of battle, the RTA estimated that there are 9,600 militants.[17] According to open source reporting, there have been 127 insurgents killed and 315 captured since early 2009.[18]

There are a number of insurgent organizations besides the BRN. The BRN-Coordinate (BRN-C), which split from the BRN in the 1980s, is a madrasa-based movement under the leadership of Masae Useng and Sapaeing Basor, to which much of the violence is attributed.[19] The Gerakan Mujahidin Islam Pattani (GMIP) began as a gun smuggling group that supplied the Acehnese independence movement, the Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (GAM), and then became an extortion and enforcement arm for local politicians in southern Thailand.[20] The group changed course when two of Thailand’s few veterans from the war in Afghanistan in the 1980s took command.[21] Other cells emerged out of New-PULO. The media often reports on the Runda Kampulan Kecil (RKK), but this is inaccurate because there is no RKK “organization”—the RKK refers to small group guerrilla tactics that militants from groups such as the BRN-C acquired through training in Indonesia.[22]

Many insurgent leaflets and night letters are simply signed “Warriors of Pattani,” which highlights the horizontal nature of the insurgency. What is more important than the names of the groups is how they are organized. According to a Thai journalist, the RTA said that there are approximately 35 regional commanders, known as juwae, who run operations at the district level.[23] The RTA asserts that there are roughly 20 individuals above the juwae, who meet roughly every two months to set broad policy.[24] This grouping, which includes members of many different organizations, is known as the Dewan Pimpinan Usat.[25]

The Agreement
The February 28, 2013, agreement stated that the Thai government is “willing to engage in peace dialogue with people [the BRN] who have different opinions and ideologies from the state as one of the stakeholders in solving the Southern Border Provinces problem under the framework of the Thai Constitution while Malaysia would act as facilitator.”[26]

This is a tacit acknowledgement that despite soaring military budgets since 2006—Bt3-4 billion ($110-135 million) for security operations in the south alone—large earmarks for development in the south, and some 60,000 security forces deployed in the deep south, the insurgency cannot be defeated militarily.[27]

On the insurgents’ side, it may be an acknowledgement that violence is not bringing them closer to their desired goals. On September 14, 2012, a senior juwae, Wae Ali Copter Waeji, of the GMIP surrendered with 90 of his men, signing a letter in which they acknowledged that their current strategy (i.e., violence) was not achieving their objectives.[28] While there have not been the subsequent mass defections from the insurgency that Thai authorities expected, that may have more to do with the fact that there is no blanket amnesty for those who surrender, and the Emergency Decree that governs most of the deep south gives authorities little discretion in dropping charges against suspects who have been indicted for particular acts of violence.[29] Indeed, since September’s mass defection, only 13 insurgents have surrendered to authorities, according to Thai media reports.

Wae Ali Copter Waeji and two of the 90 who surrendered face criminal charges, while the others were forced into a six month re-education program run by the military. The deputy prime minister for security affairs at the time, General Yutthasak Sasiprapa, acknowledged that the amnesty process needed to be amended if the government wanted to encourage defections, while 4th Army Commander Lieutenant General Udomchai Thammasaroratch requested the Ministry of Justice formally amend the legal process and reduce or drop punishments of those who have surrendered.[30] To date, no formal process has been amended, and therefore many insurgents are likely unwilling to surrender.

There is also a sense of hubris that could be prodding the insurgents to the table. Militants suffered their single worst loss since 2004 on February 13, 2013, when a group of 50-60 insurgents launched an attack on a Thai Marine base in Narathiwat Province’s Bacho district. The Marines expected the attack, as they recovered a map of their military base in the pocket of an insurgent that they had killed three days earlier.[31] Sixteen militants were killed, and four were later arrested.[32] Militants who once could attack at will are presently confronted by a more professional and better equipped security force whose counterinsurgency operations have improved in the past few years.[33] By 2012, authorities had increased their security presence in the south, especially in the cities and along the major roads.[34] As a result of increased patrols and checkpoints, insurgents do not have as much freedom of movement. Moreover, they have not staged mass simultaneous attacks, which were common at the height of the insurgency in the first half of 2007.

