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The dangers of the Thai Deep South

By Murray Hunter - posted Wednesday, 15 May 2019

Community enhancement and anti-poverty programs have missed these groups, going to elite Malay-Muslim groups instead, as reported by a source close to the ground.

Since 2001, there have been over 16,000 incidents of violence including bombings, fire-fights, roadside shootings, arson and sabotage. More than 8,000 people, mainly civilians, have died directly as a result of this conflict.

A number of insurgent groups are involved. These include the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), which has been primarily interested in cultural and Patani-nationalist goals. Another group primarily composed of much younger Salafi followers, the Runda Kumpulan Kecil (RKK), is much more militant, and believed to be either a breakaway or operational group from the BRN. Others include the Gerakan Mujahidin Islam Patani (GMIP) and the Barisan Bersatu Mujahidin Patani (BBMP). Pioneering groups like the Patani Liberation Organization (PULO) have not been as active on the ground over the last decade. There are almost a dozen other small and fragmented groups.


Getting all these groups unified under one umbrella may be more difficult than solving the conflict itself. These groups have disagreements, easily fragment, and often harbor jealousies.

Most attacks are carried out by small closely knit and independent cells, who don’t communicate with anyone outside their respective groups. They blend in with their respective communities and thus it is extremely difficult to identify cell members.

On rare occasions, multiple cells might be mustered to carry out coordinated attacks. These attacks range from violence perpetuated against selected individuals, economic sabotage, attacks on symbols of Thai sovereignty, to mischievous activities laying tacks on major highways to disrupt traffic.

The prime modus operandi is to hit and hide. Thus, there is really very little any security force can do to protect all targets within the region. Insurgents have almost an unlimited choice of targets to select and tend to attack the easy ones. Recently attacks on unprotected targets outside the region have disrupted tourism and gained international media attention.

The result of a massive military presence is an equally massive bureaucracy with all the organizational weaknesses this entails. Regular rotation of commanders is preventing the army from moving along the learning curve and applying what they have learned in operational tactics. Most commanders come from outside the region and have little understanding of the language and appreciation of the culture of the local people. This along with the ‘clean-shaven Thai’ cultural norms prevailing within the army is a major impediment to understanding the insurgents.

The army has developed massive infrastructure to deploy from. However, this infrastructure is configured more towards conventional jungle and urban warfare. The insurgents don’t fight in this way and the army is fighting an unseen ‘enemy’. Army infrastructure, patrols, and roadblocks are just givens the insurgents move around with ease.


Over the last few years, the army has introduced soft power initiatives in an attempt to win ‘hearts and minds’ of the local population. As has been seen elsewhere this strategy takes years to implement and yield any positive effect. Some initiatives such as the army developing micro-infrastructure at the village level and the deployment of frontline female personnel in some areas have shown some success. However, the biggest impediment is the apathy of those in local organizations the army is reaching out to. There is a massive trust gap that has to be broken, which requires total sincerity and patience to achieve anything positive.

We are now at a crossroads where the conflict could very easily change its nature.

First, the youth of the region have no legitimate outlets to express their views, ideas, and problems. This provides a fertile recruiting ground.

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This article was first published in the Asia Sentinel.

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About the Author

Murray Hunter is an associate professor at the University Malaysia Perlis.

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