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.
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