How Negotiations Will Proceed
Formal talks are set to begin on March 28, 2013.[35] The Thai negotiators will be from the NSC headed by Lieutenant General Paradorn Pattanatabut. Malaysia has appointed Dato Sri Ahmad Zamzamin bin Hashim, the former director of the Malaysian External Intelligence Organization, as the facilitator. While Taib will represent the BRN, it is important to note that the Thai government acknowledges that the BRN is only one of many groups involved in the conflict. Indeed, the February 28 agreement described them as “one of the stakeholders.” To that end, the Thai side has encouraged the BRN to invite other militants to the talks.[36] To date, the BRN has not made their 15 person list public. The Thai NSC, however, announced that representatives from a total of nine groups will attend—the BRN, New PULO, PULO 88, BRN-Congress, BRN-C, Barisan Islam Pembangunan Pattani, as well as the GMIP, Gerakan Mujahidin Pattani and Ulama Pattani.[37] Critically, two of the senior-most insurgents,  Masae Useng and Sapaeing Basor, will send representatives to the talks.[38]

There are a number of challenges going into the negotiations. The first is that violence has continued since the February 28 agreement. Based on open source reporting, in the 25 days following the agreement, there have been eight bombings, one grenade attack, and 20 separate shootings that left four police, four rangers, nine headmen, two village defense volunteers and six civilians dead.[39] The RTA is concerned that the BRN has no command-and-control over local insurgent cells, with General Prayuth describing them as an “old-guard outfit.”[40] The BRN split into three factions in the 1980s, and most of the current violence is perpetrated by the BRN-C and groups such as the GMIP. The NSC chief acknowledged this is a problem but spoke of the BRN’s role as elders: “it’s important that we talk with spiritual leaders who, after all, were militants before. These are the people who can communicate with their operative cells.”[41]

Paradorn asked Taib “if he could send a signal to militant operatives in the three southern border provinces to reduce the level of their insurgent activities,”[42] but all parties on the Thai side acknowledged that the insurgency is not a top-down movement, and instead consists of many groups and highly autonomous cells. Therefore, they anticipate violence to continue despite the upcoming peace talks. As southern-based journalist Don Pathan noted, “According to Malaysian and BRN-C sources, Hasan has not received the DPP’s [Dewan Penilian Party] blessing.”[43] One BRN-C member told Pathan: “We knew Hasan was up to something but nobody took him seriously because he doesn’t have any clout with the militants on the ground. But nobody thought he would go as far as to enter an agreement with the Thais.”[44] In short, the BRN could be trying to leverage a leadership position at the table by entering into talks, just as PULO has tried to do repeatedly since 2004.[45]

On the other hand, the persistent violence leading up to the peace talks could also be part of the militants’ strategy, and does not necessarily mean that the talks will fail. The insurgents have an incentive to maintain a certain level of violence to pressure the government to make concessions under fear of renewed attacks.

The second issue is that it is unclear what the insurgents can realistically hope to gain from negotiations. For the Thai state, granting independence to militant groups operating in southern Thailand is not an option. Indeed, General Prayuth warned that even autonomy was unacceptable to the RTA: “It is impossible to give up [territory] to anyone. Everything must be discussed at the negotiation table, under the law and constitution.”[46] The RTA remains the kingmaker in Thai politics and Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has spent the past 18 months assuring them that she will not push forward policies that threaten their interests. Even Yingluck’s NSC chief acknowledged that autonomy is not on the table: “We will have to work out what the term entails for us and for them. Certainly it won’t mean an autonomous zone or another state. Allowing these border provinces to elect their own governors might be in the picture.”[47] Yet Thailand has for years equivocated on even making Malayu an official language in the deep south for fear that it would fuel separatism.

In early March 2013, Thai security agencies approved a proposal to replace the draconian Emergency Decree that governs most of the deep south with the Internal Security Act in five more districts.[48] While the ISA continues to give security forces blanket immunity, a practice that has long been an irritant to the Malay, Article 21 of the ISA gives authorities much more discretion in dropping existing charges and implementing a more meaningful amnesty program.[49] Yet days later, the cabinet extended the Emergency Decree through the next quarter, without taking up the issue of expanding the territory under the ISA.[50] This decision was made only days before the peace talks were to begin, sending a negative signal to the militants. The Emergency Decree is a major source of contention and an issue that likely engenders broad support for the insurgents’ cause, while at the same time making uncertain the legal proceedings against any potential insurgent who surrenders.

