Southern Fire

In the past year, reporting from Thailand has been dominated by the drama in Bangkok. The confrontation between redshirts and government troops is no doubt of great importance to Thailand’s future. But another conflict also deserves the world’s attention.
Tom Wein
25 March 2011

The conflict in the Southern border provinces is known in Thailand as the ‘Southern Fire.’ It has killed several thousands, and continues to restrict development in the area. Insurgents stand accused of raising money through participating in the drugs trade. Behind all this lies the often raised – but rarely evidenced – specter of violent jihadist radicalization. Despite all this, extraordinarily little is known about the conflict.

It is not clear, for instance, who the insurgents are. The breadth of acronyms best serves to illustrate the confusion: the GMIP, BRN, BRN-C, PULO and RKK have all been held responsible by one analyst or another. All of these organizations have some claim to represent the people of Southern Thailand, but some are in abeyance, while others are principally exiled lobby groups.

Their cause is similarly clouded, and depends on an interpretation of the factors and identities at play. The government opposes the insurgents on the basis that they are committed separatists, threatening Thailand’s territorial integrity. Separatism is certainly an important ideological strain, with its roots in the area’s history as the independent Patani kingdom. Yet demands for varying degrees of autonomy are more common. Some diagnose the problem as a religious conflict between Buddhists and Muslims, or an ethnic conflict between Thais and Malays (Thailand has accused Malaysia of failing to pursue insurgents recovering across the border). Insurgents have at times used the rhetoric of global jihad. Relative economic deprivation among Malays is also thought to play a part. The insurgency’s reticence means such evidence as there is remains fragmentary and circumstantial.

Better documented are the Bangkok government’s various attempts to combat the insurgency and maintain state control. Under assorted acronyms and initiatives, successive governments have pursued a policy of co-opting elites. This has been done through electoral politics (most notably Wan Nor). Co-optation has also been pursued through citizen’s militias, religious administration boards and local government structures. Much of this was conducted through SBPAC. By the new millennium, the area was not at peace – but levels of violence had decreased markedly, and there was a sense that progress was possible.

However, in 2002, the conflict became caught up in the power struggle between Thaksin Shinawatra and monarchists. Thaksin abolished SBPAC, and operational primacy was transferred from the competent but monarchist army to the inadequate and underprepared police. Their overzealous tactics alienated much of the population. Meanwhile, being forced to defend such actions seriously damaged the credibility of co-opted elites.

Like all insurgencies, this center of gravity for this conflict rests in the hearts and minds of the people. Little in the way of formal information operations have been attempted, and Bangkok has proven unable to present itself as a viable actor deserving of support. Until they do so, the only options will be government concessions or continued fighting.


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