Violence Situation in Thailands Three Southern Border Provinces

Sarinthorn Ratjaroenkhajorn


Reports on violence in Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat and some districts in Song Khla appear in both local and international media everyday. Violence incidents which included bomb attacks on, and daily killings of state officials and local villagers have caused concern among people outside these trouble-plagued provinces who are now waiting for the unrest to come to an end. A lot of people, however, felt they have already had too much of coverage on the violence and turned apathetic while some others turned enraged towards the situation.

While several groups are trying to bring peace back to the restive south, outsiders, whether they are feeling bored or concerned of the violence, should try to get an insight into the situation and conditions of local communities and those suffering a loss from the violence in order to understand causes of the problems and decide if the deep south was really under threat of separatism. It is certain, however, that local people have never wanted violence to occur.

This article gathers knowledge about cultures of communities in the three southern border provinces as it tries to understand their way of life, discusses part of the history which may trigger the violence of these days and chronicles key violence incidents in order to give a clearer picture of the situation to people outside the troubled region.

Thailands Three Southern Border Provinces

The three southern border provinces here mean Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala, although violence sometimes happened in some districts of Songkhla, such as Chana and Saba Yoi. The three provinces have a combined population of about 1.7 million, the majority of them are Muslims whose communities have settled in the region which is part of the Malay Peninsula for a long time.

Thai-Muslims of Malay descent have settled in the Malay Peninsula for several hundred years. Records about Khaek Malayu can be traced back to the Ayutthaya period, where trade relations with Muslims had been established and some Muslims also served as state officials overseeing foreign trade. At that time, areas which are presently Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala were part of the Pattani State which was under control of the Siamese Kingdom of Ayutthaya. Siam did not send its own people to rule Pattani but required the state to pay tribute to it three times a year. Muslims were then perceived as foreigners who could govern themselves. These people, however, periodically staged a war for full independence from Siam and Malaysia which took turns occupying the Pattani State. In every battle, Muslims were taken captive and taken to different regions of the country where they had resettled until these days.

It was in the Rattanakosin era that Siam appointed its officials to govern different provinces, including the Pattani State. Pattani became less autonomous after the administration restructuring in the reign of King Rama V. The state had been divided and part of it became Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala provinces.

Economic, Social and Cultural Aspects
Since the old time, people in the southern region (not only these three provinces) have made a living by growing rubber, rice, fruits as well as fishing, worked in the mines or traded with Malaysia, selling rubber and fresh fruits to that country and bringing in tea, milk and coffee.

Today, southern Muslims work in their own rubber plantations or are hired as rubber tappers if they do not have their own land. Some others grow rice and some are fishermen. Mining, however, has fallen into a decline as mineral sources have depleted. Fruit planting is also another major occupation of Muslims.

The way of life of Muslims in the three southern border provinces are different from those of other groups in the country. The Islamic way of life is based on religious beliefs. Islam not only is a spiritual guide for its believers but also sets guidelines for speech, manners and behavior that Muslims always follow in doing their daily activities.

Islamic culture molds Muslims. Muslims are people who are good at maintaining their ethnic identities. Muslims in the three southern border provinces still use Malay or Yawi language in every days life because it is the religious language. Some even can not speak Thai. As for dressing, Islam requires women to cover themselves by wearing long and loose-fitting clothes so their shapes are not outlined in their garments. This concealment is called hijab. It is also a way to identify Muslim women. Religious observances are inseparable from Muslims daily living. Muslims perform their divine worship five times a day and this is why there always are many small and large mosques in their communities. They fast during Ramadan (around October) and at least once in their lives go on the Hajj, a religious journey to Mecca in Saudi Arabia.

Muslims families usually are large, with 3-6 children. Marriage is also usually arranged by families. Muslim men often relax after tapping rubber latex at dawn and after evening worship by chatting with friends at local tea shops. Muslims do not eat pork and eat only meat prepared by fellow Muslims. Muslims have to perform a rite to seek Gods permission before killing animals for food.

The majority of Muslims put their children into ponoh schools school teaching Islam. Formerly, ponoh were boarding schools where teachers taught Islam and took care of the children. Muslim teachers or Toh-kru, therefore, had good relations with communities, were respected by students and parents and enjoyed high social status. Ponoh schools help bring up, train and educate Muslims. Women and men do not study together. The age of students and years to complete their education are not limited. Some might take 10 years to graduate. In 1961, ponoh began to change to private schools teaching Islam where general subjects can also be provided in accordance with government policy. The schools have to register with the state. Some ponoh schools, however, are strict to teaching only Islam. Ponoh finally was accepted as an education system of the country in April, 2005 but all schools must register with the Education Ministry.

