Thailand’s deep south conflict poses a problem for pro-democracy reform

Pro-democracy protestors gather at Bangkok's Democracy Monument in July 2020. Photo: Supanut Arunoprayote, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Thai military’s grip on political power has little to do with the actual fighting of wars. As the country’s pro-democracy movement presses on, the long-running insurgency in the deep south raises key questions.


As Thailand’s pro-democracy movement continues to push reform despite police crackdowns and arrests, the ongoing conflict in Thailand’s far southern provinces rarely enters the conversation.

Since 2004, armed militants in the provinces of Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala and the Thai military have engaged in an intermittent conflict that has killed over 7,200 people and injured 13,400. As many as 90% of the casualties have been civilians. The largest rebel group is the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), a Malay separatist group. Malay Muslims constitute around three quarters of the population in the deep south.

Though the violence has decreased since 2013, attempts to reach any sort of peace settlement have repeatedly failed and the Thai military is left waging its own version of a low-intensity “forever war”—costing over US$8.6 billion since 2004.

The Thai military’s grip on political power is a central grievance of the pro-democracy movement: the constitution was written by the military dictatorship in 2017, all 250 members of the Thai senate are appointed by the military and Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha was the head of the junta that ruled from 2014-19. The youth-led protests that began in July 2020 focus on three demands: amending or rewriting the constitution, forcing the resignation of Prayuth and his government and reforming the monarchy—previously a taboo topic in Thailand.

Despite the focus on the military’s power, the role of the conflict in the deep south has received little attention. The military’s role in Thailand’s politics and governance is deeply ingrained but has little to do with the actual fighting of wars or defending the country from external threats. As much of the country is well aware of this—that the military’s role is about political power and not defense—the conflict in the deep south may offer an opening.

As insurgency continues, spending and controversy grow

The low-level violence in the deep south has become one of the primary justifications for maintaining a disproportionately large military with an ever-growing budget.

Military spending has approximately doubled since the 2006 coup that deposed then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Under the last military junta, the military budget grew from 186 billion baht in 2014 to 227billion in 2019 (US$6 billion to 7.3 billion, in today’s dollars).

A navy plan to purchase two Chinese-made submarines for 22.5 billion baht (US$720 million) has drawn major public criticism. The Thai generals repeatedly call for expensive displays of military power “that they cannot afford to operate or do not need”, as Zachary Abuza, professor at the National War College in Washington DC, puts it.

Military leadership has acknowledged that the army has an excess of high-ranking officers—as many as 1,400 generals for 361,000 total personnel, according to one estimate cited in the Diplomat. Thailand’s draft process is also highly controversial, with allegations of widespread corruption, and the military has recently been called to account for its long record of internal abuse.

Despite this public criticism and calls for reform, the military is able to continue on its course because of the very real violence in the far south.

A fishing village in Narathiwat. Photo: by preetamrai, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Attacks continue as negotiations stall 

Though the BRN announced a unilateral ceasefire in April 2020, citing the threat of COVID-19, this has since broken down and violence continues. In late February of this year, a group of armed militants killed two Thai rangers in the mountains of Narathiwat province. On March 19, a bombing in southern Thailand’s Yala province injured eight security volunteers who stopped to investigate burning tires strewn across the highway. Just over a week later, a roadside bomb injured two police personnel, also in Yala.

One of the largest single attacks in recent years came in November 2019, when at least 10 gunmen attacked a security checkpoint in Yala’s Amphoe Muang district, killing 15 people. No group claimed responsibility for the attack.

This seemingly distant insurgency allows the military to claim undeserved legitimacy while making little progress to actually resolve the conflict. Since 2015, the Thai government has engaged in limited peace negotiations with MARA Patani, a body that represents multiple rebel factions. But the Thai government eventually decided it was unwilling to engage and it wasn’t clear that MARA Patani could actually deliver on promises to stop attacks.

The most recent and very short-lived peace talks began in January 2020. But even following the BRN’s ceasefire declaration last April, the local monitoring group Deep South Watch reported that at least 10 people were killed each month from April to June.

Negotiations have so far failed for a number of reasons: parts of the Thai military leadership are unwilling to make any concessions, some insurgent groups are unwilling to participate and internal conflicts and turnover hamper the ability of the Thai police and military to negotiate. 

Attempts to resolve the conflict are also reportedly stymied by criminal syndicates and corrupt officials. Smuggling rings and profiteers do work in concert with separatist groups, according to Saki Pitakkhumpol, a professor of peace studies at Prince of Songkla University, making it difficult to say that a given attack was entirely the work of rebels.

Photo: Mh0718, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

One Thai military official who was posted in the south said criminal syndicates smuggle oil, drugs and illegal goods including palm oil. Border towns like Sungai Kolok and Padang Besar serve as transit points 

A spokesperson for the Thai military said at one point that 95% of the violence in the south was linked to these illegal trades and only 5% was directly driven by the insurgency.

The violence in Thailand’s “restive” deep south and the “protracted conflict”, as the international media call it, are often written off as inevitable or of minor consequence. But so long as the military is one of the primary barriers to democracy, the forever war in the southern provinces has major political implications. Any analysis of the youth-led protests and the state’s response must address this.

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