Finally, there is considerable suspicion on the part of the military that the talks are a political façade that have nothing to do with resolving the conflict in the south. The governing Pheu Thai Party has tried to push a highly contentious national reconciliation bill through parliament since coming to power in mid-2011.[51] The bill is controversial, and the potential for judicial action or a coup is so real that even with a parliamentary majority the Pheu Thai Party has repeatedly backed down. What makes it so divisive is that the centerpiece of the bill is an amnesty for former politicians, including Thaksin Shinawatra, now a fugitive from Thai justice. A successful peace process that started through Thaksin’s back-channel negotiations would put pressure on the military and royalist stalwarts to accede and grant amnesty to the polarizing former prime minister, something neither can countenance.[52]

As Don Pathan noted, “The role of the Army is still unclear, but a meaningful buy-in from the military has yet to be secured” in large part because of questions over what this will mean for Thaksin’s return.[53] Indeed, the RTA appeared to be cut out of the upcoming peace talks, with only one delegate on the 15-member panel.[54]

The newly-announced peace talks are significant because it is the first of seven Thai governments since 2004 to publicly acknowledge the need for a political solution to the most violent conflict in the heart of economically-vibrant Southeast Asia.

For the militants, who have never been a mass-based organization and are clearly not losing the struggle, there is no great incentive to negotiate. The rate of violence has plateaued to an “acceptable” level, and there is not widespread pressure on them to settle. To date, many insurgent cells seem reluctant to halt the violence. Taib and the BRN seem to be leveraging a position for themselves. Can they bring the younger militants to the table? For now, that seems unlikely unless the Thai government is willing to make critical concessions.

Zachary Abuza is professor of political science and international relations at Simmons College. His most recent book is Conspiracy of Silence: The Insurgency in Southern Thailand and its Implications for Southeast Asian Security.

[1] The majority of the statistics in this article are drawn from the author’s incident database. The author’s data is based on open source reporting and as such is lower than official figures; not all casualties are reported in the media, and many people reported as wounded later die. The author indicates when official data is used. The author does not have access to official data on a regular basis, and when he does it tends to be aggregate numbers. By carefully coding open source data, the author was able to do much more detailed statistical analysis on victim types, location of attacks, trends in how people were killed, size of improvised explosive devices, and more. This database will henceforth be cited as “Abuza, Incident Database.” Also, for confirmation of the number of casualties since 2004, see “Bomb Kills Two, Wounds 12 in Thai South,” Agence France-Presse, March 2, 2013.

[2] The text of the agreement can be found at “Text of the Agreement between Thailand and the BRN,” Bangkok Post, February 28, 2013.

[3] The role of Malaysia in the negotiations is important, since the insurgents in southern Thailand allegedly stage some of their attacks from across the border in Malaysia. For more on Malaysia’s role, see “Malaysia to Assist Dialogue Process for Peace in Southern Thailand,” Thai News Agency, March 1, 2013.

[4] “Thaksin and Army Chief Differ Over Peace Move,” Bangkok Post, March 3, 2013.

[5] The insurgent movement is spread across three-and-a-half provinces in southern Thailand. Beneath the field commanders (juwae) are fairly autonomous cells. There is no evidence that it is a “top-down” insurgency. See “Deep South Attacks Won’t Cease: Prayuth,” The Nation, March 4, 2013.

[6] For more on the history of the conflict, see Zachary Abuza, Conspiracy of Silence: The Insurgency in Southern Thailand (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Institute of Peace, 2009).

[7] Then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his senior cabinet members attributed the violence to drug gangs and other smugglers. See Seth Mydans, “Thai Security Forces Kill Scores of Rebels,” New York Times, April 28, 2004.

[8] Abuza, Incident Database.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] “10,000 Named in Insurgency Handbook,” Bangkok Post, August 25, 2012.

[18] Abuza, Incident Database.

[19] “Pattani Blast During Sukampol Visit to South,” The Nation, March 23, 2013.

[20] “Muslim Group Linked to Attacks in Thailand,” Straits Times, March 25, 2002.

[21] Ibid.; “Thailand Islamic Insurgency,”, undated.

[22] This statement is based on the author’s interviews and research trips to southern Thailand. Also see ibid.

[23] Personal interview, Thai journalist, Yala Province, Thailand, July 3, 2010.

[24] Ibid.; “10,000 Named in Insurgency Handbook.”

[25] Ibid.; “Pattani Blast During Sukampol Visit to South.”