The Past

All kings of the Rattanakosin period allow cultural assimilation in administering southern provinces. Although Muslims were captured and brought to other parts of the country in past battles, their cultures could be well blended in with respective regional cultures because the state did not oppress them or was not racially prejudiced.

But after Thailand changed from absolute monarchy to democracy in 1932, Field Marshal Plaek Pibulsongram had campaigned to promote the Thainess across the country, citing modernization. The policy was to absorb other cultures because there must be only one Thai culture. The government also announced that Buddhism was the national religion. Muslims were affected by this policy, particularly when the government required all Thais to dress in the same way. Muslims felt they were forced to do things against their own will as they have unique attire that relates to their Islamic beliefs. That was one reason why Muslims were so unhappy with the Thai government . Corruption among government officials in the South was also widespread and caused troubles to villagers. Dissatisfaction finally sparked an unrest at Ban Dusun Nyor in Narathiwats Ra Ngae district.

The incident, known as the Dusun Nyor rebellion, happened in 1948. Villagers who were in destitute were upset that some government officials smuggled rice and sold it outside the country while they themselves had almost nothing to eat and that Muslim women were not allowed to wear head scarves. The arrest of Hajji Sulong Abdulqadir Tohmeena, a highly-respected religious leader in Pattani, was the last straw. On April 28, 1948, a group of men performed a superstition, then applied oil on their bodies and went on to clash with the police using machetes and swords as weapons. Both sides reportedly suffered casualties of more than a hundred but the exact number was never given. Two years after that, Hajji Sulong, then chairman of the Pattani Islamic Committee, had vanished without trace.

The deep south had been calm for more than 50 years after the Dusun Nyor incident some proponents of separatism were reported to have grouped together. The setting up of the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Center (SBPAC) and the Civilian-Police-Military Force 43 in 1981 helped reduce violence from 70-80 cases a year to around 10

cases annually while members of various movements also turned themselves in with authorities. The Thaksin Shinawatra government, which took office in 2001, therefore, dissolved SBPAC and Force 43 in 2002 with an understanding that the violence that still occurred from time to time in the three provinces was staged by small-time bandits or was caused by certain groups of people trying to protect their interest. Violence had erupted again after the dissolution of these two organizations, which had effectively kept peace and order in the region, and partly because of an external factor like the attacks on the World Trade Center in the US in September, 2001.

After SBPAC and Force 43 were disbanded, peace-keeping powers formerly held by both the military and police were handed to the police alone. Violence had begun to happen. Government offices and military bases were attacked and officials were killed. These incidents, however, occurred amid reports about alleged abductions and murders of innocent people, including some religious leaders, after being interrogated by the police.

The Year of Violence

As many as 1,253 violence incidents (statistics between January and November) happened in 2004 compared to a yearly average of 65.6 recorded since 1997. The degree of the violence in 2004 was high and the impact was widespread.

Major incidents are:
  • the arms theft at a military base in January, 2004
  • the disappearance of lawyer Somchai Neelaphaijit in March, 2004
  • the clash between militants and officials at Krue Se Mosque in Pattani in April, 2004
  • the demonstration at Tak Bai district, Narathiwat, in October, 2004

The Arms Theft
At dawn of January 4, 2004, a few days after New Year celebrations, militants raided the 4th military development unit of Narathiwatratchanakharin military camp in Narathiwats Cho Ai Rong district, stole hundreds of guns and killed four soldiers. The theft happened at the same time of the torching of nearly 20 schools in this province.

The weapon theft was reported to be well-planned and carried out by the professionals. This is not the first time firearms were stolen from government units. In 2003, two arms thefts were carried out at Sukhirin district in Narathiwat where 15 guns were taken and at Yalas Than To district with 18 guns stolen. Arson attacks on schools also were nothing new. The theft in early 2004, however, was a direct challenge to the government and chances were thieves who have not yet been arrested would use the stolen firearms to stage more violence. The media and the public noted that the arms theft was carried out after the prime minister said during the New Year that troubles in the deep south were merely caused by petty thieves.

The Disappearance of Muslim Lawyer
Somchai Neelaphaijit, a Muslim lawyer and chairman of the Muslim Lawyers Club, represented suspects facing security charges in the three southern border provinces, particularly those whose human rights were allegedly violated by authorities. On March 12, 2004, Somchai was mysteriously missing in Bangkok in a suspected abduction. His disappearance caused a stir because he was working on several cases concerning the southern unrest, including the arms theft in Narathiwat. Investigation began after police found his car in Bangkok on March 16.

