Thailand's three southern provinces, Patani, Yala, and Narathiwat, have faced a bloody and violent local insurgency over the last two decades. Since 2002, ethnic Patani Malays have been fighting to preserve and assert their cultural identity, religion, and political rights within the Thai state. Patani Malays outnumber both the Thai and Chinese populations throughout the region often referred to as the 'deep south'.
The old ethnic Malay and Muslim Sultanate of Patani made tributes to the ancient kingdoms of Sukhothai and Ayutthaya, and was incorporated into the Kingdom of Siam in 1786. Patani was divided into the three provinces Patani, Yala, and Narathiwat in 1808. Thailand's influence over the region was formally recognized by the British with the signing of the Anglo-Siamese Treaty of 1909.
Initially, the then Bangkok government allowed the southern provinces to manage their own affairs through local officers and an Islamic styled administration, with its own court system. Use of the Malay Jawi language was prevalent, and that language was also the medium of school instruction. In the mid-1930s the central government tried to culturally assimilate the local population through the process of Thaification, introducing central Thai administration, Thai language in schooling, and the imposition of Thai-Buddhist practices.
This led to discontent among some elements within the Malay-Muslim population, where the Patani People's Movement was founded in 1947 to petition for administrative autonomy, the reintroduction of Islamic Jurisprudence, the reintroduction of Jawi as a medium within schools, and freedom to practice local Malay customs.
After nearly a decade of Bangkok ignoring Patani Malay demands, organisations like the National Liberation Front of Patani (BNPP) emerged. These early groups were inspired along ethno-nationalistic-Islamic lines, akin to Nasserism in Egypt at the time, calling for armed struggle against the colonial oppressor, the Thai state. In the late 1960s organizations like the Patani United Liberation Organization (PULO) emerged, inspired by contemporary secessionist movements at the time including the Muslim Brotherhood, the Palestine Liberation Organization, the Irish Republican Army, and Gaddafi.
Islam within the deep south has always been traditionally a blend of Malay culture, tradition, language, and an attachment to country (Bangsa Patani). Thus, Patani Muslims exhibit an ethno-Islamic identity that is in stark contrast to Muslims within the rest of Thailand who accept themselves as a minority and participate in the Thai socio-political arena. This puts Patani Muslims at odds with Thai concepts of society. Malay ethnicity provides a great bearing upon world views. To Patani Muslims, the Thai assimilation efforts of the 1980s were seen as an attempt by the Thai state to destroy Patani Muslim identity.
Although there has been influence from Kelantan, Malaysia, and to some extent from Indonesian scholars, local ulama are the most influential in the deep south. The ulama are not just teachers of Islam but uphold the values and traditions of Patani culture. Culture and religion are two sides of the one coin: being Muslim doesn't guarantee acceptance within Malay society of the deep south.
This Patani identity is most probably the grounding philosophy within the old guard of the largest insurgency group within the deep south, very much at the forefront of the revival of armed resistance in 2002, the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN). The strengthening of Thai Islamic identity along with inspiration from the Palestinian conflict and Afghani Talibanism has altered the balance of the Patani-Muslim psyche.
Saudi-educated Ismail, Lufti Japakiya, returned to the deep south preaching a version of Salafism which altered the balance of Malay ethno-identity. Ismail founded Yala Islamic College in 1998, and later Fatoni University in 2004, with funding provided by Saudi Arabia and other Arab foundations. Although Ismail Lufti was once under suspicion by Thai authorities of being sympathetic to the insurgents, he was visited by the then-crown prince, and now king, Vajiralongkorn, where the royal good housekeeping seal was awarded to Yala Islamic College. Both Yala Islamic College and Fatoni University now receive Thai government education funding.
Ismail's Salafist doctrines are pro-Thai state and encourage a dialogue between disaffected Patani Muslims and the Thai government. Ismail accepts the Thai monarch as the patron of all religions. The Thai government has cultivated and funded Ismail's educational institutions as an alternative direction for potential young insurgents.
Ismail's Salafi movement within the deep south has also been supported by Perlis Mufti, Dr Mohd Asri Zianul Abidin, through the Perlis Islamic Religious and Malay Customs Council (MAIPs). MAIPs donated THB 20 million from Zakat monies to fund the building of an Al Quran and Sunnah reading centreat Fatoni University. MAIPs has also donated substantial funds to provincial Islamic authorities within Southern Thailand for annual Salafi gatherings.
There has been a shift away from ethno-Islamic towards Salafi-Islamist viewpoints. This is particularly the case of the younger generation, who have been encouraged to do so via both local and outside influence and encouragement. The message is about the search to bring back basic Islamic values and practices. This can be seen by an increase in Arabization of dress, language, the segregation of sexes, and decrease in inter-religious communications, where many are becoming much more exclusionist. Previously adhered to ethno-Islamic practices are being abandoned.
Today, approximately 20 percent of Patani Muslims are Salafi leaning. Salafism is not homogenous and encompasses many different strands - from Puritan, fundamentalist, extremist, militant and jihadi. Ismail's strand shuns violent separatism, but there are many other ustaz or religious teachers who have been inspired by zealotry and militancy who are not on the authority's radar, because they operate from unlicensed pondoks and schools.
The Krue Se Mosque and Tak Bai incident in 2004 helped Islamize the conflict and catalysed jihadi organizationslike the Hikmat Allah Abadan (Abadae), which operate very secretly in isolation. Their hate for Thai Buddhism is a manifestation of extreme exclusionist Islam.
The old brigade of BRN are opposed to Salafism because the theology is tearing away the fabric of Patani-Muslim culture. They see Salafism as a Thai state-sponsored weapon against Malay ethno-Islamic identity. The younger generation within the BRN are opposed to Ismail Lufti's Salafi interpretations because it supports the Thai state.
Just recently Thai officials talked up the success of direct Thai government-BRN discussions held in Kuala Lumpur. Presumably BRN is represented by the old guard of the organization, which is in conflict with the younger hard-line insurgents in the field. The recent double-tap IED attack on the Southern Border Provinces Administration Centre, set up in Yala specifically for Thai civilian and military authorities to hold dialogue on potential solutions to the ongoing conflict, is symbolic. The Salafi-leaning young generation of the BRN are totally against any talks with the Thai authorities. The old guard are seen to be selling out on the cause, which is being redefined through a Salafi-Islamic viewpoint.
Although Saudi money is pouring into the deep south to push ideology, this has not internationalised the conflict. However, the ideology behind the deep south conflict is pivoting away from an ethno-Islamic towards a Salafi-Islamic narrative. The relationship of Thai deep south insurgents towards the mainstream ISIS-like terrorist groups is not aimed at becoming a surrogate to the greater cause, but to enable ISIS to facilitate action in other theatres such as Malaysia, as was seen in the Kuala Lumpur Nightclub attack by ISIS in 2016, where it is believed deep south insurgents assisted in supplying arms.
This has place the Royal Thai Army in a quandary. Should pondoks or religious schools be nurtured and supported as a line of defence against future recruiting of insurgents, or should pondoks be considered threats to security? This is where the future of the deep south conflict will be redefined.