Thailand: Insurgency In The Southern Provinces Must Be Linked To The Wider Human Rights Narrative

On 23rd July, Muslim separatist rebels delivered a deadly attack on a military checkpoint in the southern province of Pattani in Thailand, killing four and leaving two injured. The insurgents threw pipe bombs at military personnel and village defense volunteers before opening fire. This is not an isolated incident, with similar attacks having taken place intermittently in the past ten years. Despite this, mainstream media fails to link these attacks to the wider human rights deficiencies that humanitarian organizations have reported throughout Thailand.

According to the monitoring group Deep South Watch, the insurgency in the southern provinces of Yala, Pattani, and Narathiwat has taken nearly 7,000 lives since 2004. The violence in these Muslim-majority provinces is attributed to separatist rebels who seek independence from Buddhist-majority Thailand. However, the pretext for the most recent attack was the suspected torture of insurgent Abdullah Isamusa, who was left in a coma following detention at an interrogation centre. Whilst the link between these events is disputed by Thai security officials, both the source of and solution to the violence lies within the narrative of Thailand’s human rights violations.

Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch cautions that ‘Thailand’s foreign friends should not let the recent elections become an excuse for ignoring the deteriorating human rights situation in the country.’ The recent elections have been represented as a step towards a more democratic Thailand by the governing elite, but the reality is that constitutional values and electoral regulations have been warped to allow the military government, which has been in power since 2014, to continue its governance via a proxy political party. Anti-military dissent is not tolerated, peaceful protest is quashed and activism is responded to with violence.

Whilst armed insurgency in the southern provinces has left an estimated 6,800 dead in the last 15 years, the situation is far more complex. Whilst the majority of its victims have been civilians, the Malay Muslim and Thai Buddhist populations have both suffered casualties. More importantly, Human Rights Watch recognizes that ‘although the insurgents have committed egregious abuses, rights violations by Thai security forces have greatly exacerbated the situation.’ Thailand prides itself on freedom of religion, yet freedom of expression more broadly is stifled. The southern provinces, in particular, are plagued by torture, enforced disappearance and other human rights abuses.

The relationship between the armed conflict in southern Thailand and the human rights violations made and overlooked by the Thai government must be accepted. Even if the country enjoys the freedom of religion, it must be understood that limitations to broader expression and peaceful protest have the potency to drive vulnerable members of society towards more violent beliefs and ways of expressing them.

The international community must put pressure on the Thai government to uphold democratic values, even if this means sacrificing its increasingly ingrained military culture. This international pressure must be exerted before the Thai government heightens its intimidation of and violence towards the Malay Muslim population under the guise of a counterinsurgency campaign. Such a projection must be taken seriously, especially given the situation in Xinjiang, China, where the region’s majority-Muslim population have been targeted by Chinese authorities and many interred in ‘re-education camps’ under the pretense of counterterrorism.

Philippa Payne