Two years passed and Somchai has not yet been found. Five police officers charged with kidnapping him stood a court trial and one of them, Pol. Maj. Ngern Thongsuk, was convicted and sentenced to three years in jail on January 12, 2006. The four others, Pol. Lt. Col. Sinchai Nimpunyakampong, Pol. Sgt. Maj. Chaiweng Paduang, Pol. Sgt. Randormn Sitthikhet and Pol. Lt. Col. Chadchai Liamsa-nguan were acquitted on the grounds of lack of evidence.

Somchais wife, Angkhana, is still searching for her husband, who was already presumed dead, so she can perform a funeral rite for him. She is also appealing against the acquittal of the four police officers and continuing to fight for justice through peaceful means.

April 28: Death in the Mosque
The violence erupted at dawn of April 27, 2004 in Yala, Pattani and Songkhla as a large number of young men wielding machetes, swords and daggers attacked police and military outposts in several areas simultaneously. All died in the clashes.

At a checkpoint near Krue Se Mosque in Pattani, assailants could not fight with authorities so they escaped into the nearby ancient mosque which is a historical landmark where Muslims perform their religious rites. Officials tried to negotiate their surrender allegedly amid pressure from a large crowd of onlookers. Reports said that pressure allegedly led to a decision to fire at people inside the mosque for fear the situation might go out of control.

The death toll of assailants, aged mostly between 18 and 25, in all the attacks was recorded at more than 100, including 34 in the mosque. All wore red turbans and carried no guns to the clashes which were then seen as suicide attacks since authorities all had guns. The violence resembled the Dusun Nyor rebellion in Narathiwat on April 28 of more than 50 years ago. In both incidents, militants had recited a spell and coated oil on their skins, then went on the rampage and attacked officials.

Tak Bai: Violence on the Way
Government officials had been accused of overreacting after the Krue Se Mosque tragedy. While the public was still not given adequate information about the April 28 incidents, another violence occurred on October 25, 2004 in Narathiwats Tak Bai district.

The Tak Bai tragedy started when police arrested 6 village security volunteers and charged them with falsely reporting that their missing guns were stolen by militants. They had been detained at Tak Bai district police station since October 12. More than 1,000 unhappy families and other villagers then gathered at the police station in the morning of October 25 and demanded the release of the six but denied any negotiation. The number of protesters had increased as time passed and the crowd began to destroy things at the police station. High-level officials and religious leaders from the Narathiwat Islamic Committee tried to negotiate for an end of the demonstration, even in local dialect, and promised to grant bail to the six, but to no avail.

Around 3 p.m., officials given permission to disperse the crowd began hosing the protesters, firing tear gas at them and firing shots into the sky. Chaos followed and gun fires were heard but the shooters could not be identified. Initial reports said 14 officials were injured and 6 protesters died and more than 300 were arrested.

At first, the situation seemed to be less severe than the Krue Se Mosque tragedy. But a press conference held a day after that revealed 78 people arrested at the protest died during transport by military trucks from Tak Bai to Ingkhayutthabariharn military camp in Pattani, bringing the total deaths to 84. The number of demonstrators arrested was put at 1,298 (it was about 300 under initial reports). Authorities blamed overcrowding and exhaustion, as Muslims were observing the fast of Ramadan, as causing the massive deaths. But autopsies showed some bodies had wounds and bruises. The government has never explained clearly what had happened during the transports. Only some military officers were transferred and compensation paid to families of those who died in the incident, which was strongly criticized as severely violating human rights.

Dealing with Violence

Efforts had been made to solve problems in the restive south as violence intensified and daily attacks on local people, policemen, soldiers, teachers and even monks continued. Measures discussed included risk payment for all state officials in the three provinces, permission for teachers to buy guns for their own protection and procurement of bullet-proof vests for monks. The suggestion that teachers should be allowed to carry guns was not materialized after it was heavily criticized by the public. These measures, however, reflected that violence in the deep south may not end soon.

A meeting between the prime minister and a group of academics to find ways to end the southern violence led to the appointment of the National Reconciliation Commission (NRC) on March 28, 2005. This independent panel, which has former prime minister Anand Panyarachun and reform advocate Prawase Wasi as its chairman and deputy chairman and 48 people from all sectors as its members, is assigned to study problems in the restive south and suggest solutions.

Continuing Violence
The setting up of the NRC showed good intention to solve southern problems. It was responded, however, by three bomb attacks at Carrefour Superstore and Hat Yai international airport in the tourist town of Hat Yai, Songkhla and also at Green World Palace Hotel in Songkhlas Muang district on April 3, 2005. At Carrefour, the bomb was put in a trash can in front of the store and went off at around 8.30 p.m. At the same time, a bomb on a motorcycle left in front of the hotel blew up. About 9 p.m., the bomb reportedly hidden in a black suitcase left by a man exploded at the arrival lounge of Hat Yai airport.

