Thailand’s Malay-Muslims: Otherness And Conflict In The ‘Deep South’

Last Tuesday, two security checkpoints were attacked by militants in Yala province, Southern Thailand, killing 15 people. These attacks, executed by the Barisan Revolusi Nacional-Koordinasi (BRN-C), a Malay-Muslim secessionist organization, form part of a larger insurgency which has claimed 7,000 victims since 2004. Attacks by pro-secessionist organizations have become commonplace in Thailand’s ‘Deep South’, a region which consists of the Yala, Pattani, Narathiwat and Songkhla provinces. The often indiscriminate attacks have, for the most part, been confined to this region of Thailand, whose distinctive demographic differentiates it from the rest of Thailand, a country where 94% of the population is Buddhist. In the ‘Deep South’, only 20% of the population is non-Muslim and despite only 5% of Thailand’s population residing in the area, 65% of Thailand’s Muslim population are concentrated in the region. Malay-Muslims in the region also has their own distinctive language, speaking a local dialect of the Malaysian language. However, despite being the second most-spoken language in Thailand, it has not been adopted as an official language. Subsequently, communication between Malay-Muslims and the Thai state are difficult and once again re-affirms their status as second-class citizens. 

According to the Thai state’s definition of what it means to be Thai, Malay-Muslims are framed as non-Thai, in other words, the ‘other’. This concept is articulated by Wang Gungwu, an Australian Sinologist, who states that the Thai identity is moulded around three core notions: nation, religion (Buddhism) and the King. It is through respecting and adhering to these concepts that one can then be considered a ‘good citizen’. As the Malay-Muslim identity does not fit within these strict parameters, they are constructed as something different, alien and un-Thai. This state-driven concept of what it means to be Thai, therefore, excludes this marginalized community which, in turn, is discursively reinforced by the majority Buddhist Thai population, who call Malay-Muslims ‘Khaek’. This can be translated as ‘guest’ or ‘stranger’, and this categorizes them as something foreign. Simply put, the insurgency stems from this sense that the Thai state is constructing them as the ‘Other’ through linking Thai identity to a set of values that they themselves do not hold as well as through persistent attempts to force these values upon Malay-Muslims. One such attempt entailed providing economic incentives for Buddhists to move into the region, which constituted an effort to occupy the region in order to combat a perceived threat. Those who moved into the region have since banded together into groups of armed volunteers who now occupy numerous checkpoints which punctuate the landscape. The presence of barbed wire fences and security checkpoints in the region constitutes securitization of Malay-Muslims, classifying them as a threat, which, in turn, stokes tensions between Malay-Muslims and the Thai state. The state’s response to the perceived threat, therefore, does not attempt to reconcile differences. Instead, it reinforces the antagonistic frontiers that have already been constructed. 

The Thai state has also carried out routine human rights abuses that, to this day, have gone unpunished, the most notorious of which took place in 2004 and sparked the latest insurgency. A peaceful protest by Malay-Muslims outside a police station in Tak Bai led to the arrest of hundreds of protesters who were subsequently beaten and then transported to a detention centre over 130 kilometres away in inhumane conditions. During this journey, 78 Malay-Muslims died of suffocation, dehydration and organ collapse. In the wake of this event, military personnel were cleared of any wrongdoing and Amnesty International have since decried “state impunity” in Thailand as well as stating that the authorities have failed to provide justice for those who died on that day. 

On a national level, the response to the conflict in the region has been insufficient and the Thai state has too often absolved itself of any responsibility for its own actions. On an international scale, it has been a story of inaction as the only organization with any kind of jurisdiction, the U.N. has failed to act. In fact, it was reported that following the Tak Bai tragedy in 2004, a petition calling for secession for the Pattani province was signed by over half of the population in the region, however, it failed to gain the U.N.’s approval. The only organizations to give this crisis the attention it deserves are Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, both of which have persistently denounced human rights violations in the ‘Deep South’ however, without the jurisdiction to act, they only have the tool of discourse to bring about change.

Not only have the international organizations failed to react to the mistreatment of Malay-Muslims, but their procedures have also suppressed the issue and prevented exposure to the issue as well as the debate. The Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions (GANHRI) has demoted Thailand’s National Human Rights Commission (TNHRC) from an A to a B ranking, which strips them of privileges to speak and share their views during sittings of the U.N. Human Rights Council. This came as a result of GANHRI accusing the TNHRC of pro-government bias in the selection process for the commission. This process was recently tweaked to favour the appointment of judges of bureaucrats, which subsequently prevents the commission from working freely and independently. Although this is problematic, the decision to lower the commission’s ranking means that human rights issues in Thailand are suppressed and don’t gain the international exposure that they require. Essentially, this decision only disadvantages Malay-Muslims, whose voice can no longer be heard on an international scale and whose human rights can continue to be violated without repercussions. Instead of simply lowering the ranking of Thailand’s national commission, GANHRI should instead insist on independently selecting commission members in order to eradicate the type of bias that they are seeking to prevent. This way, the independence of National Human Rights Commissions is ensured, and important human rights issues get international exposure rather than being suppressed as a result of government interference. 

Equally, Malay-Muslim insurgency groups are not devoid of wrongdoing as the largest group, the BRN-C, are unwilling to enter negotiations which could potentially facilitate peace in the region. Not only have they refused to negotiate themselves, but they have also frequently killed Muslims who have and any Malay-Muslim who attempts to bring about a peaceful solution lives in fear of retaliation from the extremist group, which is not conducive to obtaining a peaceful solution.

In order for peace to be obtained in the region, all actors must make a change. Firstly, the Thai government must accept Malay-Muslims’ right to a distinct identity and provide more autonomy to the region. Secondly, international organizations must facilitate more exposure to the crisis in the ‘Deep South’ instead of suppressing debate. Finally, Malay-Muslim insurgency groups must commit themselves to attempt to find a peaceful solution. It is only through doing this that peace and stability can be brought to a region that has been blighted by conflict for decades.

Luke Entwistle