[26] “Text of the Agreement between Thailand and the BRN.”

[27] SBPAC had requested Bt3.974 billion ($133 million) for its operations in the south. See “Army Chief: Prolonged Southern Violence not Linked to Military Budget,” MCOT, October 31, 2012.

[28] “91 Rebel Defectors Surrender,” Bangkok Post, September 12, 2012; “Talks with RKK ‘Separatists in South,” The Nation, September 12, 2012.

[29] “Isoc to Plot Amnesty Strategy in South,” Bangkok Post, February 22, 2013.

[30] “More Insurgents Ready to Defect,” Bangkok Post, September 18, 2012.

[31] “16 Die in Attack on Thai Marine Base,” Bangkok Post, February 13, 2013; “Four Rebel Raid Suspects Nabbed,” Bangkok Post, February 15, 2013.

[32] Ibid.

[33] This observation is based on the author’s visit to Narathiwat, Yala and Pattani Provinces in southern Thailand in July 2012.

[34] Ibid.

[35] “Thai Government, Southern Insurgents set March 28 for Talks,” MCOT, March 6, 2013.

[36] “NSC Reveals Talk with BRN,” Bangkok Post, March 6, 2013.

[37] “NSC to Insist Rebel Groups Curb Violence,” Bangkok Post, March 23, 2013.

[38] “Core Rebel Bosses, Pulo to Join Peace Talks,” Bangkok Post, March 26, 2013.

[39] Abuza, Incident Database.

[40] “Thaksin, Prayuth Divided over BRN’s Influence,” Bangkok Post, March 4, 2013.

[41] “BRN to Send Peace Signal,” Bangkok Post, March 7, 2013.

[42] “NSC Reveals Talk with BRN.”

[43] According to Don Pathan, “There is general agreement that the BRN-C is ruled by a council known as the Dewan Penilian Party, or DPP, not by a single individual leader.” See Don Pathan, “It’s Unclear who Speaks for who in Thailand’s Deep South,” The Nation, March 13, 2013; “Pattani Blast During Sukampol Visit to South.”

[44] Ibid.

[45] See, for example, the NSC’s and 4th Army’s condescension of PULO President Kasturi Mahkota’s call for southern “autonomy” and bid for media exposure at “Malaysia Key to South Fight, NSC Chief Says,” Bangkok Post, February 27, 2013.

[46] “Paradorn to Endorse Pact with BRN on Talks,” Bangkok Post, March 6, 2013.

[47] The irony that Bangkok just completed its gubernatorial election while every other province has their governor appointed by the Ministry of Interior is not lost on observers. Yet there is little political support by any party to amend the constitution to change that. See “BRN to Send Peace Signal”; Chularat Saengpassa, “Democrats Ride to Victory on Loyal Voters,” The Nation, March 4, 2013.

[48] The ISA is already in place in Songkhla’s four districts of Chana, Nathawi, Saba Yoi and Thepha, as well as Pattani’s Mae Lan district. See “Security Agencies to Flesh Out ISA Expansion Plan,” Bangkok Post, February 22, 2013.

[49] Article 21 offers amnesty to militants if they confess and agree to a mandatory six-month retaining/rehabilitation course run by ISOC. The proposal came out of the NSC, but seems to have broader bureaucratic support, including from the Justice Ministry and the RTA. Only two militants have gone through the Article 21 process since it was introduced by the Democrats in December 2009. See “Security Agencies Float New Peace Process for South,” MCOT, February 22, 2013.

[50] “NSC Seeks to Extend Emergency Law,” Bangkok Post, March 4, 2013. For more on the RTA’s position and resistance to lifting the Emergency Decree, see “Prayuth: Insurgents Must Stop Violence First,” Bangkok Post, March 14, 2013.

[51] Attayuth Bootsripoom, “Government Unlikely to Push Forward with Amnesty Law,” The Nation, March 11, 2013; “Activists Cast Doubt on Successful Talks,” Bangkok Post, March 23, 2013.

[52] Thitanan Pongsudhirak, “Thailand’s Stalemate and Uneasy Accommodation,” Bangkok Post, February 15, 2013.

[53] Pathan.

[54] The NSC at first said that there would be no RTA presence. See “Army to Join March 28 Peace Talks with BRN,” Thai News Agency, March 14, 2013.

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