Two people were killed in the explosion at the airport and in all incidents 73 were wounded, some of them became disabled. Security standard at the airport was questioned after the attack. The violence not only cost innocent lives but also affected tourism in Hat Yai.

On July 14, 2005, Yalas municipal areas were in chaos after several bomb attacks on high-powered electric poles, causing a blackout across the town. Officials were also assaulted. Scores of people died and were wounded. A day after that, the cabinet resolved to issue the Executive Decree on Public Administration in Emergency Situations which gives the prime minister immense power. The decree was highly criticized, especially Article 11 governing operations of state authorities when violence occurs.

Opposition to the decree has been vocal. But since violence in the deep south showed no signs of abating, the decree was enforced in the three provinces amid criticism that it infringed on civil liberty. Initial enforcement period of 6 months was extended for three more months in January, 2006. The situation, however, still has not much improved.

In late August, 2005, 131 Thai people left the country to Malaysia and sought asylum there, accusing Thai authorities of unfair treatment. This has become an issue that has to be dealt with carefully. It still has not been clear how the matter would be taken care of while some reports said half of the 131 Thais were militants involved in a series of violence in the deep south.

Violence at Tanyong Limo
An unknown number of gunmen fired at a small tea shop in Ban Tanyong Limo of Narathiwats Ra Ngae district in the evening of September 20, 2005, killing one person while another died at the hospital. Four people were injured. Authorities were quick to inspect the scene and so villagers mistook them as the gunmen because they had guns in their cars. Two marines were later taken hostage by local people.

Villagers then demanded investigation of the shooting and wanted the incident reported via Malaysian media. There were negotiations but as confusion caused by rumors and increasing pressure reigned the two marines Lt. Winai Nakbutr and Chief Warrant Officer Khamthorn Thong-iad finally were beaten to death by a group of people whom Tanyong Limo villagers claimed were not members of their community. The government condemned the murders of the two marines and pledged to arrest the murderers. A number of villagers was later arrested, among them a woman who has a young baby.

The Tanyong Limo violence reflected distrust between state officials and villagers. Local people feared officials might harm them while authorities were not certain if militants were hiding in the village. It was this distrust that caused the tragedy.

Continuing Violence at Panare
Less than a month after the Tanyong Limo incident, a monk and two temple boys were brutally killed at Wat Promprasit in Pattanis Panare district late in the night of October 16, 2005. The temple also was torched and was badly damaged. Buddhists felt hurt because assailants severed the monks head and burned his body and the bodies of the two boys and also destroyed a lot of Buddha images. This attack could further sour relations between Buddhists and Muslims.

The two years of violence (2004-2005) destroyed many lives and property and caused pain for both authorities and villagers. Southern residents have still mourned the death of people they love. Officials had to leave their families behind and risked their lives working in the restive south. There was also distrust of one another among different groups of people. These painful emotions, if not healed, could lead to anger and hatred that might trigger further violence.

Violence has continued until now despite efforts by the state to help affected people and bring peace back to the region. Many studies on ways to end violence in the deep south were carried out and parts of them will be discussed next.

Causes of Problems

Dr. Chaiwat Satha-anand said in his study that political history, economic conditions and injustice in society were factors attributing to conflicts in the deep south. Dr. Surin Pitsuwan saw ethnic differences and differences in the ways of life, cultures and historical and religious backgrounds as causing the problems. Others, such as Dr. Imron Maluleem found in his analysis that the three southern border provinces have been plagued with seven problems which are 1) the problem concerning religious, ideal, language and cultural identities 2) psychological problem 3) economic problem 4) educational problem 5) ethnic problem 6) political problem and 7) administration problem.

Dr. Puwadon Songprasert, meanwhile, listed four problems: ethnic and religious conflicts, economic and social conditions of Muslims prior to the Korean War, effects from development policies for national security and the dissolution of SBPAC.

Dr. Imrons study was published in 1995 and Dr Puwadons, in 2005, or a gap of 10 years, but their findings happened to conform to one another. Studies on causes of southern violence can be digested into four areas.

1. Ethnic Identities and Racial Prejudice
Muslims in the three southern border provinces have preserved their way of life, their attire and language which are known as Islamic cultures. The government of Field Marshal Plaek Pibulsongram, however, had made mistakes by not trying to understand these cultures and denying cultural diversity. That government instead forced the whole country to accept only the Thai culture and Buddhism, based on ethnic prejudice. Muslims, therefore, have nurtured grudges from being insulted and treated unfairly. Despite attempts to understand Islamic cultures these days, the prejudice is still evident.

2. Economic Problems
The lower southern Thailand is rich in natural resources, including rubber and tin. Corrupt government officials, however, used their power to generate wealth for their cronies, most of them Chinese businessmen, while villagers could not make ends meet and also were discriminated against. Problem of injustice caused by state officials was what academics have called on the government to settle. Today, rubber is still a source of economic wealth in the three provinces but only few Muslims have their own plantations. Most rubber planting areas belong to big investors. A slump in rubber prices and violent attacks on innocent people have added insult to injury as workers fear for their lives and so can not go to the plantations before sunrise to tap latex. These people are having difficulties making a living. Budget was reportedly sought to help them but checks on whether the money really was provided to poor villagers were still needed.

3. Social and Educational Problems
Mistakes made by past governments had created distrust in the three provinces. People were divided and ponoh schools were not accepted. Ponoh is not just a general school but a social institution which plays a key role in every Muslim community. Attempts to control ponoh schools and a requirement for Muslim children to learn subjects other than Islam have upset Muslims since general courses were taken from Western knowledge which does not correspond with their way of life. Studying Buddhism is also a breach of Islamic principles. Devout Muslim parents, therefore, chose not to send their children to school, resulting in Muslims being perceived as uneducated. It is not right to make people learn through the only one education system as that would certainly cause further problems.

4. Political and Administration Problems
The Pattani State, which formerly encompassed areas which are now the three southern border provinces, Satun and some states of Malaysia, used to be large and powerful and also the biggest Islamic center in Southeast Asia. But as its rulers were controlled by Siam, resistance and a fight for full independence were not uncommon. Given corruption, discrimination and unfair treatment against Muslims by the state, separatism was nothing surprising. The Islamic way of life best suits Muslims in the deep south. Problems could not be solved easily because the state has been slow in decentralizing power to grassroots administration organizations as required by the 1997 constitution and because of a lack of clear-cut solutions to the southern unrest and frequent changes of officials responsible for southern operations.

External factors that might add fuel to the fire could be the terror attacks on the World Trade Center in the US in September, 2001 and the sending of Thai soldiers to Iraq.

Every Problem Has a Solution

A lot of suggestions on how southern problems could be settled have been made to the government by many academics, experts and scholars. Some came from Chaturon Chaisaeng ( then deputy prime minister) in April, 2004, after his visits to the three southern border provinces. Dr. Chaiwat Satha-anand concluded Chaturons suggestions as follows:
  1. Stop the killing and kidnapping of residents in the three provinces by authorities and transfer all police officers from the central headquarter back to Bangkok.
  2. Pardon everyone who was involved in violence incidents but who is not already facing criminal action.
  3. Recognize ponoh schools as cultural institutions and allow them to operate independently.
  4. People holding dual Thai-Malaysian citizenship must not be considered a threat to national security but be accepted as valuable resources because they can speak more than one language which should help them get jobs in other countries and send their money home.

All these proposals, which seek to solve problems through peaceful means, however, were turned down by the government despite the fact that, if adopted and translated into action, they should effectively help reduce violence.

In 1948, after the Dusun Nyor rebellion, Voramai Kabinsingh suggested that roads in the three provinces be repaired, Thai and Muslim officials who abused their power be investigated and corruption be eliminated. It can be seen, however, that corruption has still been rampant in the region these days.

In 2004, reform advocate Prawase Wasi also gave his suggestions which are:
  1. Change the way history is taught and learned to make learners realize that the war is never necessary and how peace can be achieved.
  2. Promote understanding on local cultures and speed up power decentralization to reduce conflicts between Muslims and authorities.
  3. If the two above ideas are materialized, separatism will not be given support as people can stay together happily when they are treated equally and with respect to their human dignity.
  4. Adjust the role of Thailand by withdrawing Thai soldiers from Iraq.

His advices are worth taken into consideration.
The NRC, meanwhile, is designing measures to end troubles in the restive south based on peace, reconciliation and legal principles for submission to the government. The Thai Health Project of Mahidol Universitys Institute for Population and Social Research outlined those measures as follows:

Proposals to Solve Violence Problems in Southern Border Areas


Although separatist movements really exist in the three southern border provinces, we should deal with them in peace and stop being aggressive and insulting those who are not like us to help bring southern violence to an end. If we can treat fellow human beings with understanding, compassion and equality, peace can finally return to the three southern border provinces.

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